It’s a good thing chef Ken Oringer has razor-sharp wit and knives to boot — it’s helped him get thousands of small plates and big smiles out of the open kitchen at Little Donkey. Those who’ve been lucky enough to get a reservation at the latest in his empire are giving two thumbs up to a global fusion menu that reflects sashimi, sushi, and Asian street food concepts from Uni, Italian enoteca staples from Coppa, and tapas from Toro. The James Beard Award winner has three locations of the latter, in New York City, his adopted hometown of Boston, and mostly recently in Bangkok. World travels — often along with his posse in the kitchen, like Instagrammer extraordinaire Jamie Bissonnette — have inspired most of what’s on his plate. Here Oringer dishes on friendship, fatherhood, and food trends.
In the past few months, you’ve been to New York, New Orleans, and you’re a big Aspen Food & Wine guy. How have travels contributed to your skills as a chef?
Travel has been the most important inspiration behind all the restaurants. Every time I go to another city I try and go off-the-beaten track and sample the street food. It’s important to try flavor combos and dishes I’ve never seen before. All of these fuel my curiosity for creating new dishes and bringing unique ingredients back to the States.
What’s your favorite destination, and where are you off to next?
I’m dying to try Lima, Peru. Being a huge ceviche fan and loving any place on the ocean, I’m looking forward to getting there in the next year.
Travel and the kitchen are both unpredictable — what’s gone wrong and how have you gotten yourself out of a jam?
The only thing that really goes wrong is being a little too adventurous and probably eating things that are in severe violation of health code etiquette, which has occasionally slowed me down for a day or two. I make sure to pack plenty of meds to get myself back in action!
You have a ton of friends (such as Ming Tsai, Blue Dragon) and travel comrades. What does that add to the experience? Ever had any “Hangover”-like nights?
The more people you can travel with, the more you can experience, and the more of an adventure it becomes. It’s really nice to be able to have an intelligent discussion around a big table, breaking bread with both travel companions and locals, to really soak up the culture.
What are you most proud of — in other words, what is success to you?
I am most proud of my kids (an 8-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son) and their love of adventure and food. And success, to me, is feeling good walking into your restaurants and knowing that the culture that you’ve created you can feel throughout the entire team.
Are your kids easy to please or are they high-maintenance in terms of what’s on the plate? Do you think they’ll pursue the family business some day?
My kids are willing to try almost anything except for certain vegetables. They love to play “Fear Factor”—they’ve eaten bugs in Mexico, fish eyeballs, live sea urchin. They’re pretty much game for anything.
So, are reality TV cooking shows a guilty pleasure or too much reality for you?
Too much reality for me to watch!
Did you know when you were your kids’ ages what you wanted to be?
Ever since I was about 8 years old I knew I wanted to be a chef. It started from watching Julia Child cook on TV and I followed the path pretty fiercely from that day on.
Dessert — yay, nay, or indifferent? Would you rather spend your calories on something else?
I used to be a pastry chef and still do the desserts at most of our restaurants. It’s something that I’m very passionate about, especially having worked with students like Alex Stupak (of Empellon, among others) and Rick Billings. I may not eat a whole dessert, but I’m always interested in tasting.
Little Donkey is wildly successful. Congrats! Why branch out to with the Boston options and why pick Central Square (technically Cambridge)?
Thanks! Boston’s a pretty small city and between the South End and Back Bay, we have pretty decent representation. Central Square’s a more ethnically diverse neighborhood that ties nicely with Little Donkey’s global small plates theme. We also chose a busy thoroughfare to encourage walk-ins.
Where are you spending most of your time these days (in terms of businesses) and why?
I’m still spending a lot of time at Little Donkey being that it’s the newest child to the family, but now that things are settling, I’m looking to spend more time in New York City to continue creating new dishes for Toro NYC.
Why did you decide to stay in Boston?
It’s a small city, but it’s got a lot of pride and camaraderie where everybody pushes for each other to succeed.
What’s your favorite restaurant here? (OK, you can pick a few!)
How have you seen the restaurant industry changed since your first restaurant? (For instance, street food, small plates, social media-worthy meals)
All of those are major factors but I think what’s changed the most is that people are so much more educated now than they were when I first opened in terms of understanding food. TV, social media and the Internet have contributed to that. So it allows us as chefs to push the limits more than we use to be able to.
What are the three kitchen accessories you can’t live without — certain knives, apron choice, etc.?
A Vitamix blender, really good knives (I’m a fan of Masamoto), and a mortar and pestle.
Any advice for up and coming chefs (or, what is the best advice you ever received in your field)?
Work harder than anyone, ask a lot of questions, and make sure you have sharp knives.
Carley Thornell is a travel writer whose experiences eating street food in Japan, English peas in the UK, free-range steak in Argentina, and Brussels sprouts at Estragon tapas in her hometown of Boston have provided unforgettable culinary inspiration. Shout out at email@example.com.