For more than a decade Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette have teamed together to delight the city of Boston with their culinary explorations. Seven days a week, Toro, Coppa and Little Donkey take us to Spain, Italy, Asia and beyond as the flavors Ken and Jamie are passionate about speak to us. For these chefs, the kitchen is limitless. Ingredients are sourced seasonally in Boston, with new findings all year round. On a trip to H-mart or to Copley Square Farmers Market, you’ll see their favorite senses exercised again and again as they taste and smell everything. Even after all these years they are insatiable, still the same chefs searching for new flavors, and how to put them into dishes on their menus for their community to embrace. In Boston loyalty is as thick as the humidity in mid August, and that doesn’t change in the restaurant industry. Throughout every season, Toro, Coppa and Little Donkey are here for their diners, and that takes more than hard work and dedication, it takes love.
This industry requires consistency- showing up, day after day, and producing the same results. A restaurant might have a guest in their dining room who visited years ago, yet still remembers the details of their experience as it was that good. Being able to recreate that again and again is what defines outstanding hospitality. However, a day in the industry rarely goes as planned. Staff may not show up, parties can get out of hand, equipment breaks mid-service, and any other number of wildcards get tossed into the air. Today we celebrate Ken and Jamie, because they play the cards they’re dealt, every damn day.
To commemorate the imprint they’ve made on the culinary scene, we asked them not about the awards and recognition over the years, but the wild times and the ridiculous moments, that, once removed, resulted in laughter. In their own words, here are a few of the memories. For proving to stay true to yourselves, true to your business and true to the craft - here’s to you, Ken (KO) and Jamie (JB) - Happy Founders Day!
KO: Toro, back before even Jamie was involved, it was like the Wild West. That strip of Washington Street had nothing on it and people didn’t know what Spanish food was. Nobody knew what Tapas was, not any clue. Spain back in those days didn’t have the romance, it was before Adria or any of those guys put Spain on the map. Toro was packed though, and really hasn’t slowed down since (knocks on the wooden table). But you couldn’t get a taxi to pass for like an hour after work. It was literally like the Wild West.
JB: I used to go around the South End with a Vespa scooter, and no matter what kind of lock I had, it just kept getting stolen. I recovered one of them illegally once that got me into more trouble than the guy who stole it. I found one of them once that had been stolen and it was so dilapidated so I was like “fuck it, I’m done with Vespa’s”. Then, on my birthday, Ken and Celine bought me one and just showed up with it. You realize that your mentor, who became my business partner and my friend, you realize that you look out for each other more than you ever expected.
KO: The reason I opened Toro was because I would travel to Spain twice a year to do events, because of Clio, and after the events we’d go to these Tapas bars. They were so festive and fun. I thought, “why aren’t people in America doing this?” It was the true camaraderie of breaking bread. It changed my whole philosophy. I was like “fuck fine dining, this is what I want”. And all of our restaurants since have had that same atmosphere.
We want people to have fun and just enjoy themselves. When I started Uni, it was because the Clio kitchen was starting to make me miserable.I would go down to that little bar and cook for my friends, and it changed my whole outlook on what makes people happy - that it’s more than a dining experience, it’s a connection between the food and the chef and the people. People give me shit all the time - I’m a white guy from Jersey who opened a Japanese restaurant, and it’s funny because a Japanese person wouldn’t run a yellow light, but I just wanted to break all the rules.
The first chef at Toro was a chef with me at Uni, and I had trained him to think that way to really think outside the box and break the rules and have fun.
JB: At Toro, way back, we decided that for New Year’s Eve, after doing a dinner service, that we would reopen late night. We got an extended food license until 5am and we did an industry late night dinner at Toro. We couldn’t serve alcohol past 2 a.m. and we had almost all the industry people in-house. We didn’t think we were going to sell as much food as we did. We were on the line until 4:45am. It was brutal. By the time we got done cleaning it was 7am. (Laughs) Needless to say, we never did that again.
KO: Coppa was hilarious before we opened, the first time Jamie and I tried to light the wood oven we almost smoked the whole neighborhood out! We couldn’t get the exhaust to work and we were coughing up our lungs, but we finally got it to catch and we went over to a local neighborhood pizza place to borrow dough and a pizza paddle because we were so excited and just wanted to see what it tasted like. The contractor was there with a fire extinguisher in hand but we didn’t need it. And the pizza tasted great. It still does.
JB: We did a calçotada at Toro, which is a Spanish party celebrating spring onions, and they get really into it over there, so we really wanted to have that spirit of the spring celebration. We had a CDC who worked for us then named Mike Smith. Mike and I did the math on how many calçot (spring onions) that we would need for the event, and we ended up getting like 200 pounds. 45 minutes into cooking them we were on the phone with Tomas from Specialty Foods Boston, and they were closed, but I’m begging him to get me like 500 more pounds. We were delirious charing those calçot on the plancha, wrapping them in the paper and throwing them in the cooler, it was a blur.
KO: For my 50th birthday we had a fishing trip with a bunch of buddies and mine up in Maine- we caught like hundreds of fish, but Jovie, who is our fish purveyor, was throwing up off the side of the boat. Jamie was throwing up off the side of the boat. It was all these tough guy fishermen who thought they were hot shit throwing up. So that was hilarious. Then we had a huge BBQ - everything from dry aged ribeyes cooked over fire, all the fish, lobsters. Great day.
JB: When we opened LD, for whatever reason, we didn’t have any dishwashers that would stay through service. So every day we would get our asses kicked and we would prep all day and work all night and then at 3 am Ken and I are back there doing dishes. People would come in and be like, did Ken and Jamie leave early? We wanted to get them a shot, and we’d just be hidden from view, buried in the dish pit.
JB: For my 40th birthday I wanted to have brunch at LD with my friends, because I had never had brunch there, and it’s August, so I wanted the doors to be open to the nice weather and where we had the space to eat with 20 people. When I got here there were caricature drawings and birthday hats, there were gotcha game cut outs all over the table and on the menu. I walked in and saw all the work that Katy had put into my birthday, it was one of those days that I realized this is my family. I felt so loved. It was so endearing.