Chef Ken Oringer has been part of the Boston food scene for a long time. He first opened Back Bay's Clio 17 years ago, and since then has expanded to other restaurants, including the dual branches of Toro in Boston and New York, which he opened with Jamie Bissonnette. He's also appeared on this season's Boston-based season of "Top Chef." We caught up with him to talk about Boston's changing food scene, dining a la tasting menu and how hard it is to remember the '90s.
Do you remember the first dish you created for Clio?
That was 17 years ago! I don’t remember s—t from 17 years ago. (Laughs). No, I think I do. The first dish I created there was probably…I think it was, yeah, it was a bone marrow custard cooked inside the bone with a ragout of corn, mushrooms and black truffles.
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What was the signature dish that helped Clio succeed?
I think what helped the restaurant get going was the tasting menus. We offered different tasting menus back then. Like a 14 course tasting menus and a 10 course tasting menu. 17 years ago, I don’t think many people offered big tasting menus like that back then. That was before 9/11 when there was a lot of money. People were throwing money like hand over fist out. It was so easy to get people to spend a fortune because the economy was booming back then.
Why do people like tasting menus?
I think they like being able to sit down and be surprised. They leave the spontaneous creativity to the chef and enjoy the roller coaster ride.
The Clio menu mentions that it's very seasonally inspired. What do you like adding for the winter months?
I like to focus on certain flavor points before proteins. During winter, I love using things like salsify and sunchokes and beets. I always think that using things like maple and pomegranate. I just like to play off earthy and sweet and sour and spicy and umami and just try and work up some of those flavor profiles.
How have you seen the restaurant scene change over the years?
When Clio opened, there was probably a fraction of the amount of restaurants that there are now. Now we’re as good a dining city as I would say anywhere in the world. We’re a small city, but the chefs are super talented and driven and we have so many different neighborhoods and so many funky restaurants.
Where's your favorite place to eat out in the city?
I tend to drag myself to Blue Dragon quite often. I really love it. It’s a lot of notes I love. It’s a fun place to drink, it’s a fun place to hang out, the food is great, it’s cheap. Sarma, I really love a lot also.
Where do you see a lot of other chefs hanging out?
We opened up Toro hoping it would be that. We do industry nights at Toro and a lot of chefs come in on their nights off and it’s kind of fun to see a lot of them still coming there. Toro’s going on ten years, so it’s nice. A lot of chefs go to places in Chinatown that we still go after work, like Peach Farm, and Dumpling Café. I always see chefs at Sarma. I always see chefs at Alden and Harlow. Tavern Road, I see a lot of chefs hanging out also.