First We Take Manhattan
When Boston chefs aim for the national stage
Success, they say, breeds success.
Three local chefs—Ken Oringer, Jamie Bissonnette and Michael Schlow—are about to test that maxim. They’re eyeing moves outside of New England, a culinary expansion that’s been attempted by few and achieved by fewer. This spring, Oringer and Bissonnette will open a New York outpost of their South End tapas restaurant, Toro. It’ll abut the famed Colicchio & Sons and Del Posto in Chelsea (85 10th Ave.), making the building a mini-restaurant row. Schlow, for his part, is eyeballing Washington, D.C.
Schlow’s crossed the state line before. He runs Alta Strada at Foxwoods, in Connecticut, and Pine, the dining room at the inn at Dartmouth College. Oringer took a regional gambit when he opened Earth at Hidden Pond in Kennebunkport, Maine. But, of course, resort restaurants and casino eateries aren’t the same as opening to the critics in Manhattan. Perhaps that’s one reason so few Boston chefs seem to aim outside the neighborhood. The mythic attractions that lure comedians to New York, musicians to Nashville and stylists to L.A.—and then dash their plans like Lorelei’s rock—don’t seem to hold sway for local chefs. They come to Boston on a star trajectory, or work their way up here and stay. Siren songs be damned.
Or is there history to be heeded?
Roger Berkowitz’s Legal Sea Foods is Boston’s biggest export success, now in nine states and D.C. Steve DiFillippo took his Back Bay Italian steakhouse, Davio’s, to Philly and Atlanta. But these are rare cases of brands going imperial. More common are the experiences of restaurateurs like Charlie Sarkis, who once owned dozens of casual spots around town like Joe’s, Charley’s, Papa Razzi and J.C. Hillary’s. He tried to export his brand to Florida, with mixed results. Jae Chung, king of Asian fusion in the 1990s, also tried to branch out but failed.
Solo chefs, too, have taken the plunge. In 1986, Lydia Shire, already a superstar in kitchens like the Bostonian Hotel, Maison Robert and Harvest, was lured to L.A. to open the Four Seasons Hotel’s restaurant as the chain’s first female executive chef. Homesickness, plus her dream of opening her own restaurant, brought Shire back to Boston in 1989 when she created Biba.
And then there’s Todd English. In 1989, his Olives in Charlestown was booming, leading a cross-country trend for smarter, heartier, hipper, pricier pizza. “A beacon of culinary cool,” wowed The New York Times. Over the next 20 years, English remained the top celebrity chef of Boston, at one point owning or consulting at 23 restaurants nationally, and even on a pair of cruise ships. In New York alone, English opened four venues between 2010 and 2012.
“He’s one of the most successful chefs in the country,” wrote The New York Times in June 2011, while also cementing his reputation as a derided “party-hopping Casanova.” Much of the bad press seemed to stem from English having his head turned from Boston by the glam of New York and Vegas. The folks at home felt pissy. English also had a pocketful of lawsuits against him, mostly emanating from the go-go years when franchise fever struck. At the time, English said, “It’s like losing a big game, but you’re out there playing, man. You tried.” English now owns 15 places, four in Boston.
So it seemed that a big-time Boston chef who wanted to launch a venture outside the regional borders was an idea going nowhere. Many names affixed to the idea stayed close to home. Ming Tsai went to the Seaport. The Aquitaine Group kept to familiar, South End turf with Cinquecento. Jamie Mammano of the Columbus Hospitality Group (Mistral, Teatro, Sorellina, Mooo, the Inn at St. Botolph) went to Burlington, where his L’Andana is highly praised. Chris Schlesinger of the (recently sold) East Coast Grill, operates Back Eddy in Westport.
Says Barbara Lynch, owner of the many venues of the Barbara Lynch Gruppo, “Expanding in other cities was never on my agenda. I love being able to pop into any of my restaurants at any time to work with the team, meet guests, and help put out fires. Also, being from Boston, it’s always been important to me to have direct ties to the city and neighborhoods where I open concepts.” That said, she admires “others who can do it and do it well.”
It seemed like no one wanted to follow in English’s footsteps. But if anyone were to roll the dice, it’d logically be Oringer and Schlow. Oringer grew up in New Jersey and Schlow in Brooklyn, with noses pressed up against the windowpanes. “With the lights just across the river, you can imagine what that was like growing up,” says Oringer, who saw New York as a spot to grow and practice; perhaps eventually return.
Oringer, 47, has the résumé of a national star. He worked at the prestigious River Café in Manhattan, then at Al Forno in Providence, R.I., moving up to Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s esteemed dining room at the then–Lafayette Hotel in Boston. After a stint at the San Francisco Mandarin Oriental, he came back to Boston in 1997 to open Clio, a stunner from the start, securing his win of the James Beard Award for best chef in the Northeast. In 2002, he opened Uni in the lounge of Clio and, in 2005, launched Toro. Next was La Verdad, near Fenway Park (which will now compete with Michael Schlow’s reincarnation of Happy’s as a Mexican joint), and in 2009, Coppa, an enoteca he opened with Bissonnette. Finally, in 2011, he opened Earth in Kennebunkport. It was then that he began to talk about New York.
For Bissonnette, who grew up in Hartford, Conn., the move will be a step into the big time. He was the opening executive chef at Eastern Standard in 2005 before joining Oringer’s team in 2007 at KO Prime, and has since been chef at Toro and chef and partner at Coppa.
Schlow, 48, owner of Radius, Via Matta, Tico, two Alta Stradas and the upcoming Mexican restaurant, saw profit in the idea of Latin-influenced dishes and a good cocktail list. “Boston is my home, but there are other places where the concept does well,” he says. “Developers definitely like Tico, and D.C. would be the place most interested.” Named a best new restaurant by Esquire in 2011, Tico seems like a replicable success story.
With two small children, a wife and six restaurants all doing well, Oringer didn’t need any more outlets. “People from all over, developers, had been pushing me to come to another city—but not New York,” says Oringer. “But chefs from other parts of the country were doing real well there. People didn’t care who you were as long as you were good.”
Bissonnette, 35, says he had some hesitation when Oringer proposed the move. “I just didn’t show it, unlike Ken. We’re like the odd couple. Ken is all go-go-go, and I’m more, well, I can’t say I don’t want to if I don’t try.” The two have been commuting to Manhattan for about a year, while legal details with the developer and landlord were handled. (“The red tape is no different.”)
While Toro New York’s design and menus are still works in progress, the pair hope for a May or June inaugural. Then it’ll be time for track records to be tested, and for the critics to do their work. And if success really does breed success, then Boston’s national reputation for cuisine might soon outgrow clam chowder.