Cover story: Fortune favours the bold

by Crystal Chesters | Published 9 months ago

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Jamie Bissonnette and Ken Oringer learned the rules of Spanish cuisine and then broke them to create something new. Meet the award-winning double-act behind Dubai’s new Boston-founded, Barcelona-inspired tapas bar, Toro & Ko.

Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette, the duo behind Boston-founded tapas restaurant brand, Toro, describe themselves as ‘risk-takers’, who like to do things differently.  The James Beard award-winning chefs first teamed up when Bissonnette joined Oringer’s Boston Toro in 2008 and the pair went on to collaborate on two more brands – Italian enoteca, Coppa, and tapas restaurants, Little Donkey.

The opening of Toro & Ko in Dubai last month marked the second international location after Bangkok for the eclectic brand, which is inspired by the chefs’ shared love of travel and doesn’t cling rigidly to any particular rules. The menu takes inspiration from a Barcelona tapas bar but in each location, the chefs do something different and encourage creativity and collaboration.

(L-R) Jamie Bissonnette and Ken Oringer

(L-R) Jamie Bissonnette and Ken Oringer

“We’re not afraid to break some rules,” says Oringer. “We like to honour the traditions of Spain, but also do some interesting things – Spain and chefs like Ferran Adrià really encourage the creative side of food.”

Bissonnette adds: “Our inspiration came from the love of food and a love of the culture of Spain and communal eating – eating a little and often – and the energy you experience when you’re in a tapas restaurant. Toro & Ko is inspired by multiple cultures, not just where we live or where we open a restaurant but from our travels.

“We like to learn the rules of what Spanish food is and then change them to make the food our own, whether it’s inspiration from Dubai or Jordan or Bangkok or even Spain. We’re always tweaking and changing things as we travel – our inspiration comes from everywhere.”

“Toro & Ko is inspired by multiple cultures, not just where we live or where we open a restaurant but from our travels. We like to learn the rules of what Spanish food is and then change them to make the food our own, whether it’s inspiration from Dubai or Jordan or Bangkok or even Spain” – Jamie Bissonnette

Last month, Toro & Ko opened its doors on Dubai’s City Walk at The Square, a licensed area of the development, which is also home to names such as the Galvin Brothers (Galvin Dubai) and Virgilio Martínez Véliz (Lima Dubai), whom the Boston pair are “honoured” to sit alongside.

“Toro & Ko brings a fun, energetic vibe,” says Bissonnette. “We take what we do very seriously but we don’t take ourselves very seriously. I think being here with Lima and Galvin and all the other amazing restaurants will be fun.”

In addition to its fast-growing culinary scene, the chefs appreciate Dubai’s “energy”, which is much like that of New York, Boston and Bangkok. “We chose Dubai because the culture here of food is so passionate – it’s a place we wanted to come and explore and be part of and it’s just really exciting,” says Bissonnette.

Toro & Ko City Walk

Toro & Ko City Walk

“We have brands that are very urban-inspired and we love the energy and we always have restaurants in cities where we love the energy,” says Oringer. “Obviously, Boston and New York have great energy, and Bangkok is a huge city with an incredible culinary scene and in Dubai, the love of food and hospitality made it a natural fit.”

The Dubai venue has two floors with a casual upstairs area and space for up to 80 guests, and a ground floor area that seats 100, featuring a Martini bar and communal seating. Although it is similar in size to the New York outlet, Toro & Ko Dubai has more outdoor space, which according to Bissonnette, makes it perfect for enjoying paella in the sun. “You can imagine people sitting on the patio when the weather is nice, eating these amazing paellas and drinking sangria, living that nice, glamorous life of sitting out in the sun with Spanish food,” he says.

One fundamental aspect of Toro is its focus on sustainability and Bissonnette and Oringer are still learning about how to maintain this element of the concept in Dubai and are doing their research through other chefs in the city – including Miss lily’s executive chef Adam Schop, a friend of theirs from New York. While some key ingredients will be sourced from Spain, the chefs are looking to procure locally too.

“Sometimes you don’t want to stifle the creativity of a chef – you want to encourage collaboration instead” Ken Oringer

“Even from Boston to New York, we like to take the influence of different local markets, whether it’s a farmers market or a fish purveyor or something unique to the area,” says Bissonnette. “When we opened in Bangkok, we didn’t think we should import every ingredient from Spain or the States so we decided on a certain olive oil and a certain rice, but other than that, we wanted to be able to use local products to express the Spanish spirit of tapas in that area.

“It’s the same thing here in Dubai – we’ve come up with the idea of using certain spices and ingredients but then we will find new things we want to express on the menu.”

An asset to the team is head chef Oscar Poquet Bigord, who has been working in the region for the past eight years and comes from two hours north-west of Barcelona. “He has more energy than anyone I’ve met in my life and a passion for food, so it’s great to have someone else on the team that’s like-minded,” says Bissonnette.

Toro & Ko

Toro & Ko

The pair appreciate creative collaboration, so while Chef Bigord went to the States to train with the team, he has also been encouraged to pursue his own strong vision for the menu. Oringer comments: “We decided some dishes were classics so we would keep them but Oscar had a vision of putting his stamp on it, so we worked together and we changed some things and even have some dishes we’re going to put on the menu in the States, so it’s just been a beautiful collaboration – he’s a really creative guy. Sometimes you don’t want to stifle the creativity of a chef – you want to encourage collaboration instead,” he adds, highlighting Asado de Huesos (roasted bone marrow with radish citrus salad and oxtail marmalade) and Pulpo a la Plancha (grilled octopus), among the signature dishes on the menu. “The octopus is our number-one best-seller in New York and one of those dishes I’ve never gotten sick of eating,” he says.

Now that Toro has made its Middle East debut, the question is whether there is room for Coppa or Little Donkey, or perhaps another Toro in the region?

“Right now, I think we’re just taking it one step at a time,” comments Bissonnette.

“Coppa is a very special, unique little neighbourhood restaurant and Little Donkey is just a year old so it’s not even at the ‘terrible twos’ yet! But who knows what could happen in the future? I would like more reasons to be in the Middle East because I truly love it here.”

Oringer adds: “Working with people like Meraas really gives us an amazing opportunity. You never know – hopefully things go well here and we’ll see what happens.”

In the meantime, the chefs are firmly focused on getting Toro Dubai up and running and will be back in November for the official launch of The Square at City Walk.


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