BY KEVIN MORALES
Food is power. It is a weapon that can be used to resist toxic norms of everyday life, while at the same time creating agency for oneself. This is exactly what Chef Susan Alper, owner of Clean Plate in Providence, Rhode Island, does through her cooking. She has been in the field of cooking for 35 years, and as a queer woman, she has had to fight her way through systematic sexism and homophobia; her entire life, she has worked extremely hard to end up where she is now.
When we dined at Clean Plate, Chef Alper gave us a brief history of her cooking experience. After graduating from culinary school, she had such a hard time getting a job, and that she would constantly hear things like “that chef won’t work with women.” When she was able to finally get a job, she was abused and severely underestimated. She constantly got yelled at to do things faster and was pushed to her limits. At one point, one of the male chefs even turned the hose on her. Even today when she owns her restaurant herself, restaurants around her have all male kitchens, and it is still somewhat rare to see a visible female chef. She often gets asked “where the owner/husband is,” and even newly hired male chefs underestimate her, questioning her choices in the kitchen, when she literally has decades of experience. She says,
I know I wouldn’t be questioned if I were male.
And she’s absolutely right. Chef Susan Alper is an extremely resilient and has worked so hard to be where she is now.
She made points that resonated with an article titled I have recently read. The reason why there are “no great women chefs” is already an inherently sexist question, and systematically, women are already at a disadvantage, as the standards are “professional” cooking are catered towards the standards of men. There are so few visible female chefs because their skills are extremely undervalued. There are tons of phenomenal female chefs (one of them being Chef Alper!) but their skills are being compared to the definition of maleness, and because it doesn’t fit with the literal definition of being male, it is seen as less of value. It partly has to do with the social construction of the housewife/homemaker. When women cook outside of the house, they are reprimanded because they are “supposed to be cooking for their family,” and because of that, women’s cooking is extremely undervalued.1
Chef Alper transgresses and fights the norms and stereotypes of the heterosexual and male dominated culinary field through her cooking. Through food, Alper finds her own agency and expresses herself freely in her own territory (her restaurant). She creates foods that she specifically wants to eat, and is unconventional with her methods because she can. Susan says,
Food is interpretation – it flows from my hands to the plate.
Her food transcends materiality and is experienced by all five senses – sight, smell, taste, touch, even hearing. She has such a refined palate for food that it is absolutely sensational, both literally and metaphorically and it definitely showed.
Where do I even begin to describe the foods? It is not an exaggeration when I say I loved every single bite I had. As a lacto-ovo vegetarian, I was wonderfully surprised to see how many options were vegetarian/vegan. Chef Alper’s food can be described as “international comfort/soul food” and it’s a very fitting title. The menu for our class included items such as chicken wings, mini reubens, doubles, clam fritters, arancini, a “MePu” platter of hummus, kisir, and muhummara, Lebanese bread, and for dessert, there were blueberry donut holes.
The arancini — an Italian risotto cheese-rice ball — was absolutely delectable. Served at a perfect temperature, the risotto had three distinct textures — the outer, crumbly-moist breading with the smooth dissolve-in-your-mouth rice complemented by the savory-melty cheese — which made the arancini feel like biting into a cloud of pure bliss. Once in my mouth, it was as if a beautiful slow dance was taking place; the cheese, rice and breading forming in a beautiful trio. Needless to say, one bite and I was hooked. The cheese risotto ball was definitely my favorite food from the night.
The doubles (a traditional Trinidadian sandwich which is a thick, fried flat tortilla with chickpeas in the fold) was just as savory. The bread was thick, but never overwhelming. It was also perfectly fried – moist but not overly oily. It was also slightly crunchy on the outside, which I particularly enjoyed – a good contrast with the inner soft tortilla and chickpeas. Taking a bite of it, the chickpeas were very seasoned in a way that immediately made me salivate. It was very strong, but not at all overpowering. The textures of the chickpeas and the bread complemented each other. The bread itself was so flavorful and well textured; it could’ve served as a standalone dish. I see myself eating it as either a light breakfast or an indulgent late night snack studying.
The food that most surprised me was the MePu platter. I am personally usually indifferent towards hummus, but Chef Alper’s made me go for seconds, even thirds! It was smooth yet it had a very subtle coarseness to it. Scooping it with the Lebanese bread, I immediately got a beautiful blend of spices in my mouth: a kick of garlic and a punch of pepper, topped off with a perfect amount of saltiness that left me wanting more. Just like reading your favorite book for the first time, this hummus leaves an impression that completely makes you want to repeat the cycle.
In terms of dessert, the blueberry donut holes were a perfect ending to the meal. It’s the subtle sweetness you want to taste, but in a small bite size. It leaves you satisfied without feeling remorseful afterwards. Just like the bread, for the doubles, it was fried, but in a way that was not overly oily, but rather that made it very moist.
Overall, Chef Alper’s experience, skill, and creativity indubitably shows through her food – everything was just delicious and will leave you wanting more. There just no other way to say it. Having multiple options for both vegetarian and vegans, having well balanced textures and strong flavors and never being overwhelming, it is a restaurant worth putting on your gastronomic bucket list. The food experience is only enhanced by the ambiance of the restaurant.
As soon as you enter the restaurant, the vibe is immediately welcoming. The lighting is soft, the walls are alternating shades of ketchup red and mustard yellow. The chairs and tables are cozy and wooden. There is visibility of the kitchen through a large rectangular window slot, which allows people to see all of the hard work that has been put in the food, all of the work that traditionally goes behind-the-scenes. All of these elements make the atmosphere inviting, calming, and intimate.
In summary, Clean Plate is a place that is very intimate, and now has a special place in my heart. It is a perfect setting for a first date, or a one-on-one friend brunch, with a very warm and welcoming aura. Chef Susan Alper is not only a kind and warmhearted person, she is also an extremely skilled cook that knows exactly what she’s doing in the kitchen. Her love for food shows in the meal I had that day. Chef Alper and her restaurant are truly one-of-a-kind, where she says,
Hopefully you clean your plate.
I definitely did.
Photo Credit: Susan Alper
1Druckman, Charlotte. “Why Are There No Great Women Chefs?”
Druckman, Charlotte. “Why Are There No Great Women Chefs?” Gastronomica 10, no. a, Winter 2010: 24-31