Culinary superstar Ken Oringer gives career advice to aspiring chefs
Chef and restaurateur, Ken Oringer’s resume reads like a recipe for success – in the kitchen, business and life.
Oringer’s first job was as a teenage dishwasher. He pursued an undergraduate degree at Bryant University and then returned to his food roots, working for renowned chefs and their restaurants including Chef David Burke at River Café in New York City and Jean Georges Vongerichten’s Le Marquis de Lafayette in Boston.
Striking out on his own in 1997, Oringer opened Clio, inside The Eliot Hotel in Boston, which later earned him a James Beard award for Best New Chef Northeast in 2001 and a spot on Gourmet magazine’s Top 50 Restaurants in America that same year.
Since then, Oringer’s passion and talent for making the most of cutting-edge ingredients and his innovative, risk-taking entrepreneurial style has led to the openings of Uni Boston, which boasts an adventurous sashimi menu, Toro Boston and Toro New York which offer eclectic, Spanish-inspired tapas, Coppa Boston, an intimate Italian spot for wood oven pizza, handmade pasta and Italian fare, and Little Donkey Cambridge, a globally-inspired small plates and raw bar eatery.
With more restaurant ventures on the way, Oringer fuels his culinary inspiration through his love of travel. When not working, teaching or inspiring others, Oringer spends time at home with his wife Celine, daughter Verveine and son Luca.
HC: I’ve read that your interest in restaurants began as a child, dining in NYC eateries with your parents. What about these experiences fueled your early passion that would later develop in to a successful career/business?
KO: It created a passion for food and hospitality that grew stronger every day. The excitement was contagious.
HC: Would you advise aspiring chefs to achieve a business degree (as you did), in addition to culinary training?
KO: I think it is very important for anyone in any field to gain as much knowledge and information in order to succeed in your field. I highly recommend if not a degree then a full understanding.
HC: Early on in your career, you trained under some top chef/restaurateurs. What traits and skills in and out of the kitchen did you acquire from such experiences that served you as you pursued your own path?
KO: To be the hardest working person in the kitchen, that no idea was too crazy, to push beyond the limit, to think outside the box, to be disciplined in even the smallest tasks.
HC: How important are mentors and how can young apprentices cultivate and maximize such relationships?
KO: To me mentorship is extremely vital to the development of a young talent. In this day of millennials, it can easily be overlooked and it requires a lot of work on the mentor's part. But it creates a deep bond and understanding of how to succeed.
HC: What fuels your culinary creativity and inspiration for new projects? How do you stay on your game and ahead of the trends?
KO: Travel travel travel
HC: Have you always loved to travel? How much culinary travel do you do? Where have you been lately and in what ways such experiences influence and inspire your cooking style?
KO: Every restaurant I have ever opened has been inspired by my travels. Little Donkey, my newest, is a fun culmination of all of them.
HC: Is there a glamourous side to your demanding schedule and pursuits? What are some of the perks and highlights of being a high-profile chef?
KO: The only glamorous part of it is that my hobby is my work, and I love coming to work everyday.
HC: Have there been mistakes or hard lessons that you’ve learned from on your way up?
KO: There are mistakes every day, being the risk taker that I am, but the important part is to take yourself out of your comfort zone and learn from your mistakes.
HC: Why did you choose Boston to open your first restaurant, Clio? What do’s and don’t’s have you learned about choosing a restaurant’s location and its concept?
KO: I chose Boston because I could sense that it was ready for something different, and it was a very international and young city. The do's are to always go with your gut and stand in the location at all hours of the day to understand your demographic and traffic patterns.
HC: For today’s aspiring high-profile chefs, media exposure (TV appearances, articles, reviews) is important for brand-building. What advice can you give those who may not be naturally media-savvy? How do you handle a less than favorable/critical review?
KO: For those who are not media savvy, they should take courses in communication and public speaking and always be your true self. Reviews are only one person’s opinion, and if you take them too seriously then they will destroy you. What is most important is pleasing the maximum amount of guests every day.
HC: With today’s world consumer market, what advice can you offer aspiring chef/entrepreneurs on thinking big and thinking globally?
KO: Don't expand too quickly, understand your market and be true to your brand, never dilute it.
HC: What non-technical skills/traits have set you apart and contributed to your success?
KO: Understanding how important a team is and listening.