When chef Benjamin Sukle opened his restaurant Birch in Providence, Rhode Island last Summer, anticipation was so high that published reviews started popping up just three weeks in. "Rhode Island's a very small state and there aren't a ton of openings happening," Sukle told Eater in July 2013. "So I understand that it comes with the territory." And after that first review came many more: In December, globetrotting restaurant blogger John Sconzo named a Birch scallop dish the #6 best thing he ate all year, and Sukle was named a semifinalist for the 2014 James Beard Award for Best Chef: Northeast.
Now, one year after the restaurant's opening, Sukle checks back in to talk about the first year's growing pains and the state of RI dining today. "I think what's very cool about the Providence dining scene is that we're just starting to lose that inferiority complex, like, 'We're just as good as New York. We're just as good as Boston,'" Sukle says. "That's not what we're trying to do. We're trying to distinguish ourselves as far as a Rhode Island culture, Rhode Island dining scene, Rhode Island food scene. And I think that's starting to happen." As Sukle prepares to start Birch's second year, he reflects here on menu overhauls, building trust with diners, and why "good" is a bad word.
What made the timing right to open Birch in Summer of last year?
The timing worked out just based on us waiting. It wasn't a quick thing. My wife and I had been looking for a restaurant for well over three years. We didn't want anything massive, we didn't anything that was too many seats, where we would be threatened every night with the possibility of not having enough sales. We wanted something small, intimate, where we could really connect with the customers. And when this opportunity arose, it was also an opportunity to not have any investors. It was [my wife] Heidi and I, our say or nothing at all for how we wanted to run our own restaurant.
Is there a big fine-dining scene in Providence?
If you're spending one dollar, it's a lot of work on our end to make sure you're not wasting your money.
I would say no. I would say it's very casual. The most famous restaurant, Al Forno, doesn't really take reservations. So that's a very casual way to approach a lot of things, and that kind of set the tone for a lot of years. So no. There's probably not much fine dining. I mean, I really wouldn't consider us fine dining, based on the price, either. I would say if you look at our menu, you see something and you're not necessarily going to know exactly what you're getting. But we're trying to build trust. That's the biggest thing we're trying to do with our restaurant. If you try it, it's delicious, it's not a ton of money. I mean, it's still spending money: I think if you're spending one dollar, it's a lot of work on our end to make sure you're not wasting your money. And it's just building trust and I think that's a lot of what our day-to-day job is.
Birch's box of foraged goodies. [Photo: courtesy Ben Sukle]
How was the menu changed since opening day?
The format of the menu changed three to four months in. We changed it to more of a dining experience because we were trying to be very, very casual. We had a menu divided into small plates and large plates, which is very standard. But with the style of food that we were doing, it was like shooting ourselves in the foot. We would make a course and they would come in and eat and they would be very unsatisfied.
So we changed our menu format to be: Once you order it, it's multiple courses — like four — and you're leaving full and having a full experience while we try to guide you [through the meal]. Again, building that trust in how we're doing this. It's not to make money off of you, but for you to have fun and relaxing and really delicious experience… You get a little bit more of an experience as far as what we want to produce, with the product that's available on Rhode Island. That's been really making us happy. In a year from now, that might drive me nuts, like, "I don't want to do it anymore." But that's why we wanted to open up in our state. If we can do something that's better, we will definitely do that.
Was there maybe a formative service where you decided to change that?
I felt there were certain menu items that were being ignored, and it was my own fault.
When we changed it from the two sections to the four sections, we did that pretty much overnight. It was just like, we had very positive reviews and I didn't like the orders — how people were ordering — because I felt there were certain menu items that were being ignored that were really good, and it was my own fault. It was like, "How do we make this more of an easy decision for the customer? And how do we make them so they're not just here for one bite and gone, and leaving kind of like, 'Oh, I could have eaten a lot more?'" And that was our fault. We didn't think it through before that. So it was pretty much an overnight menu change.
Were you getting feedback from diners that that's what they were experiencing?
Oh my gosh, yes. That's the one thing that's really, really nice about us running food and the servers being right there to talk to. We give you every opportunity to say you don't like it — as long as you are able to stay humble to yourself [as a chef] and able to accept the fact that you can not do something right. We're looking for feedback. You just don't ask, "How was everything?" That's like asking, "How are you?" You're always going to get the word "good." You're always going to get "good" and "good" has become a bad word for us in the kitchen.
In the Birch kitchen. [Photo: courtesy Ben Sukle]
Was there one particular comment you got from a guest that really stuck with you?
You can't play the other man's game. You're always going to lose.
I would say not so much that, as it was strength in numbers. The more you heard it, the more... When you first start off with something — you start your own restaurant — you're very protective and possessive of it. You're like, "This is my idea. How dare you," kind of a thing. But the more you hear it, you're just beating your head against the wall trying to fight it. Like, why are you fighting this? You can have the same menu items, just formatted better: Help guide the customer, guide the guest into having the experience that you want.
You don't want to conform to what everyone else is doing, which we tried to do. You have to try and do something that is unique to you, that you feel is the best experience and... we started to learn that immediately. That was the biggest learning curve. It's like, you want to do your restaurant, you have to have people come in. But you can't play the other man's game. You're always going to lose.
I wanted to follow up with you on the idea of published reviews because when you chatted with us three weeks in, you already had your first critic.
Yeah. It was very quick. Small state. Very small state.
So how was that first review when it ran?
I read a lot into it and I took a lot of it very, very personally. You just learn to trust your instinct and you start to trust the fact that okay: We're busy enough, so we have enough demand where we're booked out enough. Then it's like, "Okay, I can focus on the customers that are there right then." That's our biggest concern. I mean you care about [reviews] because people read those things and those people could come into your restaurant, but you have to focus on the people who are in your restaurant at that time.
Was it frustrating that you were being judged after only being open a couple of weeks?
I'm wasting my staff's time being upset.
It was, but it was like, how much time am I wasting doing that? I'm wasting my customer's time. I'm wasting my staff's time being upset about those things. You are [upset]. But you just have to internalize it and build off of it. You're your own worst enemy, and I certainly am, to myself, and I find myself going, "Oh this is bullshit. We haven't even breathed yet. We're not even open yet, pretty much, and we're getting these reviews." But then, it's not that they were negative reviews. They really, really liked us, but they didn't truly get what we were trying to do yet. And that's fine, and we're still busy. So it's kind of like, I got to get over it.
Raw Rhode Island fluke. [Photo: courtesy Ben Sukle]
When you're working on a dish and you're conceptualizing something new, how do you know know when a dish is finished?
I wish there was a set way to determine if we knew how to do it. I mean, ultimately it goes down to my gut. We have a set system of R&D in the restaurant. The last day of our week, which is a Monday, we have a long meeting after service about dishes, and all the cooks come to the table with ideas for dishes. And on our second day off, on Wednesday, we come into the restaurant and do R&D on those dishes. So, that's how it kind of starts and then it's just refining after that. Rhode Island has extremely small seasons. Our strawberry season was about three weeks. So, you have to work quick and you have to think ahead. And it's general consensus. When we put a dish on, people order it and we ask them a lot of questions about it. We try to get as much feedback as we can. But ultimately it goes back to trusting your gut. It really really is. Does it have all the components that you feel make a dish complete?
Does it feel like it's been a year?
You feel extremely new and extremely vulnerable… If I actually thought about it I'd probably have a nervous breakdown.
Yeah. I would say there's a lot of days where it felt like five, but then you had days where it's like you entire computer system go down or you have refrigeration go down and you don't really know what to do. That makes it feel like, "Oh, shit. We're a first-year restaurant. I don't have set people coming in." It's silly to say, just because I've run kitchens for about seven years. But it's crazy. Once it becomes your responsibility to fix the hood, the refrigeration, and fix those kinds of things, then it's a whole different ballgame. You feel extremely new and extremely vulnerable… If I actually thought about it I'd probably have a nervous breakdown. You just focus on the tasks at hand. You just do it. If you actually thought about it like I said, I would probably never come back. [Laughs]
So what are you plans for the next year? What's coming up for you and the restaurant?
I really wish it was something very, very sexy to say, like, "Oh we have plans for another restaurant right now and striking while the iron's hot." But we're still very much micro-managing ourselves and we need to learn how not to. And how to be able to trust others and being able to really empower ourselves.... There's always ideas going through my head, of what we want to do and what could be good. But I'll wait for those opportunities, because I really need to make Birch the best restaurant that it can be. And I feel like we have a long way to go — not so much we have a long way to go, but there's so much more to do.