Farm to Table: Benjamin and Heidi Sukle of birch
Ask Benjamin Sukle, chef and co-owner of birch in Providence, why he wanted to open a restaurant in Rhode Island and the answer couldn’t be more simple: product.
Product is Sukle’s all-encompassing term for everything that goes into the dishes he’s preparing. Seafood, produce, meat, dairy, you name it, Sukle loves what Rhode Island has to offer.
“Rhode Island has incredible product,” Sukle said, “and working with that product gave us opportunities to cook things in a different way.”
Different is a word often used to describe Sukle’s food. Some people take that word and try to redefine it by describing the food at birch as if it’s from a food lab or cutting-edge, or avant-garde, but it’s not any of those things. It’s different—meaning, simply, it’s not what you might expect.
He features daily bycatch from Point Judith that on a given day might sit atop charred cabbage, sweet corn and miso. A first course gives star status to the lowly carrot, resting whole on an earthenware plate with quahogs, toasted seeds, yarrow and almond. Sukle won’t go so far as to say his food is new, rather he professes to reimagining dishes, not reinventing. While there is a new-ness to the style and structure of birch, there’s a lot of familiarity too.
So where better to open something different, yet familiar, than in a city where people refer to birch as “the place where Tini used to be”? Like the food, you may recognize the space, though it too has changed. The dining room is still communal. It’s warm and relaxing with comfortable, supportive stools and a beautiful bar made of birchwood, of course. It’s an 18-seat restaurant, the right space that Sukle and his wife and co-owner, Heidi, general manager of the restaurant, were looking for.
“It had gotten to the point where Heidi and I felt we had a strong enough voice that we could strike out on our own,” Sukle said. “We could take that leap of faith. It’s a matter of experiences. You mature, you encounter more, you see things you like and that builds your vision.”
Part of their vision goes back to the great Rhode Island product.
Almost everything that comes out of the kitchen, including some of the cocktail ingredients, has its origins in Rhode Island or neighboring New England states. Thankfully that’s not terribly new or unique to restaurants here in Rhode Island. Like most things at birch, it’s a small piece of a bigger puzzle.
If you ask Sukle, or one of his cooks, where something comes from— and you certainly have the opportunity as most dishes are delivered to diners by members of the kitchen staff—you’ll get all the answers you’re looking for. With a dish of apples from Rocky Brook Orchard, cauliflower from Steve Ramos and tarragon from Bristol-based Indie Growers, the menu simply mentions ingredients, not a list of farms.
It’s meant to be assumed birch is going to have the best local ingredients, and that’s part of what makes birch work. At the same time, any restaurant needs to keep its food costs within a certain range to stay in business, especially a restaurant that only seats 18 people. Sukle serves some of the finest food in the state while maintaining an affordable price-point. Birch’s $46 four-course prix fixe may be one of the better deals around for food of this quality. Part of the affordability goes back to those incredible ingredients.
“Indie Growers is a good example,” Benjamin Sukle said. “We use particular items from Lee Ann [Freitas], and by buying all of it, we get a better rate. She grows some foods specifically for us. Working together with farmers is vital.” The symbiosis at work here is well thought out. Indie Growers can grow a set crop knowing that there’s a guaranteed buyer in Sukle, and Sukle in turn has a guarantee of having that produce available to him when it’s in season. The fact that one of the region’s talented farmers is providing to one of the region’s top new restaurants may even be secondary to the business decision in this case but it helps Sukle deliver the best to birch’s patrons.
“The smallest thing is your biggest thing,” Benjamin Sukle said. “You have to look at the restaurant as a whole. No one part is better than another. You need good product and good hospitality. The food can be the least of it. You work within your means.”
The food may be that paradox that Sukle describes: The smallest thing and the biggest thing—it’s the whole experience at birch that draws people in. It’s what makes a profit, and perhaps that’s what makes a good restaurant. At least that’s the answer the Sukles are trying to find.
“We’re not even six months old yet,” he said. “We’re still evolving. Stick to what your values are but also be willing, when needed, to change how you approach your business.”
“Then ask me in 10 years,” he said with a smile, as he went back to his work, preparing something different.
200 Washington St., Providence, RI 401.272.3105 • birchRestaurant.com