Executive Chef Rich Silvia of the White Horse Tavern
Moving a 344-Year-Old Public House Forward, All While Maintaining Tradition
Many are the chefs who strive to make history. Few are the chefs who get to be a part of it.
It’s clear to Rich Silvia, executive chef of the historic White Horse Tavern in Newport, that each day he shows up for work, he has an unsurpassed responsibility that differs from any other chef coast to coast. He leads the kitchen at America’s oldest operating tavern.
The White Horse Tavern opened in 1673, welcoming early American movers and shakers—Colonists, British soldiers, Hessian mercenaries, pirates, sailors, even founding fathers—to gather, drink, discuss their day and, maybe, trade secrets. Though Silvia was born and raised just 10 minutes away in Newport’s Fifth Ward neighborhood, the White Horse seemed a world away.
“If you didn’t have money, you didn’t come here,” he recalls. If his academic record was any indication, it didn’t look like he’d be a regular there in the future either.
“I was on the verge of quitting school in 10th grade,” Silvia says. “I just hated school.”
Rogers High School had a proven vocational program, and the two chefs who led the culinary curriculum took Silvia under their wing.
“Algebra wasn’t for me but they made it understandable. Instead of X, Y and Z, it was flour, water and yeast, or flour, water and sugar. That made sense to me and I said, “I’m going to give this a shot.’”
Like many chefs, Silvia started as a dishwasher. Soon he’d land local jobs at places like Anthony’s Seafood, now in neighboring Middletown, where his skill set expanded to retail and wholesale help. Then he got his hands on raw product, cutting fish, and finally, got behind the line for the first time at the Officers’ Club at Naval Station Newport. He found his stride and went on to earn associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Johnson & Wales University.
“Three weeks in, I got a tattoo of the school’s initials on my arm so every time I looked down, I would remember why I was there.”
Early in his career, he joined the White Horse Tavern as a sous chef, but soon he was courted by other restaurants with the promise of full kitchen autonomy: executive chef. After some years, the restaurant he always esteemed as Rhode Island’s “brass ring” asked him to return.
“One of my immediate goals as chef at the White Horse was to make it more approachable,” Silvia says. “At the time , the financial markets were in the tank. We had to adjust a bit and go a little more casual to survive,” he says. Then-owner Paul Hogan, Silvia says, was instrumental in the adjustment, agreeing they had to reduce menu prices and diversify their culinary offerings. When restaurateur and hotelier Jeff Farrar took over ownership in early 2014, the two found they had an undeniable synergy.
Together, they committed to further updating the White Horse Tavern menu and philosophy. It began with relationships—relationships with the entire staff, the farmers and fishermen, his customers and the community. Consider, for example, the bond Silvia now shares with Will Lord, owner of Rose Hill Heirlooms in Wakefield.
“He grows the best heirlooms in the state, to the point where even our waiters can’t wait for tomato season,” says Silvia. “He probably has 50 different varieties. He’s out there with his pickers picking and he is delivering his product. When he comes in for dinner he’ll visit the kitchen, standing at the end of the line. You can see, as his tomatoes are being plated up, he is so proud, chest all puffed out and a smile across his face.”
It’s important to Silvia that he is more than just a customer to his producers.
“I go out in the fields, I’ll go picking … I’ve fed the goats, I’ve taken my kids out on the farms. I’ll work with local fishermen [like the Brown family in Point Judith]. There is so much more to this industry than just cooking for people. I need to be able to trust that they come through with their commitment to me; and they need to trust that I’m going to respect their product.”
He also volunteers his time with community organizations, such as helping the Norman Bird Sanctuary with their annual brunch fundraiser.
When you’re leading a 344-year-old tavern, there are certain things diners have come to expect. While Silvia says he’d like nothing more than to do away with the beef Wellington and steak frites, they are dishes that are part of the tradition at the White Horse.
“I said, ‘Instead of complaining about it, let’s try and make it one of the most interesting we can do.’”
Tradition is critical at a place that predates the Revolutionary War. Today’s diners are eating in the same rooms as did Benjamin Franklin and Jacqueline Kennedy (and a host of modern-day glitterati) but Silvia is much more interested in the future than the past.
This summer, the rose garden will make room for more vegetable gardens. They will complement the elegant espalier apple whose fruit is harvested and roasted for pork and duck dishes. While he’s proud of the beef from New England Grass Fed on Cloverbud Ranch in Portsmouth; the heritage- breed animals he occasionally gets for special dinners from Newport’s SVF Foundation; and the house-made charcuterie (all house-made pasta, ice creams and gelato too), he’s also studying up on vegan and raw dishes, adding that he wants to create exceptional dining experiences for diners of all palates.
“Everything is thoughtfully done. We discuss ideas all day,” says Silvia. “The culture is really developing.” Here’s to 344 more years.