At six-foot-something, Chef Ben Sukle presents himself as an intimidating physical presence. He gives off an urban-lumberjack vibe with long-ish hair, wild blue eyes, a beard, and the quintessential flannel/jeans combination. His demeanor exudes a kind of confidence one acquires after having success (two popular Rhode Island restaurants and multiple James Beard Award Nominations). Still, self-assuredness and all, it was hard for the chef to articulate the message he wants to convey when diners eat his food at his restaurants, birch and Oberlin. But after some time, he came up with a simple answer: “I know it’s delicious.”
The son of Pennsylvanian publishers and journalists, Ben was always encouraged to follow his passion, even if it led down a creative, “unstable” path. Their only stipulation was that whatever he did, he made sure he did it well. The chef recalls there was nothing that piqued his interest in high school except for photography, but after contemplating the field he “psyched himself out of it.” Kitchens appealed to the then-teenage Ben because he knew he could find work in the profession at a young age. His culinary experience in high school prompted the budding chef to pursue an education at Johnson & Wales University, and later, to open his own restaurants.
Dine at one of Ben’s spots and you’ll find the food and drink selections very specific and deliberate. At Oberlin, there’s an eclectic menu of pasta, local raw and cooked whole fish, and other small Italian plates. But, drag your attention to the drinks side of the page, and you’ll find Japanese sake and beer mixed in with domestic brews, imported wine, and an assortment of cider. This defining feature is not by accident. The chef remarks that it’s easy to get caught up catering to a certain demographic’s culinary tastes, but that running your business this way is a recipe for disaster.
Providence is a “transient city,” the population recycling defined by the colleges in the area. The majority of people who come into his eateries are young adults or older Rhode Islanders who have been here most of their lives. The restaurateur has a very clear vision of the cuisine he wants to serve his customers that plays to his strengths, and no, he won’t play any other man’s game.
“You need to create a food that you know you’re good at...If you don’t do something that you know you’re good at, then you’re just playing the other man’s game. And you’re always going to lose the other man’s game.”
At Oberlin, his “game” is pastas, raw fish, and sake, but at birch, his game is a narrative – a story about food production and preparation in Rhode Island told through a dining experience. “There’s a lot of work that goes into this food, there’s a lot of work that goes into growing this food. So, this food that gets presented in front of you is 100 percent going to be a passion project from the farmer to the chefs to the servers.”
All of these things – the food’s story, the unorthodox pairings, the raw fish, his love and passion for local ingredients– are what Ben Sukle knows. And he wants to educate Rhode Islanders about it.