Chefs

Chefs to Watch 2017: Benjamin Sukle, Birch and Oberlin, Providence, R.I.

Liz Grossman

Owning a restaurant in a state that’s only 50 miles long might seem like a challenge, but to Ben Sukle, small surroundings are an advantage. So much so, he and his wife, Heidi, opened two restaurants in Providence, R.I., just blocks apart. “Birch is a refined experience where you’re getting more than just dinner—you’re seeing how we preserve where we are and how we shape an experience based on where we are,” says Sukle of the 18-seat restaurant he opened in 2013. “And Oberlin is what I love to eat outside of work...raw seafood and pasta. I have my comfort food and a chance to really finesse, focus and concentrate on the experience.”  

The Johnson & Wales graduate has worked everywhere from the burger line at Red Robin to Farmstead with Matt Jennings, but it was The French Laundry Cookbook that fueled his inner cooking conflict. “It was a world that never existed to me, but I still really liked comfort food,” says Sukle. “I wanted to do whole-hog barbecues, but I also wanted to do finesse, and I was torn by that. I wanted to experience doing both.”

And he does both with Birch and Oberlin, taking advantage of Rhode Island’s micro-seasons and local produce for both restaurants. For Birch, Sukle may kayak to a remote inlet to forage sea lettuce and herbs for salted kohlrabi dressed with tofu and spaghetti-like seaweed ogonori for a bite-sized snack to start the four-course prix fixe. “It has this great, chunky texture,” says Sukle. “It’s like tofu gribiche without the egg. It’s got a Caesar salad thing going on—spicy, acidic, crunchy, herby and vegetable-y. Just a good little bite.” Or he’ll scour the Rhode Island coastline for sea rocket, sea beans, agretti, wild bay leaves, wild mustard and beach rose (a fragrant flower he covers in salt or sugar) and source raw royal red shrimp during its short season or duck for a dish with chicory, cherry and black garlic. 

 

“We were trying to find a farmer who would raise ducks. The processing is difficult, but we were fortunate to become friends with a farm called Gnarly Vines, so we finally have ducks, which is exciting,” says Sukle, who ages the ducks, using the legs at Oberlin and the breasts at Birch. “We’ll get whole animals in and figure out what can be used at each restaurant.” But Sukle didn’t always have the luxury of two menus to play with.

“When we opened Birch, I wanted it to be an industry restaurant, and late night and fine dining. I was so afraid of alienating anybody, so we had hushpuppies and pierogi and elaborate plate-ups like carrots with quahog clams. We had this conflicted menu. I was proud of it at the time, but I was fighting myself,” says Sukle. “I realized it’s OK to have a restaurant that’s not for everyone as long as you focus on making the people that are in there very happy and you’re focusing on your strengths.” 

When he opened the more casual Oberlin in 2016 (named for the area in Pennsylvania where his dad grew up), he found a home for dishes from the opening menu at Birch, like pierogi made with a beer-washed raw cow’s milk cheese and hushpuppies with fermented scallions, along with an emphasis on raw seafood, whole cooked fish, pastas and more. And whether diners are in the mood for Birch or Oberlin, Sukle has the same sentiment: “I want to have them not just be eating dinner, but have food they haven’t had before and be extremely comfortable at the same time.”

Q&A with Benjamin Sukle:

How do you describe 
your food?
I think it's simple, clean and complex. I like to take all ego and machismo out of the dish (and my life for that matter) and let the ingredients be why you ordered and enjoyed the food. 

Where do you find inspiration for your menu?
Anywhere and everywhere. I find if I look for inspiration I'll never find it. Just keeping my eyes, ears and taste buds open is best.

What cookbook is most important to you?
I tend to read a cookbook and put it down and forget about it, lately they tend to read like an excellent non-fiction story. The better ones I'll go back and reread from time to time like a Cormac McCarthy novel, but I don't know how any cook my age who can't say The French Laundry Cookbook. Maybe those who had families and grew up in cultures with meticulous recipes and deep deep heritage (to which I am incredibly envious of you) put that above The French Laundry Cookbook. The older I'm getting the more I'm trying to rely on my own experiences to be the most important thing I look back on. 

How do you find calm in your restaurant?
Anytime I talk to the people here about something other than the restaurant is pretty nice. Talking about and looking at pics of say their new babies or pets is usually great medication for me. Anytime someone brings their kid to the restaurant is by far the best therapy. I just turn into one [a kid] with them. 

What career would you have if you weren’t a chef?
Photographer.

What restaurant is your dream stage location?
I'd be doing a pretty big disservice to myself and my staff if I said any other place than where I am now. These are my dream spots and locations. I'd maybe change how my spots were built/designed but I don't think I'm willing to say I dream to be elsewhere. 

What’s your bucket list restaurant to visit?
Elkano, because I'm inspired by their food so I figure I should probably try it myself and make sure I'm justified in my obsession with it.

What is the next cooking challenge or technique you want to try?
Bread. We have one unorthodox sourdough (self-taught baker here) now but I'm too scared to tinker with it. Getting some sort of widened understanding of the process and the feel of it would be so great. 

What do you like to cook on a day off?
When my wife and I open up cans of super nice seafood with my sourdough is pretty tops. Maybe not what we do all the time, but it's usually what we're most excited to eat.