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An interview with Clio’s Ken Oringer, Boston’s rising star

by Matt DeLucia

February 1, 2008

    photo of: Ken Oringer

When I arrived at Clio to interview chef Ken Oringer, I sat patiently by the bar where I admired the elegant interior of his flagship restaurant. While I was waiting, an impeccably dressed woman toting a shopping bag and a little white shaggy dog burst through the front door. She immediately asked the hostess to hold her pooch’s leash - she did so obligingly – and proceeded to stroll around the dining room as if she was contemplating the purchase of the building itself. One of Clio’s cooks, a young man the size of a linebacker, squatted on the floor and began playing with the dog. The woman, whom I figured by now must be quite important, asked if she could use my cell phone. Completely oblivious to the hostess waving frantically at me to decline, I politely handed it over. Just then Chef Oringer walked into the dining room, his wide smile and Monkees (or is it Beatles) haircut and perfect skin presenting an early-30’s appearance - not bad for a 42-year old chef. Oringer is surely one of Boston’s most beloved chefs and must be used to receiving compliments, but I asked him what he thought had been the best compliment he ever received from a customer.

“It can be somebody saying it’s as good a meal as they ate at Ducasse last night. But it can also be somebody that has saved up for two years for their anniversary, and then they say they had a perfect night. If Michelin gives us three stars, or somebody comes in and has the dinner of their life and they don’t know much about food, either one is fine. We are just trying to make people happy.” I nodded and absorbed Oringer’s words, but I couldn’t help but watch out of the corner of my eye for my Apple I-Phone, which fortunately the well-dressed woman couldn’t figure out how to dial. She must have been a PC person. After witnessing several hotel and restaurant staff members rollwing their eyes as they allowed her use of their own cell phones, I realized that the woman wasn’t Boston’s own version of Ivana Trump, but rather a local woman with a reputation for being somewhat of a pest. I’m sure every restaurant has one or more like her, but the way that Clio’s staff dealt with this difficult person was perhaps a fitting analogy of Oringer’s passion for making people – all people – happy.

It’s possible that Oringer wouldn’t be here in beantown if his father, a CPA, hadn’t pushed his son in the direction of a business school instead of going directly into culinary school. He decided upon Bryant College, where he would major not in accounting, but in hotel and restaurant management, before going on to CIA in New York after he graduated there.

    photo of: Ken Oringer -  Lubina in salt rust

“I always knew I want to be a chef, but I wanted to be able to do everything and to understand every aspect of what I wanted to do. Bryant College had a great reputation, so I ended up going to business school in Rhode Island.” While he was at Bryant, Oringer set himself up at an internship job during Christmas break near his home in New Jersey, where he was able to work every job for a hotel that ran several restaurants - valuable experience for someone his age, who would later run multiple restaurants of his own. “An internship at that time was unheard of,” Oringer says. “I was actually a cook in the kitchen. Then I set up a front of the house internship for myself, where I did everything from purchasing to front-desk to managing one of the restaurants, to receiving and auditing.”

Oringer’s first serious job in Boston was at Le Marquis de Lafayette, a restaurant that Jean-Georges Vongerichten was running at the Lafayette Hotel. But before that he had spent several years at the very well known Rhode Island restaurant Al Forno where, like many other very successful chefs, he started out as a pastry chef. He was cooking Italian food and he was able to learn a lot about organics; most of the food there was organic and sourced from local farmers.

While he was at Al Forno he befriended a Cambodian cook there named Nieth, who today runs a restaurant in Providence. Nieth brought Oringer to several Cambodian restaurants in places Oringer refers to as “the dark side of Providence.” The experience brought flavors long forgotten back to him. “Here was this Cambodian guy who was cooking Italian food. He brought me to these places, and I will never forget the hot and sour, the sweet and salty, all of it combined. I loved the effect, and I decided that’s what I was going to start gearing my food toward.”

    photo of: Ken Oringer -  Cassolette of Sea Urchin and Lobster with Parsnips, crispy shallots and candied Lemon

The Asian flavors that he had acquired a taste for and was beginning to see as his future had been planted in his youth from trips to Chinatown with his family, and then reinforced with Jean-Georges, whose food at the time was even more Asian-inspired than it is now, and also by his experiences at Al Forno. But his most influential mentor and the restaurant experience he feels shaped his style the most was in New York when he worked at the famous River Café under chef David Burke.

“That was when David was 26 or 27 years old. At that point I think he was the most exciting chef in New York. Thomas Keller was still in New York at Rakel and Bouley was just getting rolling. But the great thing about David then is he was so energetic and creative. He’s creative now but back then he was “way out there,” and I loved it. That’s where I really learned how to be spontaneous and to throw caution to the wind and cook with my instincts. He taught me how to be creative and still to this day I give him a lot of credit for that.”

Burke’s time at the Brooklyn-based River Cafe was highly experimental. He worked there from 1985 to 1991 and earned three stars from The New York Times before going on to open his own restaurants in New York, Chicago, and Las Vegas.

“He was serving Sashimi, which again nobody was serving back then, tuna belly just serving sashimi with different garnishes here and there, swordfish, like smoked kidneys, he used all that innards which nobody knew what to do with. We had have everything from kidneys to cockscomb to duck tongues, which I have always used to lot in my food also.”

After several years at The River Café, Al Forno in Providence, and the Lafayette Hotel in Boston, Oringer began considering a move out West, drawn by stories of culinary opportunities, exciting new seafood, and ingredients that could not be found in the East. But before he followed his instincts and made that move, he made a quick stop in yet another New England state, Connecticut. “I got talked into supposedly being a partner in a little restaurant in Greenwich called Terra, which is still open today. I opened it up and we got great reviews, we got three stars from the New York Times. But I didn’t get along well with the owners, so after a while I said ‘okay, I’m going out to California.’”

    photo of: Ken Oringer -  Tripe Sofrit with blood sausage chickpeas and pig belly

Oringer had been to San Francisco once before and fell in love with the city. When he went there, he didn’t have a job, but he did have great credentials. So after pounding the pavement for a while he found Silks. “I wanted to be out there where I could learn about wine and to learn about the produce, and so much of the fish was amazing there. They were getting the fish from Hawaii, and all their pacific fish were different. I had no ties at that time, so I decided that I may as well go check it out. Silks was a great restaurant that was dipping a little bit at the time, so they gave me a lot of freedom to try and bring it back up again. It took some time, but that’s why I stayed there for a while, because I really wanted to complete the mission. It was kind of ignored for a while and the work ethic on the West Coast wasn’t what I was used to on the East Coast.”

Oringer worked in different regions of the U.S. but he never really trained overseas in France like many other chefs of the day had. But he had enough vision to see that traveling to other parts of the globe was a critical part of his education if he was going to find his own personal style or create an entirely new one. His travels to places like Singapore, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Spain, Brazil, Argentina served not only as an inspiration to him, but he also realized that you could only learn so much about Chinese culture, for instance, in Chinatown. “Since these exotic spices and ingredients were definitely shaping my cooking,” Oringer says, “I wanted to be able to learn about these things directly from the source.”

After five years at Silks, Oringer felt his mission was accomplished there, and began floating proposals for a new restaurant around the Boston area, an area he felt he could settle down and live in for quite some time. He tried to explain why someone who had traveled the world and could have opened a restaurant anywhere he wanted to, wound up settling here.

    photo of: Ken Oringer -  Fricasee of Escargots and Crispy Pork Belly with Habanero Emulsion, Pumpernickel and jaggery

“I felt that I wanted to come back east. I’d already done New York, and D.C. didn’t really interest me. I looked for a little bit in Chicago but I wanted to be on the coast so that didn’t interest me either. I could feel that the climate of the restaurant scene was changing a lot in Boston. A lot of it was kind of incestuous with Todd English and Lydia Shire spin-offs. So a lot of them were doing the same type of food, which is a great style of food, it was what Boston had a reputation for back then; very rustic, hardy Mediterranean, Italian-ish cooking. But I knew that with all the universities, there were a lot of international people coming here, different cultures, and there are so many great museums here. I said to myself ‘I think they are probably ready for something a little more creative and a little younger.’”

The people who own the Eliot hotel in Boston were interested in turning their space, which in 1996 had housed a sports bar and a Western Union office, into something that would be more upscale. Oringer brought his vision and determination and tried to convince them that a fine-dining destination restaurant would be perfect for the spot. The location was scenic and had great potential for that, but it had one logistical problem. “Back in those days, nobody ever crossed Mass Ave.,” Oringer explains. “There is a lot of money over here, but nobody ever came down this end of Newbury Street.” That soon changed after eight months of construction when the restaurant opened to fabulous reviews and an enormous amount of positive press. Clio, the name of which is derived from “Kleio”, the Greek Muse of History, has now become both a destination restaurant and a favorite among Boston’s elite diners.

Oringer’s Asian-inspired French food not only brought the chef acclaim – he was nominated for a James Beard Best Chef Northeast award 3 years in a row before finally winning with his fourth nomination in 2001 – he also became known for the way he molds exotic ingredients into artsy and colorful presentations. After Oringer cooked some of his dishes for our article, I asked him where he gets his ideas for his dish’s presentation.

    photo of: Ken Oringer -  The Staff of Clio

“You can derive inspiration from anything, from architecture to just walking around and seeing nature, to seeing things and just trying to push yourself to do something a little bit differently. Some people go for too much color, or do the obvious. I love doing black and white for instance, like squid ink sauce with a ragu of calamari with wild herbs, and then just have a little potato cooked in squid ink, with some gold leaf and a poached quail egg next to it. You can have something like that, just black and white with one little fleck of gold and one other item, and it can be as striking as having twenty colors on a plate. You have to go for striking contrast sometimes, but flavor comes first and foremost, and I think that less is better. Many people try too much of a presentation and it just gets muddled and cloudy and it looks sloppy. It’s easier to make something beautiful with three things then it is with ten things. That’s a Japanese esthetic, which is something I have always admired and have tried to have in my food. That minimalism can look really crisp, and a lot tighter than having too much on a plate.”

Oringer’s inspiration for his technique comes not only from the chefs he worked for, like Burke and Vongerichten, but also from chefs he has met along the way in his travels. Michel Gras and Pierre Gagnier from France for example, are two chefs who are contemporary stylists prone to experimenting with their base of tradition. “Gras is very true to his region, he uses a lot of wild herbs and flowers and things like that, but he also creates a very personalized cuisine. Pierre Gagniere is as crazy a combination chef as there is. He’ll get his influences from all over the world; he’ll combine something from Spain or something from Japan with something from France, and I love that reckless abandon in terms of being creative. Those two chefs have had a major influence on my style.”

Another major influence was a Spanish chef he had only read about ten years ago, when Clio had already opened and was running successfully. He decided to make a special trip to Barcelona to try his food, and he took his friend Charlie Trotter along with him. The chef’s name was Ferran Adria, and Adria was not yet well known in the States. “We went out to El Bulli and hit it off really well with him. Nobody knew who they were; they were doing only about ten dinners a night.” Oringer and Trotter wound up staying and working with them in El Bulli’s laboratory for several weeks, then came back to the States to spread the news about this amazing new restaurant and chef. “I remember calling a food critic from Boston and I said ‘you should go see this guy, he’s doing some amazing things.’ I started telling all my chef friends and I ended up getting to know Ferran very well. I kept going back to Spain and doing events with him in Barcelona and Madrid and all over the world. I love the food and I love that style of eating. So eventually I decided to open up a Barcelona-style Tapas restaurant.”

    photo of: Ken Oringer -  Frozen Capsule of coconut and amaretto toffee with raspberry sorbet with lilac crystals and pound cake.

The restaurant he opened was called Toro, which just passed its two-year anniversary this past November. Oringer, who owned a single restaurant for eight years, now finds himself with four - or five if you count Uni, his small sushi bar that is connected to Clio. In 2007 he opened two new restaurants that have completely different cuisines from anything he’d done before. The first, La Verdad, is a high-end Mexican restaurant situated a baseball toss from Fenway Park. The second was a steak house. Oringer received an offer from a hotel group to open up a modern steak house around the same time as he was planning La Verdad, and decided that he could handle both, so KO Prime opened last year at the same time as La Verdad. Before opening KO prime, Oringer hopped on a plane to Argentina in order to do research. The result was a menu that featured Wagyu, Kobe and grass-fed beef; Kurobuto pork, King salmon, and Dover sole. Many of his dishes had Argentinean influences.

“There are a million and one steakhouses in this country, so I thought about what I could learn to separate myself from the pack. I went to Argentina to try and pick up a little influence, because they have different cuts of beef over there, and I wanted to have cuts that were different than the traditional T-bone. The result was that we created a short rib on-the-bone appetizer, which is kind of a combination between Argentina and Vietnam. In America they never grill short ribs, they’re always braised. But in Korea, they grill them and in Vietnam and Argentina they also grill them. So this is a crosscut, because in Korea they go really small, and this is a big steak. Also, the way we butcher one of our flatiron steaks is inspired by the way they butcher them in Argentina. We wanted to separate a couple of things on the menu, but I didn’t want to be an Argentinean steakhouse.”

With all these new themes that are all doing well, I asked him if Clio might be the brand that he used if he were to expand outside of Boston, but he said that he would prefer to expand the Toro or La Verdad concepts first, perhaps starting in Miami or Las Vegas. “I want to do a couple of other Toro’s, and I’d love to do a Toro in New York,” he said. I thought that was a great idea, and knew that his wife and family would love it. But why weren’t there more chefs who were successful in New York, coming to Boston to open outposts?

    photo of: Ken Oringer -  Terrine of Foie Gras with concord grapes in textures, fennel pollen and mastic gel

“I think we’re going to definitely see a change with that. I know that Jean-Georges was looking up here for a while, and I know Terrance Brennan has been looking up here, and Tom Colicchio has been looking up here. It’s not a big city, so there is only so much you can really do in this market, and I think that’s preventing some people from coming here. But I think we will be seeing some more now that it’s gotten more sophisticated here.”

I had read long lists of awards that Oringer had won, but one list that he has been removed from recently was People magazine’s top 50 eligible bachelors. He is off that list for good as of a year and a half ago when he married Miss Celine Gould, a national food wholesaler who used to sell Oringer high-end products like truffles and caviar. I knew of the chef’s legendary smile from earlier photos taken of him throughout his career, but when Celine walked into the room a short while later, his smile managed a few extra centimeters. Not unlike his customers, I would imagine.

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