Comfort Food that Truly Comforts at Clean Plate

BY ANNABETH BURGESS

As I leisurely walked down one of Providence’s notoriously steep hills, I animatedly conversed with my friend, Kudrat. We were on our way to Clean Plate, to dine on a variety of dishes personally made for the members of our Food and Gender class. I found myself talking with my hands, and before I knew it I flung my phone and watched it topple and bounce off of the hard pavement. Slowly, I picked it up, only to find it completely destroyed. My heart was just as shattered as the screen. Because of this unfortunate turn of events, I entered Clean Plate with a mind full of frustration and anxiety. Despite this, the moment I took a seat on the long table filled with my classmates, I began to feel better.

When I had first heard that I was going to be eating at a restaurant called “Clean Plate”, I very wrongly assumed that it would be a white tablecloth, fancy place that focused on the ever so popular healthy foods like kale, flax seeds, and chia seeds whilst serving water with thinly sliced cucumbers. Instead I was pleasantly surprised with the relaxed, casual nature of the space.

Clean Plate is locally owned by a woman named Susan Alper, who is also the head chef. It is located in a slightly strange location but is easily accessible for anyone, although there are two sections on the inside divided by stairs that may not be accessed by those who have disabilities. Populated by a few other diners, the atmosphere was slightly lonely. The overall lighting was very calming, with the bottom floor appearing more blue; the top floor had hues of yellow. While the bottom level had more of a communal and spacious feel, the upper level felt more private, which was appropriate for the event of our class trip. It almost felt a little rustic when we all were seated on wooden benches surrounding a long wooden table. I stared at my shattered phone, and then I turned around and saw it. The table covered in plates of food.

On this table were several different items including a MePu platter (hummus, kisir, and muhummara), waffled chicken wings, grilled Lebanese bread, mini reuben sandwiches, doubles (Trinidadian chickpea sandwich), clam fritters, and arancini. Susan generously remembered to cater to us vegans and vegetarians of the group with the MePu platter as well as the doubles, which are the foods I’ll be reviewing. The first food I attacked was the platter. I spooned each one of the dips onto my plate (making sure to also take some of the arugula bed to make my plate a little more salad-looking) and grabbed several slices of Lebanese bread, then grabbed two doubles. I didn’t even wait for the rest of the party to get their food; I just dived right into the hummus. My first bite revived my mood, the rest was history.

Every swallow of food pushed every bad thought further from my mind. The complex flavors of the red pepper and walnuts in the muhummara, the smooth homemade hummus, the refreshing kisir. Nostalgia filled my mind with each bite of the kisir. My mother would make a similar dish out of couscous that tasted just like this foreign dish. I also had never eaten such amazing hummus. The only kind I’ve ever had has come from containers found in grocery stores. But this hummus—this hummus was legitimate. It tasted like it had olive oil and lemon juice blended into it, making for subtle harmonious flavors.

After finishing my portion of the platter I moved onto my favorite part, the double. I unwrapped it from its little foil blanket and immediately sunk my teeth into the sandwich, with a satisfying crunch. The fried bread was oily and thick, and went well with the grainy chickpeas on the inside of the sandwich. I grabbed two more. Lastly served were the  blueberry donut holes. Perfectly fried and crispy on the outside, soft and sugary on the inside. Fruit cups were sweetly given to the vegans. Dinner was a new experience for me and very satisfying. I tried dishes that would never have touched my palate otherwise.

Even though the food was exquisite, at one point I looked at my plate and realized that it was all beige. Growing up I was consistently told to stay away from a completely “beige” plate. Susan said the food was healthy, but after further thought I realized most of the dishes, if not all, were fried. Fried food can definitely be considered the epitome of comfort food, which is what Susan described her food as. However, calling a food “healthy” and then frying most of it is a little contradictory. Incorporating more color and vegetables into her plates would make them even more superior than they were to start with. Either way, no regrets were had after that dinner.

Once everyone at the table had finished most of their food, Susan stepped in front of the long table to tell us about her experiences as a female enveloped in the food industry. The vibe of a chef just emanated off of her. Stout and tall, she casually opened up her arms and began speaking to us about her personal experiences. Susan is no stranger to food service, as she’s been in the industry for 35 years. Throughout this time, she’s owned a whopping five restaurants, all with different vibes. Some were casual sit down places such as Clean Plate, and some were more high-class with white tablecloths and cotton napkins.

Even with all of the success she’s had with restaurants, she’s encountered a number of obstacles along the way. I am almost certain that Susan would agree with the author Charlotte Druckman when she stated in her article ‘Why Are There No Great Woman Chefs?’, “In the food industry, both the portrayal of female chefs in the media and the ergonomics of professional kitchen design need to change.”[2] Susan has worked in restaurants where she would get screamed at or even hosed down with water. When she first started, she was put to work in the salad department which can only be assumed that her boss assigned her there because she’s a woman. Susan would literally be turned down from job opportunities because the head chef would refuse to work with a woman. Susan talked about how she would be paid less at jobs. Her superiors would repeatedly talk down to her or not take her seriously. She has since proved just how serious about food she is, after owning and managing so many different outlets.

One thing that wasn’t touched upon so much while she reflected upon her experiences was the fact that she is queer, and married to a woman named Lauren. Time and time again she and Lauren had to explain to questioning customers that they were the owners and managers. Inquiries like “Let me speak to the manager,” or “Where is your husband?” were not uncommon to their ears. They have even agreed that it is sometimes easier to just pretend men owned their restaurant than to be interrogated. A question in the back of her mind has been “If Lauren was a man, how far would we go?” It’s easy to think about these questions, and consider all of the possibilities of what may have been. But since their situation is one that can not be altered, it’s best to not think too hard about it. Instead of brooding over what differences in life they would have had, they continue to push through their struggles and make do with what they were blessed with. I have so much appreciation for Susan and Lauren for never holding back from pursuing their goals, even with all they have had to face.

Coming back to the article mentioned before, Charlotte Druckman asked: “Are there really no wildly creative, innovative young female chefs to be found?”[3] Susan Alper is a perfect example of this individual that Druckman was alluding to. She and her wife are such creative people, and it shows in their passion for food. Alper mentioned many different things that solidify this opinion. She believes that food is interpretive, changing from person to person and place to place. Her food is based off of her likes, and no one else’s. Ketchup will never be included in any of her recipes, simply because she hates ketchup. Her aims are to never resemble a cookie cutter restaurant, which is why her free-spirited personality will always be integrated into her recipes and eateries.

I deeply respect Susan Alper. Through all the challenges and hardships she’s faced due to her gender, she has still managed to achieve her dreams and live through her passions. Her comfort and soul food literally gave me peace, made me feel at ease, and rescued my feelings from the uneasiness brought to me by wrecking my phone. I made sure to take some of the MePu platter home, to keep the feelings and tastes I experienced inside of my little to-go box to enjoy the next day. If you’re in need of emotional or mental restoration through food, Clean Plate is the place to go. Never underestimate the power of food, especially when it’s made by an amazing woman with a powerful personality.

Photo Credit: Emily Contois

Bibliography

Druckman, Charlotte. “Why Are There No Great Women Chefs?” Gastronomica 10, no. 1, Winter 2010.