Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one year anniversary.
Benjamin Sukle and Michael Lester at The Dorrance. [Photo: Massart Photography]
Anticipation ran high last fall in Providence, Rhode Island, when The Dorrance opened downtown in an ornate bank-turned-restaurant space — all marble and stained glass and gold leaf. It was a unique space for a restaurant, with an impressive roster of local talent both behind the bar and in the kitchen. Local media never failed to cite chef Benjamin Sukle's stint as a stagiare at Noma in Copenhagen as well as his years at the well-loved La Laiterie. Over the course of the year, the restaurant lost (and rebuilt) its kitchen staff, courted Rhode Island diners, and earned accolades from the James Beard Foundation, Food & Wine, and Bon Appétit.
Here now, Sukle and The Dorrance co-owner Michael Lester reminisce about year one at The Dorrance and how they won over the good people of Providence.
So how did the concept come about?
Michael Lester: The concept really drives from the space. It's a very unique space and we had all worked here in a previous life. It was built in 1901, originally as a bank. There's 30-foot ceilings with gold-plated leaf, a real strong Victorian kind of feel to it; stained glass windows from all the major banking families. And there's a huge vault in the space. It was marble pretty much from floor to ceiling. Every time you walk through the turnstile you're reminded of the craftsmanship and the dedication of the people who built the space over a hundred years ago.
Above the turnstile, there's a sculpture by Daniel Chester French — who also created the Lincoln Memorial and the Minute Man of Boston — of Roger Williams, founder of Providence, Rhode Island. He's sitting with the local Narragansett Indian chief, but they're looking different ways. That kind of shows how they agreed to talk and to sit at the table, which is amazing because eventually it became a restaurant, a meeting place.
How long did it take to open?
ML: It took about a year and a half when we started, but like I said, the timing of the situation [was incredible], where all of our key employees that weren't available or weren't even a thought [at first] all came together. I think we were pretty blessed because of that.
And can you tell me a little more about how your hiring did come together?
ML: Ben obviously had a great history and resume. Initially, the plan was to focus on wedding events and to have a simple kind of tapas-style menu, but then Ben was looking to open his own restaurant and we were looking for a chef. When he came aboard, the concept really changed. We gave him full rein of the kitchen to do whatever that he wanted to do because we realized the talent that was available. We didn't want to try to push our vision on what it would be.
And our bar program, I call them the Mount Rushmore of Providence bartenders. We have such an amazing talent of young mixologists and bartenders that [have a] great camaraderie and great dynamic between them all and really help to drive our bar business. As much as we're known for great cuisine, we also have a great reputation for our cocktails.
Lester and Sukle behind the bar at The Dorrance. [Photo: Massart Photography]
How did menu planning go?
Benjamin Sukle: Menu planning was definitely a learning curve. I was hired and then [had] essentially a month and a half to renovate the kitchen for an a la carte service and plan a menu. So the menu started off very, very basic. We went through the hiring. Everything was all fun when you're just prepping and don't have a service. Then when we finally opened, we lost all of our staff. It was just my sous chef and I working the line for a couple of weeks. We're still young and dumb enough not to dumb down the menu. We're just kind of like, "Well now we just have to work even longer."
And now you know, you look at it from a year later, we have more than a fully staffed kitchen. There's only one other guy that's been there since we opened and that's my sous chef. But we've had a crew that's been consistent for about six months now. And the menu is really starting to fall into a groove as far as how we play off of each other's strengths and what's available and seeing how we can form our niche into the dining scene in Rhode Island.
So how did the opening go for the restaurant?
ML: We were very cautious when we opened because I've seen so many restaurants open and be successful or not that we had to wanted to make sure that we had all of our ducks in a row. And that's why Ben's menu was very concise, so that we could always put out the best product. Same thing with the bar. We really wanted to make sure that we came out of the box really strong and we made a great impression.
You said that you wanted to push the boundaries for restaurants in Providence. How have you gone about doing so?
BS: We have in a sense that we don't necessarily offer what everyone else is offering. I hate to riff off of Wylie Dufresne but it's presenting familiar sounding things in a different way. We're not using outlandish ingredients. We're using what Rhode Island has to offer. Sometimes there's things like fluke liver, but it's what Rhode Island produces and it's delicious. And we have a tasting menu now, which has gotten pretty good feedback from the customers.
When did you add the tasting menu? You didn't have that when you opened, right?
BS: No. That tasting menu got added I would say two months ago. We could have offered it in the beginning, but the staff wasn't ready. And we didn't want to just haphazardly jump into a tasting menu just to have one. That was just a matter of bringing the staff up to speed, getting other menus set in place. We wanted to start things on the menu that people really wanted before we got to go into the more creative side with the tasting menu.
And how were the early local reviews?
ML: We've been showered with amazing press from the Providence Journal to Rhode Island Monthly. All the local press has been super supportive of us. And then the New York Times came in and did a weekend in Providence and we were prominently featured in that. We have a core of Rhode Islanders, but we also draw really well from Boston and from New York and from around the country. It just happened kind of organically, which was really cool because we're competing against a lot of big name corporate type restaurants that have huge budgets on advertising. And I just feel like we're doing so much of a better job.
I know your goal was kind of a high end casual restaurant.
ML: Yeah because we are in a small city. We don't have the clientele to be able to keep it super high end. And the way the economy is, Rhode Island has the second largest unemployment of the country. So, we want to make sure that we keep it accessible.
Have you been able to keep the prices down as planned?
BS: I would say yeah and no. That's a tough one for sure. The perception of value is huge especially in downtown Providence. The people of Rhode Island want the most bang for their buck and we try to offer that. You look at our menu and the most expensive thing we have is $28, but it can go as low as $6. You want to have as many options where you can go low end to high end with it. But what's tough is that you have to worry about your overhead cost. How many options do you want to give on the menu? Well that depends on how many people you have in the kitchen and how feasible that is.
It's tough to look on it as far as the broad scale. It's more like this day to day kind of thing. It's one of those things that kind of keep me up at night as far as being able to have that level of creativity and being able to say "well we want to put this on the menu" and do it [rather than], "well, this is what I can afford, now what can I do with it?"
What lessons have you learned throughout the year?
BS: Well, for the menu, you just have to listen to people. I can try and explain why I don't have these things or I can put something that people want on the menu. We put a pasta on the menu because it's what people want. It's all listening to what the public has to say and filtering through what's complete bullshit and try to figure out what's really good.
Is there anything that you wouldn't change?
ML: With the bar, we definitely reined back a little bit as far as we still have those ingredients that people haven't heard of, but we also have some safe options. If you like that [drink], we can make this for you. And you know, they turn around and they really love it and then they become advocates for us. It's really been one year, but I feel like we've grown ten years' worth of time in the restaurant years. It's amazing how we're thriving right now.
BS: On top of that, the people of Rhode Island are awesome. When they accept you, there's no better crowd of people you want on your side than Rhode Islanders. If you can really do it here, that's one hell of a hurdle.
ML: The loyalty factor is very high. They're very skeptical to try something new, but once they are comfortable with it and they own it, then they're very, very loyal.