Three weeks ago, chef Benjamin Sukle opened Birch, his first-ever restaurant in Providence, Rhode Island. The opening drew quite a bit of local buzz given the accolades Sukle had earned as chef at La Laiterie and, most recently, The Dorrance. He was nominated for the James Beard Foundation's Rising Star Chef of the Year the same year that The Dorrance was nominated for Best New Restaurant. He's also been twice nominated for Food & Wine's People's Best New Chef award. Drawing on that momentum, Sukle and his wife Heidi have now moved on to open their own modern American and highly seasonal restaurant.
Now that a few weeks have gone by for this first-time chef/owner, Sukle shares what it has been like opening his own restaurant, why his cooks run a lot of their own dishes, and hints at guest chef program he hopes to roll out potentially featuring the likes of The Catbird Seat's Erik Anderson. Sukle also reveals what it's like getting reviewed just weeks into your opening.
So how are you feeling three weeks in? How's it going?
It's going well. I can't ask for much more for what we've gotten so far. We've had awesome responses from some really cool customers. That's something I haven't done before is really get in touch with customers. As far as my jobs beforehand, they were never my place so I was never a fan of going out and taking credit for things that were just not mine.
It's not like I'm going out there and saying, "I did this." We run a lot of the food ourselves, the kitchen does. It's just cool to talk to people. We tell them what the dishes are and they start geeking out. No matter what you've done or how bad it's been so far, it just makes it so worth it to have somebody excited and willing to come into your restaurant multiple times.
Why did you decide to run service that way?
I've always wanted to. It's just a nice connect. You see the good and the bad. And it's important, I think, for all aspects of a restaurant to know that, whether it be front of the house or back of the house. And also the space we're in is so small that it's meant to do that. We have to walk ten feet and we're there. It's so easy, we can just do it, explain it and get back to what we were doing. It's not like we're cooking for 150 people where we have 1,700 different things going on at once. We're crazy busy, but at 18 people you're not too busy to talk to somebody.
Have people been surprised?
Sometimes you get people that look surprised by it. Then there's always the people that want absolutely nothing to do with it. They just want to get their food and be done with it so they don't really care who is in front of them explaining the dish. But a lot of them seem to be really happy that we're coming out there and showing that we care. And we genuinely are truly blown away that they take their time and money to come to our restaurant.
So how is it for you as a first-time restaurateur? Is there anything in particular that surprised you in the process of opening?
I mean, every single day we're learning something new. We're surprised by everything so, by that, nothing is surprising. Every opportunity like that is something to learn from. My wife and I have both been in restaurants for a really long time, and when these things pop up, we know who to call, we know how to deal with them. But then on top of that, this is your dime we're working on, too. Everything's surprising, but everything's exactly how you would expect it to be. It's crazy, it's awesome, it's extremely scary, it's fun, it's all those things.
Yeah as I asked that question I realized it was kind of stupid. But great answer. Also, how was the buildout for you guys? Were there delays?
Everything was here: the guts were here, the plumbing was here, the kitchen was here. It was very unique, what [the space] was beforehand. When something is extremely unique, there's a lot of intricacies you have to clean. There's a lot of little details that required not just painting over. You had to jackhammer the floor because the floor had the name laser-inscribed in marble. Little things like that made it not just like we could walk in and take it over. We wanted a space that you could call whatever you wanted to, but we wanted it to be warm, minimalist and just extremely inviting.
And how was opening day?
As far as the previous opening days I've done, you couldn't have asked for anything better. There were definitely hitches. Fifteen minutes beforehand there was a flood in the basement. But you know that stuff is going to happen. You're ignorant to think you're going to prep and service is going to start, service is going to end, you're going to clean and go home. That's just not going to happen. And it's just how you deal with it. So we had floods in here in the basement, and it was figuring things out like that.
But the opening day was great. We were busy. I believe we did 60 people in an 18-seat restaurant, which was a little much for us. That's a little more than what we were thinking. But we loved it. Thankfully, it was a lot of friends. And, in the weeks until now, it's been really good. People have been extremely excited to be here and we're extremely excited to see them. And I think that has a lot to do with us going out there and asking them how they're doing and genuinely caring about what they feel and if they didn't like something and if we can correct it and make their experience as good as we can.
Has there been anything that you've tweaked?
Absolutely. You can't please everyone, and we know that. But we're going to try our absolute hardest to do so. I guess as far as how we've tweaked things, when people walk in, we don't say, "These are reserved." We tell them which seats are available. Because we do have a lot of reservations and we're only 18 seats. So my wife has a lot to do with this puzzle of where to sit people. And wordings like that have an impact on how people feel. They could come in and we could be like, "No, these are reserved." Or we could be like, "These seats are available." It sounds kind of minimalist, but it makes a big deal of how people receive you and how they look at you.
There's service aspects, there's menu changes that have been tweaked based on feedback. But it's little bits here and there. People that have been coming back — it's funny to say that we have regulars, but we've had people in every single week even more than once a week — they can notice that we've tweaked. They've given us some feedback that's worth looking into. There's things like that for sure.
Have you had any local criticism yet?
Yeah absolutely. I mean, there's always going to be the perception of value debate. Always. As long as there's a public forum for people to tell you that they didn't feel it was right, you're never going to get perfect. You know what I mean? We don't do massive plates. We don't do massive starches. We don't do anything like that. It's very vegetable-forward, it's very clean, it's very healthy in some aspects. But it's a food that if people aren't going to like it then they're not going to like it.
Luckily we've had people that liked it and are coming back. But I would say the main criticism is that it seems a little small for them, even though nothing on our menu is over $18. But I could go blue in the face telling people how much it costs to get these ingredients. We get really incredible ingredients and we go to great lengths to get them. And I spent a lot of resources getting those ingredients, getting them in-house, and preparing them. There's a lot of work that goes into that. But you can only argue with somebody's values so much.
Can you tell me more about your menu development? Especially how it might be different as you're now an owner too. How did your opening menu come together?
Honestly, it's based on seasons. It really is. From every job, I didn't do a complete 180 and change what I've done. Luckily, I've had jobs where I've been in control of these things. It's just been continuing to find my own voice while trying to walk that line of what people want. So it's just been a furthering of where I've come from, quite frankly. I would say, it just tries to get more and more simple as far as the amount of ingredients and trying to make those few ingredients really stand out on the plate.
How about the local press?
Funny you should say that. We're two and a half weeks in and we've already had one come in and review us. That's the best I can tell you. We've had one official review come in and that was really good because they emphasized that we're really new. But it's ironic that you hear people always say, "This is a brand new restaurant. You can't judge it by its first couple weeks." But they're telling you that as you're reading their review on it.
Right, that's weird.
Exactly. Oh whatever. I'd be probably a little bit more verbal about it had they not been very warm and very receiving of us and very complimentary. Which is a testament to the staff that I have working their asses off and us being able to have the proper amount of time to prepare for our first opening. But it's always going to happen that way. Rhode Island's a very small state and there aren't a ton of openings happening. So I understand that it comes with the territory.
Have they run it yet?
No, they haven't run it yet. But the review has already been done. I don't know if it's going to be bad; I don't know if it's going to be good. I feel very fortunate [about] the fact that they're willing to come in and we're worth reviewing. I just hope it's good. Of course that's what you want. Who knows. I can't say I'm going to be more confident in three months than I am now. But I know we're getting better at systems and how deliveries are working and getting all that stuff completely situated. Like I said, I'm very happy that we're worth reviewing in their eyes. But it's just like, "Oh my God, already? Okay."
So since you're still so new, do you have anything more to roll out?
We definitely want to get a tasting menu going on in here. We didn't want to start with one just because we weren't sure. We just wanted to get a menu going and be able to do something that we feel is within our grasp. We've never worked in this space before. None of us have. We're all learning. So we want to start small and we're building up to that point.
There seems to be decent demand for it and we'd love to be able to offer a tasting menu. If we do only tasting menu or we do both, we'll see how it goes. It's all about what our kitchen can handle and what our front of house can handle. But I would say that's the biggest thing. And maybe adding more menu items, the standard stuff that happens to a restaurant when they're beginning to open. You start with what's possible and then you go from there.
Do you have a timeline in mind for it or are you just kind of playing it by ear?
I would say probably in a month to two months. It would be nice to be able to get it before the kids come back to school so that we're familiar with it and we don't introduce something when there's five colleges back in session. When I say tasting menu, I don't look at it as this grandiose, multi-course thing. I just want to offer a five-course menu, the little things we could find that are delicious but there's not enough to put on the regular menu. If we decide to do it in the next month or so, there's no reason we couldn't.
We'll see. We definitely want to start doing some guest chef dinners in here because the space is perfect for something like that where it's extremely intimate where they can get to know the guest chef.
Other local chefs?
Definitely some local chefs. That would be very cool. Some of these chefs that want to do one here, I feel like it's an "I'm not worthy" moment. Kind of like I'm nowhere near good enough to deserve your talent to be in my restaurant. But they want to, and I'm not going to say no.
For instance, right now I'm talking with Erik [Anderson] of The Catbird Seat. And there's some others. I don't want to say anyone yet because nothing's set in stone yet. But Erik has been one of them and there's been some other ones from California and South Carolina.
But yeah, that's definitely something I'd love to start doing as a once-a-month kind of thing because the space is extremely built for something like that. We can do it a day that we're closed, and we can have the guests mingle with the chef without them having to prepare for 600 people or a massive amount of plates. Just 18 people and they can come and meet and talk to the chef and see how a chef from a different part of the country feels towards food.
And finally, does it feel like it's been three weeks?
It definitely feels like it's leaps and bounds from what we started with, for sure, as we figure out the day-to-day operations. Because [there's] all the work that goes into opening and there's all the work that goes into day-to-day, which is a completely different switch of controls and mindset. It's a cliche thing to say, but it definitely does feel like it's been six months.
I hope it feels like it's been four years and six months because if people are still coming in, we're still busy, I cannot ask for anything else. It's the greatest feeling in the world. As I said to you earlier, people that are excited in your restaurant and spending their hard-earned money, it's a fountain of youth. It keeps you going. It makes you wake up.