Tucked inside the Renaissance Hotel, on the corner between the State House and Providence Place Mall, there’s a restaurant that’s trendier and more forward-thinking than you would think. Under the direction of Chef Willis, Public Kitchen and Bar has shown it can go toe to toe with some of Providence’s best, and far surpasses the expectations and tropes of typical “hotel restaurants.” We met up with Chef Willis to discuss how he approaches local ingredients with modern techniques, and having the patience to craft unforgettable dishes.
How would you define the food mantra at Public Kitchen and Bar?
The mantra at Public is food that people recognize, but done perfectly. We take local product, local produce, and enhance it by highlighting the best things about it. We make modern approachable to everyone. Take our Parmesan Pudding, for example. Instead of making a normal Parmesan cream sauce that covers the whole plate, we tighten it up using modern techniques. You can use a dab here, a dab there and make the dish much more interesting and intellectual. We separate flavors and manipulate dishes that have traditionally been pedestrian and bring them to a heightened sense.
Where do you find your inspiration for creating seasonal dishes?
We look at our product choices first, and then we construct what we’re going to do from there. I’ll go out to the farms with my wife and new baby to pick apples for the restaurant. That gives me a personal connection to what we’re serving. So if apples are the beginning ingredient, we build off that. Do we want to change texture? Do we want to add herbs? We’ll taste and see which way to go. That’s where the creative part comes in.
What’s new and exciting on the menu?
We do excellent handmade pastas here. Right now I’m doing a butternut, parsnip yogurt, Marcona almond and sage browned butter dish. The raviolis are tiny and light, so you can feel the other textures and appreciate the ingredients like the Marcona almond, which is a beautiful thing. You can have a little butternut here, a little browned butter there and they all complement each other.
Is there a cooking technique you particularly enjoy utilizing?
I love slow roasting. The natural sugars that are in, say, pork shoulder, become incredibly complex just with some oil, salt and low heat. People like to boil things and cover them up. But by slow roasting with a nice, even temperature, you can caramelize the meat. The natural beauty and composition of it will take on amazing flavors by being uncovered. Most people will be blown away because not many chefs take the time to slow roast pork shoulder for six or seven hours.
What qualities does a chef need to run a kitchen and deliver amazing food experiences consistently?
Patience, time and education. I’m from a science background, so I’ve learned that you can’t get from point A to point B with the best results unless you respect what you’re dealing with and take the time to understand it. You have to take a step back and say, “I need to wait an extra two hours on this lamb leg or pork shoulder.” That takes patience. It’s a craft. And that’s what chefs are – craftsmen.
Are there any special menu changes we can look forward this month?
New Year’s Eve we do awesome tasting menus. Last year we had oysters with foie gras, bing cherry mousse, things like that. [This year] we’ll utilize duck in several different ways. We’ll make stock with the feet, necks and bones; cure the legs for prosciutto or bacon; cook or cure the breast, too. We’ll use one duck in six or seven different ways. On the tasting menu, the “duo of duck” will incorporate an entire duck in one dish. Wintertime is when we utilize whole animals: pigs, half pigs, cows, ducks. That’s fun for us and keeps us moving.
Do you have any favorite dishes?
Our Baffoni Farms Chicken. We use the chicken skins to get extra crunch, local cranberries from Cape Cod and we make a porcini chestnut flan. Instead of making a sauce, we tuck it together with some eggs so it’s more rich. If it were a whole porcini sauce, or a big Gnocchi dish, you’d be overwhelmed. Our portions are generous, but we like to keep it focused. We take a lot of time in landscaping these dishes out. And we like to play and tease a little bit.
Our Salmon Tartar, too. We use special Japanese ingredients and a Taray glaze. We use a special soy sauce and thicken it up so it doesn’t go everywhere on the plate. All the salmon tartar is broken down from scrap. We don’t buy kabobs or anything frozen. So it’s guaranteed to be the freshest tartar you’ve ever had.