DISSECTING THE DISHES Sukle. [Photo by Richard McCaffrey]
Why did we recently invite four of the most talented young chefs in Providence to Phoenix headquarters?
Was it because that specific day — Monday, July 7 — was the second in 2014 Providence Restaurant Weeks, when local chow spots, from Andino’s to XO, lure in guests with prix fixe deals? Was it because one of the chefs we invited — Ben Sukle, of downtown’s mind-shattering, birch — was recently named a 2014 James Beard Foundation Semifinalist in the “Best Chef: Northeast” category? Was it because, last year, Sukle’s pal and fellow Johnson & Wales alum, James Mark, landed a Boston Globe review for his restaurant, north, that began, “Maybe once a year, if I’m lucky, I get to eat somewhere that blows my mind. I just got my taste for 2013”? Or was it because we’re simply still glowing from 2012, when Providence was ranked ahead of New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, and 30 other cities, as Travel + Leisure’s top American food city?
Whatever the reason, it happened: we sat down with local culinary masterminds in our conference room for the closest thing to a “roundtable discussion” we could muster, given everyone’s hectic schedule. (They came two by two: a pair of chefs at 9 am and another pair at 4 pm.) Afterward, we sliced, diced, and boiled down those conversations to serve them up here, for your enjoyment.
But first, let’s meet some chefs, shall we?
NAME | Cesin Curi
AGE | 30
RESTAURANT | Los Andes Restaurant (903 Chalkstone Ave)
JOB TITLE | Owner/executive chef
YEAR HE JOINED RESTAURANT AND/OR YEAR IT WAS FOUNDED | 2009
HOMETOWN | Providence
SIGNATURE/SEASONAL DISH | Ceviche Clasico. Fresh diced tilapia, squid, clams, P.E.I. mussels, all lightly tossed with cilantro pureed garlic, rocoto, and cooked in fresh squeezed lime juice, served with sweet potatoes, cancha, choclo, and a shot of leche de tigre.
NAME | Kaitlyn Roberts
AGE | 31
RESTAURANT | Easy Entertaining Inc. sustainable catering and the Cafe at Easy Entertaining (166 Valley St)
JOB TITLE | Proprietor and executive chef
YEAR SHE JOINED RESTAURANT AND/OR YEAR IT WAS FOUNDED | Catering company founded in 2006. Cafe opened fall of 2012
HOMETOWN | Barrington
SIGNATURE/SEASONAL DISH | Angus burger. Blackbird Farms (Smithfield, RI; beef ground in house), served with local greens, homespun roasted garlic aioli, Foremost seeded brioche bun, and homemade sweet heat pickles.
NAME | Benjamin Sukle
AGE | 29
RESTAURANT | birch (200 Washington St)
JOB TITLE | Chef/owner
YEAR HE JOINED RESTAURANT AND/OR YEAR IT WAS FOUNDED | 2013
HOMETOWN | Middletown, Pennsylvania
SIGNATURE/SEASONAL DISH | Rhode Island Beef Tartare, wrapped in kohlrabi with crispy rye, chives, and sea rocket capers.
NAME | James Mark
AGE | 27
RESTAURANT | north (3 Luongo Memorial Sq) and north bakery (70 Battey St)
JOB TITLE | Owner, cook, garbageman, electrician, plumber, tech guy, porter, driver.
YEAR HE JOINED RESTAURANT AND/OR YEAR IT WAS FOUNDED | 2012
HOMETOWN | Branchburg, New Jersey
SIGNATURE/SEASONAL DISH | Roasted striped bass with sugar snaps, coconut milk, lime dashi.
Ben: I came up here for school. And while I was in school — I believe I was a junior or sophomore — I got a job at what was La Laiterie, which then became Farmstead, which became null and void. And while I was in school I got promoted to chef de cuisine. And that’s a managerial position; that’s something that you can build a life off of. I think I was just 21 when that happened, maybe 22.
You’re not just a line cook anymore when you have that. There were people that answered to me. [And] all of a sudden when I got that position, I got these relationships with farmers. I’ve been building these relationships that I have right now with farmers since I was 21; that’s eight years. They bend over backwards for me and I want to do it for them.
Cesin: Well, I was raised here. Los Andes was started in the basement of a convenience store. My father told me, “You can do whatever you want.” And he used to have this convenience store. And I said, “All right.” At the time we didn’t have the funding to rub two dimes together. I said, “Dad, can I borrow your basement?”
James: Why we have a restaurant up here in the first place [and] why I fell in love with New England, is because the product is so beautiful up here and the access to it is so easy. You have the greatest shellfish and seafood you have ever seen in your entire life, way better than anything I ever used in New York City, and it’s all less than $5 a pound. That’s amazing.
Scup, striper, bluefish, quahogs, littlenecks, mussels, oysters — everything. I buy my oysters in Galilee. I love going down there. I love the fact that Galilee, while everyone looks at it like, “Oh, Champlin’s! And George’s! The ferry!” It’s [also] one of the largest commercial fishing ports on the East Coast. And you go down to the part of the docks that no one goes to and it’s working men — fishermen — and they’re grumpy and it’s fine, it’s great, it’s industrial. I go down there in the middle of winter, too, when there are no tourists and it’s stark and it’s beautiful. It’s a really nice experience.
And it’s nothing crazy. It’s not like I’m going out to the woods and foraging or anything. I’m going down to a dock and buying some oysters and putting them into a cooler in my car and then bringing them back. But, still, I know the guy who harvested all my oysters.
TRADITION AND TEXTURE Curi. [Photo by Richard McCaffrey]
CAN YOU TELL ME A BIT ABOUT THE LIFESPAN OF AN ITEM ON YOUR MENU?
Kaitlyn: I have a flavor journal on my phone. So, if I have an interesting combination of [flavors], I’ll be like, “What kind of pepper is that?” And then [I think], “How can I use that?”
It used to be an actual book, but then that got lost, because chefs lose everything. So, now it’s on my phone, which
I only lose like every 15 months. But it’s virtual; now, it’s on a cloud, so I can’t lose it.
Just Sunday, I was down in Little Compton at my in-laws and they’re growing pumpkins in the back. [And] the flowers are out now, so I took those and we stuffed them and breaded them and fried those pumpkin flowers. Right before the little pumpkin starts to form, you can pluck the flower and rinse it and stuff it. It’s a very Italian thing. It’s common with zucchini flowers.
We had also picked fennel. So we made a fennel pesto and we used a little honey and all this kind of stuff, and so I was like, “I really like that.” So I wrote that down. That’ll be on the fall menu, somehow.
Ben: We do a lot of “R & D.” For dish development now, what we do is, on our last day of the week, which is Monday, after service we have a meeting. . . and all the guys in the kitchen are required to come with at least two full dish ideas. And so we sit down after service . . . [and] we just dissect the dishes. It’s never like, “Yeah! That sounds great!” It’s like, [someone] says a dish [and] I’m like, “Well how are you plating that? How are you picking that up? What sense does that dish make?”
And then what we do, since we’re closed Tuesday [and] Wednesday, we come in Wednesdays and from noon until whenever, we do those dishes and we make those dishes. Never, on Wednesdays, is the dish good to go. We take it, and if it’s worth going on, we do it the next day; it gets tweaked. I would say 10 to 15 percent of the dishes actually make it through, [of] the ones we come up with.
Cesin: Thursdays are my days. . . [when] we offer the weekly specials, the “Chef’s Select” menu. So usually Monday and Tuesday you start thinking or you start hearing [from] the produce [vendor]; they’ll call you up and be like, “Listen, this is what we have. This is what’s going on.” And then you start thinking, “OK, how can I use these? How can I give it a Peruvian or South American twist?”
And then Wednesday you start talking and getting the products in. And then Thursday is the “Go!” day, where everything you accumulated in your mind, you have to literally put it on a plate. And then. . . all the prep guys are waiting, [saying] “OK, Chef. What are we gonna do? Are we gonna slice the prosciutto? Are we gonna prepare the almonds? Are we gonna do . . .?”
The way that I see it, as a chef, is almost as a musician. A musician is looking to come up with this album that’s going to rock everybody’s world. The same thing goes with the food. For example, I [recently] ran a couple specials where it was a rack of lamb with some sort of crazy salsa that we did. And the first one that went out, the server comes back to the kitchen, “Chef, table so and so wants the same order to go. They loved it so much, they want it to go.”
To me, right there, there’s no award, no prize big enough [to top that]. [You have] the biggest smile you can have on your face when you hear those magical words.