I sensed a quiet tension as I sat in a resplendent dining room watching sommeliers, waiters, bussers, captains and hosts deftly glide between the tables catering to each guest’s every need. At this Michelin-starred restaurant, glassware was spotless, the white linens crisp and the windows blacked out, seemingly to control every last sensory experience you could have. The artfully plated food arrived with aplomb. My wife and I exchanged comments on each dish in hushed tones, savoring each tiny bite. We had entered a high temple of food, and our reverence was evident.
But why the hell would we choose to go to church to enjoy ourselves? Solemn contemplation is for Sunday morning, not Friday night. After we were given the hefty bill, we walked away full, but a little unfulfilled. The very next night, a combination of tacos, cocktails and beers with friends came at a fraction of the cost, with many times more fun. When comparing the two nights back to back, fine dining couldn’t really hold up.
This dissatisfaction with fine dining is not novel in the food world. New York Times critic Pete Wells took Per Se down a few notches earlier this year with his blistering review of the famed restaurant, writing that dining there had become joyless: “Dinner or lunch at this grand, hermetic, self-regarding, ungenerous restaurant brings a protracted march of many dishes.” Then Wells added, “Per Se is among the worst food deals in New York.” This critique seemed aimed as much at the whole industry as it was at Per Se alone.
Chef Ken Oringer has similar feelings on haute cuisine. “It sucks. And even in Paris nobody wants to eat that way anymore,” says Oringer, the chef-restaurateur behind Toro in Boston, New York City and Bangkok and the recently opened Little Donkey. “Life’s too short now. Unless you’re like 65 years old and you go to all the Michelin-style restaurants and check them off, I can’t imagine anybody wanting to eat that way anymore. It’s just way too boring.”
When I caught up with Oringer at The Food and Wine Classic in Aspen, we discussed his philosophy on what makes a good restaurant, why he thinks people are moving away from fine dining and how we, the dining public, have changed during his two decades in the business.
How has Boston evolved since you opened the restaurant that put you on the map, Clio, nearly two decades ago?
Dude, it is like night and day. When I opened in 1997, Boston was like a small city that had only a handful of restaurants that anybody had ever heard of. There were always huge-ass portions and many places in the city had this really rustic reputation. So when I did a contemporary style of food, people loved it, and luckily we were packed, but others would complain about the portions. It took a while to get people really used to tasting menus that had 12 smaller portions instead of bigger portions.
But as Clio evolved my style changed a little bit. I started traveling a lot and going to events in Spain. We would go out and eat and drink and I fell in love with tapas and I was like, you know what, fine dining is awesome, but I want to do something a little more fun and interesting.
And then I opened up Uni and then Toro a few years after that. You could see Boston changing again. Younger chefs were starting to express themselves, doing smaller restaurants kind of like the Brooklyn style. So people just expressed themselves and rents weren’t that expensive back then so there was a lot of creativity. I think it’s one of the best dining cities per capita—and probably in the world—because so many people don’t have to pay the high rents of LA, San Francisco, New York or even Williamsburg. Nobody can afford to open up anything in those places anymore.
What’s the difference between Boston and New York’s restaurant scenes?
The great thing about Boston is that there is a lot of comradery between chefs. You can eat somewhere and say, “that’s amazing, where’d you get that fish from?” and they’ll say, “Oh, here’s the fisherman’s number send him a text,” and you can send him a text and get fish tomorrow. And believe me I love New York; We have been welcomed with open arms there and the chefs have been so wonderful to us. But you know, sometimes people hold their secrets a little tighter there than they do in Boston. And it’s just the people, it’s that underdog mentality of Boston versus New York. Where everybody in Boston wants to make Boston a great dining city because people never thought of it that way before. Where with New York, it’s assumed that it’s going to be a great dining city.
You said the customers had certain expectations back in ‘97. What do you think was the impetus to make them change their perception?
It was pretty much a cultural evolution in terms of getting out of that old Yankee mentality. Boston used to be this very conservative, old, kind of WASP-y city. I think the universities probably made everything change a little bit, but as more and more international people started coming to the city I think they just started fueling imaginations from the chefs saying, “You know what, these people are receptive.”
Why are people moving away from fine dining?
Food should be more fun. Too many people take it too seriously and I’m not a rule follower. I hate rules. I hate people telling me what to do and I personally hate sitting in restaurants for four hours. I get too tired and it gets boring after a while. I work a lot, so if I’m with my friends and my family I want to have fun. I want it to be energetic and energy is everything to me. That’s one reason why we opened up Toro New York: it was a really beautiful space. In very few restaurants can you have great food and have fun. Usually they have great food, or you can have fun. It’s a simple equation but very rarely the two combine.
When the Top 50 Restaurants list came out recently, so many of the spots looked inaccessible.
The Top 50 is a conversation all in itself. [Laughs] It’s kind of ridiculous how there could be some restaurants that are beyond casual and then you have these gastronomic temples where you’re spending 350 bucks a head, and then some of these restaurants—especially in Asia—are like $20 check averages.
I love how they can have some of these be the best restaurants in the world, but having eaten some of these it’s kind of funny how you can have the two of them in the same category. But again, I think wealthy tourists are the ones who fuel those restaurants. I’ve eaten at a lot of them and I love a lot of them, but again, it’s a very small percent of the population.
A lot of chefs cook just for themselves and they want to express themselves and they have egos about, “You have to eat my food and this is the way it is and that’s the way it’s going to be.” But I’m a businessman, I want to make money. We work too hard not to make people happy. If somebody comes into my restaurant and I’m serving tasting menus only and they’re not feeling well and they want to have scrambled eggs with toast, I’m going to make it for them. But some of these other people will never do anything like that. That’s the problem, is that you have to please people and make them want to come back to your restaurant by being hospitable—and not just about the food—because there are more important things about a restaurant than food.
If not to make a Top 50 list, what keeps you inspired after all these years in the business?
Traveling fuels everything for me, it’s something that always has. We just opened Toro in Bangkok a couple of weeks ago and it’s from my love of being in Bangkok many times back in the day. So all my travels fuel ideas and then those ideas just kind of fuel restaurants.
When I spent time in Japan I came back and said, “I want to open up a funky Japanese restaurant,” because all the Japanese restaurants were doing the same thing. I thought, why can’t people break the rules, because the Japanese will never do it. So I was like I’m going to just try it.
Do you think that people are less obsessed with authenticity or requiring authenticity?
I don’t think anyone gives a shit about authenticity anymore. I think all they care about is flavor, or at least I do. Even some of these chefs like Kris [Yenbamroong] from Night+Market, his parents have the traditional Thai restaurant and then he goes out and throws it on the side and says, “You know what this who I am and this is what I want to do,” and it’s not straight Thai food but it has a much cooler sensibility to it. More people are willing to just get away from tradition, and the more they can express themselves the better their food is going to be.
It seemed for a time that people felt they needed to go to one little village in Italy or a region in Thailand and make food just how it’s made there.
That’s how Little Donkey came about. Because in a Spanish restaurant, Italian restaurant, Japanese restaurant or whatever, you can only do so much. I mean, believe me, we stretch it. We can just cook anything that we feel like cooking. It’s nice to be able to do that as a chef because sometimes you have to be kind of in a certain direction. At Little Donkey we’re just calling it global small plates where we can serve matzo ball ramen. We can serve Singapore noodles next to a raw bar with live sea urchin and live razor clams. Everybody wishes they can just cook with no rules because that’s how chefs cook at home.
How do you keep your customers from being confused with that eclectic mix?
Well, the neighborhood that we’re in is kind of gritty and funky and it is very international because we’re between Harvard and MIT. Then we have all the biotech capitals right down the street from us also, so it’s a very international area between students and young professionals. I think they’re all going to be able to kind of relate with it a little bit.
FRIED CHICKEN FOR BRUNCH WITH TRUFFLE HONEY DRIZZLED ON TOP