Platelist: Chef Ken Oringer Brings Global Flavors to Boston

PHOTO: Chef Ken Oringer from Clio prepares some special dishes for Nightlines platelist.
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Executive chef Ken Oringer's restaurants encompass the cuisines of America, Mexico, Europe and the Far East, which is understandable given his exposure to diverse cultures early on.

His childhood was a microcosm of this international palate. He grew up in Paramus, N.J., just across the river from New York City's smorgasbord of ethnic flavors.

"Birthdays weren't going to Howard Johnson," he said. "We would go to Little Italy, street festivals in Chinatown -- with whole baby lambs on sticks -- and Greek festivals on the West Side."

Oringer started cooking at age 6.

"Believe me," he said, "it would piss my parents off to have me go into the kitchen and say, 'Move over, Mom, this needs more cumin.' ... I was a pain in the ass, but they encouraged me to cook, because I loved it."

By the time he was a teenager, Oringer was poring over cookbooks and watching Julia Child.

"It's kind of pathetic when you are going into high school, and your friends are going out, picking up girls and drinking, and I was with a buddy of mine whose parents owned a restaurant, making onion soup," he said.

After high school, Oringer wanted to go to cooking school, but his parents pushed him to get a business degree first, so he went to Bryant University in Rhode Island. But then he attended the Culinary Institute of America, because he said he needed to "follow the dream." When he graduated from the CIA, he was voted "Most Likely to Succeed."

Oringer fulfilled the prophecy with a rapid rise through the ranks of some of the top restaurants in the country. His first job was under Chef David Burke at the famed River Cafe, in Brooklyn. He moved on to be pastry chef at Al Forno, in Providence, R.I. Next, he joined the staff of Boston's Le Marquis de Lafayette, under Jean Georges Vongerichten.

After opening his first restaurant, Terra, in Boston, Oringer left the Northeast for San Francisco, where he was Chef de Cuisine at Silks, in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. In 1997, he returned to Boston to become the executive chef and co-owner of Clio, the flagship of his Boston eateries.

Get Ken Oringer's recipes for lobster paella and heirloom carrot salad.

"One thing that brought me to Boston was that I wanted to open a restaurant where I could express myself with my food and afford to do it," he said. "Some of these cities are cutthroat, too expensive and you end up having to work a million hours a week, and you never have a life."

In 2000, Oringer's horizons expanded globally when he joined other star chefs at the World Gourmet Festival, in Singapore. Inspired by this experience, he opened Uni, a sushi bar in the lounge of Clio, in 2002.

For a chef so grounded in transatlantic fine dining, Oringer said tackling sushi, a rarefied culinary art Japanese chefs study for decades, was an irresistible challenge.

"I love pressure," he said. "I'm a white guy from New Jersey who goes to Asia, cooks a little bit, goes to Japan, studies a little bit, and says, 'I'm going to open an upscale sushi bar with me behind there and with no formal training.'"

The Boston Herald gave Uni four stars.

Oringer repeated the trick with Spanish food, opening Toro, a tapas bar in Boston's South End, and Mexican food, with a taqueria called La Verdad.

White Castle Among Top Chef's Guilty Pleasures

His wife and two-year-old daughter often join him for meals at one of his restaurants, supplementing the limited time he has to spend with them at home.

"[They] have completely changed my life, because they give me that balance that I think every person needs," he said.

He needed it; Oringer admitted he had "a reputation of being a little tough and demanding. ... When Clio opened 13 years ago, the wait staff would be afraid to come into the kitchen sometimes."

Oringer has earned rave reviews from newspapers and magazines, Michelin stars, and the Best Chef -- Northeast award from the James Beard Foundation. In 2008, he bested Chef Cat Cora on "Iron Chef America."

He is philosophical about online customer reviewers: "You have to take them with a grain of salt. ... Half the people don't know s*** from shinola, and the other half only post negative things because that's the way our society is, unfortunately."

Oringer has eaten -- and cooked -- some of the best food in the world, but admits he has three guilty pleasures.

"Hot dogs -- I can eat a dozen of those," he said. "Any taco on any dirty street corner in Mexico. ... White Castle hamburgers have a very special place in my heart."

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