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TRENDER: Chef Ben Sukle

Tuesday, July 02, 2013


From one of the world's most esteemed restaurants to his own 20-seat establishment, Birch, Providence chef Ben Sukle is one to watch.

Who are the Rhode Islanders leading in arts, fashion, food, and style? They're Trenders, and GoLocalProv offers glimpses of the people you most want to know on the scene. Today’s trender, Chef Ben Sukle, started his journey at Providence’s Johnson and Wales University. From there he went on to work in numerous restaurants, including a stint as a stagaire at Noma in Copehagen, and in Providence’s La Laiterie (now Farmstead) and The Dorrance. He’s now settled in Providence with his wife, Heidi, to open their own restaurant, Birch. The name comes from their youthful love of Pennsylvania Dutch-style birch beer and their “from the roots up” approach to cooking, just as the birch tree grows. As of its opening last week, you can now enjoy fresh, local produce made with Sukle’s special touch, just downtown.

When did you first know you wanted to be a chef?

I had always grown up around good food. Not the story about standing next to mama as she makes dinner, but just really good food, all the time. I also had always loved watching the TV series "Great Chefs of the World" and was always fascinated by how different cooking was in restaurants compared to at home, so when I was in high school I mentioned to my parents that I may want to cook. So, my parents set me up immediately with a couple of restaurants to work in and see if it really was what I wanted. I loved it, and thus, why I'm still doing it.

Who has inspired you and your cooking most throughout your life?

That is really tough to say. I've never had an official mentor take me under their wing, which isn't a bad thing but it just means I've searched out and looked to others to see what they're doing, what inspires them. So, one can say that everyone I've come across, met or heard about has inspired me. I take all that I see, read, listen, and taste and try to make it my own. As I got older I got to be friends with a lot of people who are just insanely talented in the food world and who quite frankly are way out of my little talent-sphere. But being friends with them and seeing how they operate and how they hold themselves to a certain level of excellence inspires me to work twice as hard to hopefully, one day, get to that point.

Together, you and your wife are establishing a new restaurant in Providence called Birch. What sparked this?

The end goal has always been to own and operate our own restaurant. We have been looking for over 3 years at spaces and it just took patience and resources (that's a big one) for us to decide if a particular venture was worth investing in. One thing that can't be understated is that Rhode Island has been such an incredible place to work and grow. It’s also one of the hardest. We're going to work like crazy to make everyone who comes through our doors feel welcomed and has a wonderful experience.

Your previous workplace, The Dorrance in Providence, was much larger than Birch. Why did you decide that your own restaurant would be so intimate (just 20 people)?

To be frank, the cost. To elaborate, it has a lot to do with timing. This particular spot happened to open up while we were looking at spaces and we were approached about the spot. We negotiated to get in the space and now here we are.

Another being that this space allows us to be completely connected with our guests. We can talk and engage with them, which is so much fun.

Are there any dishes on your Birch menu you are particularly excited about and that Providence should look out for? 

PEAS!! Shelling peas are super tasty this time of year. This dish we're doing of with them reads like this:

Warm Buttered Sweet Peas, clams, green strawberries and jasmine rice.

A dish made to promote the freshness and quality of shelling peas at this moment. The peas are lightly simmered in a broth of local clams and the shells of peas, with butter and lemon. buttered jasmine rice, green strawberries and grilled count neck clams. These peas are going to be done for the season soon so it's probably best to come in and have some ASAP!

What was the most important thing you learned at Noma?

The absolute stress, focus, and discipline needed to produce the best product available. It might sound obvious, but until you are there witnessing it and (hopefully) contributing to the team you have to work your ass off. I had never worked so hard in my life just to pick garnish or clean hazelnuts, haha! But that’s awesome!

Another being how important it is to build an environment with your crew in which they want to work just as hard as you. Teamwork makes the dream work.

If you had to choose, what would be your last meal, and who would cook it?

I have two sides to this. Essentially one side being my inner white-trash side, which would have me going to Outback and ordering a double of a bloomin onion and cheese fries and finishing with a dozen Giant (Pennsylvania grocery store) glazed, cream-filled donuts.

The other being my nostalgic side, my grandma's grilled cheese with Campbell's tomato soup, my mom's potato casserole, and Thanksgiving dinner or my wife's stromboli.

What’s the best thing about working in Rhode Island? The most challenging?

The best thing about Rhode Island is the people who come in to dine with and support us, a.k.a our customers. The most challenging being to win them over! But there is no better group of people to have supporting you than in Rhode Island.

Birch’s hours are 5pm – midnight, Thursday- Tuesday (closed Wednesday). They’re located at 200 Washington Street, Providence, RI.

To check it out and plan your next meal, visit http://www.birchrestaurant.com, follow Ben on twitter at https://twitter.com/birchpvd, or call 401 272-3105. 


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