Culinary capital

How Providence became a haven for ingredient-driven chefs

By and
Sports Editor and University News Editor
Thursday, May 21, 2015
This article is part of the series Commencement Magazine 2015

James Mark is no stranger to the best kitchens in the world. He’s cooked in North Wales and Southeast Asia. He helped open _ Michelin-starred restaurant Momofuku Ko in New York City and its spinoff bakery, Momofuku Milk Bar. But since returning to Providence to open North in 2012, the Johnson and Wales University graduate said, “I would rather cook here than anywhere else in the world.”

Providence may be relatively small and less wealthy, but it is home to a thriving restaurant community unlike any other on the East Coast — and perhaps in the country. It’s all here: an influx of talented chefs from culinary hubs like Boston and New York looking to get closer to both their ingredients and their customers; a legacy of Italian cuisine entrenched in Federal Hill; the fresh faces coming out of JWU’s culinary institute. And residents and visitors alike have taken note, coming to count on the city’s restaurants for world-class quality with local flair.


Old school
Providence has established itself as a hotbed of Italian cooking. Classic trattorias populated Federal Hill for the better part of the past century, while nearby gourmet pizza-griller Al Forno has garnered national attention ever since its 1980 debut for its unique blend of old-world traditions and its own culinary twist.

“Importing parmesan into the state was hard. Importing real mozzarella into the state was hard,” said Al Forno’s chef and co-owner George Germon. He recalls having to drive to Boston with his wife and co-owner Johanne Killeen in the restaurant’s early days to buy imported pasta in their quest for high-caliber ingredients.

“It was nearby, it just wasn’t in the state,” he added.

Outside of the red-sauce sphere, Deborah Norman opened Rue de L’Espoir in 1976 as a quiche-and-crepe dinner restaurant. Since then, it has evolved into an American bistro with a focus on high-quality ingredients in standard preparations — think a peppercorn-encrusted steak accompanied by classic, thin frites or a duck confit risotto, the crispy skin standing in contrast against the creamy risotto and the edamame providing an innovative twist.

“I have customers who have been coming in for so long that I did their wedding and now I’m doing weddings for their kids or rehearsal dinners or baby showers,” Norman said. “This place really is a neighborhood restaurant.”


Rhode Island-raised
But Mark’s restaurant does not follow this traditional model. Instead, North is one of many that typify a new trend in the Providence food scene. These establishments are best described as serving New American cuisine, incorporating different influences and rotating ingredients to create a unique style.

Though dishes like its enticing chicken ramen could pigeonhole North as yet another Asian-fusion restaurant, chefs also whip up options like charred pork with cauliflower soaked in a tangy apple-butter sauce.

Restaurants of this style are alike in their use of locally sourced ingredients — instead of shipping vegetables in from California or meats in from the Midwest, many work with local farms to meet their needs. The result: a meal you couldn’t get anywhere else.

Founded in 1990, New Rivers was one of the first restaurants to fit this archetype. Owner and head chef Beau Vestal was hired in 2000 — on the day of Brown’s commencement ceremony — and was made executive chef in 2003. He ranks among the pioneers of the farm-to-table movement in Providence, though he initially followed that model not because it was trendy, but because it made the most sense.

“We didn’t really source stuff locally because it was a fad. It just worked out because our friends were all farmers and the food quality was way better,” Vestal said. “We just organically began sourcing locally out of ease and convenience and quality, not really knowing in those days that — fast forward to 2008 or so — this whole farm-fresh-restaurant thing turned into a trend.”

Now, New Rivers’ constantly rotating menu continues to embrace the farm-to-table ethic with a seasonal spin. A recent visit yielded a plate of seared sea scallops dusted with a salty sourdough crunch and sparsely garnished with asparagus and baby beets in yellow and deep plum red, while the sirloin burger arrived topped with additions such as lightly sauteed mushrooms and tart aioli.

“Farm-to-table was a trendy thing to say, but I think that in Rhode Island, we’re really able to achieve that because we’re such a small state that the farmers can actually get to us,” said Ellen Slattery, proprietor of Gracie’s. “We’re so fortunate here that if we need to actually go to the farm, we can do that.”

An important part of this style of cooking’s success is access to resources, and as the smallest state, Rhode Island fits the bill. “Rhode Island is one of the only states that has so much land that is still allocated to just farmland,” said Jake Rojas, owner of Tallulah’s on Thames in Newport and Tallulah’s Taqueria, a hole-in-the-wall Mexican eatery in Providence and Jamestown that dishes out decadent twists on classics like a quesadilla topped with cotija cheese, radishes and tangy guacamole and authentic carnitas tacos finished with salsa verde and still more radishes.

Salted Slate’s Head Chef Benjamin Lloyd charts the growth of the local food movement from California in the mid-nineties, sweeping eastward and evolving as it moved. By the 2000s, to make New American food came to mean that “you were drawing from what was around you, but you were also influenced by what was going on in the rest of the world,” Lloyd said.

Many of these new restaurants are “not really setting new trends but getting back to old ways of doing things, meaning whole animal butchery and sourcing local seafood, sourcing local agriculture,” Rojas added.

Even with a palate operating within mostly local parameters, the opportunities for creativity are endless. “Our restaurant uses the same vegetables as Chez Pascal or Gracie’s or Birch, but they’re all made in a different style,” Vestal said. “So our guests now have an opportunity to enjoy asparagus, but they can see, ‘What’s Beau doing with it? What’s Ben (Sukle, head chef) at Birch doing with it? What’s James at North doing with it?’ There’s an ingredient out there that you can see eight different ways at eight different restaurants. It’s fun.”


Providence and proud
Local ingredients aside, chefs attest that the culture and camaraderie of the city of Providence make it a great place to live and work.

“Rhode Islanders are very fiercely not Bostonians and not New Yorkers, and that appeals to me because this city was founded on shunning stuff from Boston, shunning New York and doing our own thing,” Vestal said.

Providence’s restaurant scene is different from that of even nearby Boston, which is much more competitive, said Matthew Gennuso, chef and co-owner of Chez Pascal. He added that Providence restaurants exist at the intersection of great food and great service.

A father of two, Lloyd believes that what makes Providence so attractive to chefs and their customers alike is its affordability and sense of community. In larger cities, he said, “to be able to raise kids and not be in an apartment, you’ve got to make a million bucks a year,” citing Chicago as an example. “People come here to be here.”

“People will go to those places first and then settle … where you can lay roots, be a part of a community, raise kids, have a meaningful interaction with everyone around you and have it not be the rat race of a large city,” he added.


From classroom to kitchen
Brown plays an essential role in the restaurant community — a core element of the clientele comprises students and faculty, and for many restaurants, Commencement Weekend is the busiest weekend of the year. Restaurants cater to the adventurous and enthusiastic captive audience that is Brown’s student body, according to many of the restaurateurs.

“The Brown community is probably the most viable resource that we have to continue keeping that fire lit, keeping young people excited about the cool things that are happening food-wise in the city,” Rojas said.

The city also benefits from the presence of JWU, one of the country’s foremost culinary schools — Mark, Vestal, Slattery and Birch’s Benjamin Sukle are all graduates. Students spend time as interns in local restaurants, and alums often stay in the city after graduation.

But as much as the school gives to the broader culinary scene, the restaurateurs give back. “I’ll go into the schools and we’ll give talks to people,” Sukle said. “We’re very much up to date on the trends happening in restaurants, what’s happening in new restaurants, what are big up-and-coming names.”

The close ties between the restaurants and JWU help keep graduates in Providence where “they can flourish” and ensure the city’s next stage of culinary development, he added.

“We have five colleges here … which generally keeps our clientele and guest count a little bit younger,” Sukle said. “Food has become cool. Eating out has become cool in the way that music has become cool. It’s another hobby of people — they want to try new things, they want to listen to new music, they want to see new art, they want to eat new foods.”

As for what’s next for the Providence culinary scene, “It’s constantly changing,” Mark said.

Restaurateurs today are “very into the options that we have out there of sourcing ingredients. … It doesn’t have to be a traditional sit-down, white-tablecloth restaurant anymore,” Rojas said.

“I think those days are kind of done,” he added. “Chefs are super excited about not only the product but about this new renaissance, the changing of the guard.”

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