Interview with Coastal New England Rising Star Chef Benjamin Sukle of birch – Providence, RI

by Sean Kenniff
April 2014

Sean Kenniff: How did you get your start?
Ben Sukle: I started at the Red Robin as a bun loader and dish washer. And a mom-and-pop Italian place near Hersheypark in Pennsylvania. Then I went to Johnson & Wales. I was promoted to chef at Farmstead while I was a senior at J&W.

SK: Do you have a mentor?
BS: I’ve had really good cook-friends that taught me how to cook in kitchens. More and more friends, I feed off of that. These are the cooks I really respect.  

SK: What’s your creative process like here?
BS: We change the menu when stuff runs out or when we have a new idea. Limitations create things. Most nights we sit and think for a couple hours.

We’ve developed a pantry we actually use. We’re not unique to be unique. We use what's available right now. Right now there’s no baby vegetables, just big-ass turnips. I’ve always liked turnips. One thing leads to another, [for the tartare dish] we wrapped them up in beef from the back of the leg. The sourdough chips [garnish] taste like Cheez-Its.  

The beef is local, and there’s also fermented turnip juice, red capers, buds from ramps, grilled chives, and a vinaigrette infused with bones, soy, and sherry. On the bottom there’s egg yolk and aged beef fat. 

We don't use a lot of fat here. I want the ingredients to be something I can list on the menu so people know what they're tasting. We’ve been trying to avoid using wine when cooking, too. But we’re proud of our wine list, from the lightest to the fullest, it’s a lot of fun.  

SK: birch is well designed but compact, how big is your team here on a nightly service?
BS: We have three stations and anywhere from four to six cooks in the back of the house. And my wife, Heidi, in the front of the house, plus two servers. We place a huge emphasis on service. We want to be able to provide the most hospitable environment. 

SK: What's the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
BS: No shows. It comes in waves. It’s a huge challenge to get people to commit. But the hot spots are the corners [of the counter], for four-tops. We do events through Eventbrite and for holidays and graduations we take credit card numbers. And we keep some seats for walk-ins. We’re not in the brains of people who don't show. But we're young, so we give them a gift certificate after we charge them. 

SK: What's your five year plan?
BS: We need to get through year one. We'll be a lot better than we are now. We can only change so much. We’ll continue to develop and get better. We’re educating the clientele. We get a lot of new customers, people coming from Boston and New York.