When you've already bagged a couple of James Beard Awards and run successful eateries from Boston to Bangkok, you can pretty much do whatever the hell you want. Which is precisely why when Boston-based chefs and long-time partners in crime Jamie Bissonnette and Ken Oringer opened Little Donkey in Cambridge, they decided to create a neighborhood joint serving exactly what they liked to cook and eat. Billed as a "global tapas place," the resulting restaurant is the kind of kooky amalgamation of ideas that sounds like it might not work, but magically does.
Dishes like miso-banana "toad in the hole" with habanero sausage, matzo ball ramen with schmaltz tare, and kung pao octopus head happily coexist on a menu that's big on fat, flavor, spice, salt, and all the various incarnations of umami. In short, it's a chef's kind of restaurant, but one at which civilians are more than happy to eat. The buzz has been so positive already that The Boston Globe proclaimed it Restaurant of the Year for 2016.
I spoke to Jamie about cross-cultural curried tacos, why Uzbek dishes are underrated, and embarking on epic food quests from the far reaches of the globe to your own hometown.
MUNCHIES: This is your and Ken's first Boston-area restaurant in seven years. Why here and why now? Jamie Bissonnette: When we opened up Toro in New York, we were having a lot of fun down there, but we wanted to make sure everybody in Boston knew that we were committed to here. Boston is our home. I had lived in Cambridge for maybe nine or ten years and loved Central Square. I love how gritty it is. I love how diverse it is. It's just a melting pot of culture. There's a Korean market, a Japanese market, an Indian market, a farmers' market.
Yeah, it's awesome. We talked to some realtor friends and said, "If you have anything that comes up in Central Square, we'd really love to see it." They had this office building that'd never been a restaurant. So we went to look at it and said, "Wow, perfect space, decent bones about it." And that was it. They knew we wanted to do something that would be for the neighborhood.
How would you define Little Donkey? It's a restaurant that embodies the way Ken and I like to eat and drink. We don't take ourselves very seriously, but we take what we do very seriously.
The menu pretty much spans the globe. Where did all of those influences come from? I travel three or four times a year just for fun, whether it's Hong Kong or the Philippines or Jordan or Oman or wherever. Ken travels probably even more than that. He goes to Mexico a lot, Portugal, Spain, Italy. So when we started thinking about what the menu was going to be, we thought, Why not do a restaurant that's not committed to any one kind of cuisine? We needed a name that could identify with anything. That's where we came up with "Little Donkey," because donkeys are that workhorse animal in every civilization. We wanted to be that kind of workhorse restaurant.
From a practical standpoint, how do you merge all those cuisines in one kitchen without creating a big old fusion-y mess? We put a wok station in right next to the plancha, a grill, a fryolator, and a traditional eight-burner range. We have a smoker as well. We said, "Let's write a menu that's like, if you came over to one of our houses and we were gonna cook dinner together, that's what we would do." So it has a little bit of a lot things and luckily it seems to be working out that you can go all over the world in one restaurant and not have it be too confusing.
Is this fascination with different culinary traditions something you picked up on your travels or was it always there? Even as a teenager when I went to culinary school, I would go to the bookstore and buy a book on Korean food or Japanese pickles or Middle Eastern mezze, just because I was so curious about how things went together. Ken and I always had that in common. He had a thirst for knowledge and a thirst for cuisine the same way that I did.
How does that manifest when you guys are together? We used to sit around and talk about traditional French chefs that no modern young cook would even care to know about. We would talk about dishes that, in 1999 in Boston, really, nobody had thought about. We're always saying, "Hey, have you been to…" Sometimes it's places like Lynn, Massachusetts, which is this little working-class town north of Boston. Nobody would ever think to go there for food. And I'll be like, "Have you been to this really awesome Cambodian restaurant there?" And he'll be like, "I know!" Or, "Have you been to Cafe Polonia in Dorchester for really authentic Polish food?"
You know, I grew up in the Boston area and I would never have thought to go on a food quest to those places. We're the type of guys that, if we went to New York for a week, we might never go to a fancy Michelin restaurant. We might spend our entire time trying to find the best som tom or biryani in Queens. I'm obsessed with food from Uzbekistan right now. Did you know that Uzbek cuisine has a lot of those traditional Russian flavors, but because of its proximity to China, they do hand-pulled noodles and have a little bit of Sichuan influence? Their food is something that if you saw it on a menu, you'd say, "That chef just combined Russian, Chinese, and Sichuan. Why?" But then when you go to a restaurant, you realize that that's just their culture and that's natural. It opens up your mind.
That's a really good point. What do some of the other cooks at the restaurant bring to the equation? The most rewarding part of Little Donkey right now is how much the staff love working here. We've got this 22-year-old cook named Andrés from Mexico. He loves food. He has that thirst. He's always researching when he's not at the restaurant. He'll go to Chinatown searching for the best Taiwanese noodles or Vietnamese pho. We'll say, "Why don't you make us some of the typical food you ate growing up? Make it exactly the way you would make it." And then we'll say, "OK, we're gonna make it again, but this time, we're gonna make it with you and add some other seasonings and flavors."
Can you give me an example? We got a pig in and were breaking it down into various things and he made cochinita pibil for tacos. Super-traditional—arbol chilies and all different Mexican flavorings. He made a nice, beautiful mole. Everything was just delicious. The next week, I said, "Instead of just using these dried chilies, which are awesome, why don't we use this red curry?" All those floral notes of lemongrass and galangal in the curry give it a freshness and a brightness. We'd been finishing this dish with cilantro, and instead we decided to use cilantro, mint, and Thai basil buds, which just make it pop. We're running that dish right now.
That sounds delicious. We're learning something from him and he's learning something from us. And now we've got some cool new menu items on at lunch and brunch that we might not have had if we hadn't hired this young, passionate line cook. I think that that's the story of all of our restaurants. Surround yourself with like-minded people and you're able to create all the time.
Thank you for speaking with me.