Clean Plate is the Dark Knight of Providence’s Food Scene
BY KATHERINE LUCHETTE
As savory, succulent flavors flood my mouth, the crisp yet fluffy scent of pancake batter and poultry’s full aroma transport me to a different time. Chicken and waffles: at once novel and familiar, in the moment yet lost in memory. Food has a strange power to hypnotize, satisfying its consumer while also conjuring a sometimes overwhelming sense of nostalgia. Comfort foods have an especially potent ability in this regard. So it is not surprising that as a self-described international soul food joint, Chef Susan Alper’s Clean Plate manages to quell cravings and provide a little taste of home in a small corner of Providence. In a city replete with top-notch Italian and farm-to-table eateries, Clean Plate has found a yet untapped market in foreign familiarity, hitting customers in the sweet spot where traditional meets avant-garde.
Comfort food is hard to define; for many, it conjures feelings of safety and home cooking. Although dense arancini — fried rice balls with herbs and cheese — were never at my kitchen table at home, their melody of crispy coating and silky core feel cozy and comfortable. Clean Plate does cozy cooking well — its selection ranges from hummus to reubens, from Jewish fare to Trinidadian cuisine — any and all of which creates for a robust and hearty meal. Even the exotic feels everyday.
It seems impossible to walk out without feeling a tug on your heartstrings; for me, it was the waffled chicken wings. Though the airy donut holes and savory kisir left me pleasantly full, their warm sense of satisfaction has nothing on a good wing. Crunchy and savory, but also juicy and full of buttery, seasoned flavor — as someone with roots in Buffalo, NY, I know a good wing. Yet this was unlike any that I’d tasted before. A week prior, I had chowed down on some traditional buffalo wings after my grandfather’s funeral. Two weeks before that, we had feasted on pizza and wings for his 86th birthday; my grandpa double-checked that I had thoroughly polished the bones clean before taking more. Conflicted with bittersweet memories, I took my time on the waffled wing at hand, stripping the batter-coated meat clean off the thigh bones clenched between my fingers, making sure to do him proud. That is the power of truly special food: to call up emotions within us, to make us feel beyond the sandpaper-like crispy waffle and warm, wet meat to the memory within. This culinary sentimentality is a hard thing to master, but Clean Plate pulls it off.
Hominess is a staple at this restaurant. It makes sense, given that head chef Susan Alper believes “you can tell that somebody made [good food] for you, and it makes a difference.” With four previous restaurants under her belt, Alper is a seasoned veteran of the culinary industry. Yet after more than thirty years in the kitchen, the sexism that plagues professional female cooks is nothing new. Building a career for herself in a largely male-dominated realm was hard work; Alper recalls being told that chefs “wouldn’t work with women in the kitchen.” Sadly, little has changed; with so few female chefs willing to speak up against their male coworkers, little has been done to resolve the sexism rampant in restaurant kitchens. Kate Burnham, a rising pastry chef in Toronto, chose to come forward about the sexual harassment she faces in the professional kitchen.[i] Yet this is still the exception, not the rule.
The professional kitchen today is still very much a boys’ club. Howard Chua-Eoan — an editor on the Time piece, “Gods of Food” — remarked that male chefs get their foot in the proverbial kitchen door because “it’s all men,” whereas the great women chefs had to “force their way to where they are now.”[ii] Alper had to keep pace with the men in her kitchen in order to be taken even half as seriously. As she reflects, if she “wasn’t fast enough,” for example, she was “screamed at like Gordon Ramsay does…[and] they turned a hose on [her].” Susan comes off as tough and resilient, either as a result or in spite of her early experience in the kitchen. Yet maybe this was why she succeeded: by thickening her skin — that is, by coming off as more stereotypically masculine — her male colleagues took her more seriously.
This became somewhat of a trend for Alper. Throughout her life, Susan refused to abide by the expectations that others set for her. As a female chef in a male sphere, she has achieved success the men did not expect of her. This might explain why she proudly asserts that Clean Plate, her latest of four restaurant ventures, “does not follow the rules.” The rustic, warm tones of the walls and wooden benches feel cozy and lived-in, whereas the images of raw produce hanging above the booths feel fresh and true to the chef’s commitment to better food. The relaxed atmosphere envelops the unconventional plates emerging from the kitchen, putting the diner at ease with their slightly quirky meal.
While many restauranteurs have chased the recent movement toward organic, slow food,[iii] Alper prefers to focus on what she calls “good, clean food.” Several eateries in the Providence area make a commitment to source all their ingredients locally. Alper points out, though, that “it’s great to support local people,” but “just [because] it’s local doesn’t mean it’s better.” Good food, food “that’s not processed to death,” as Alper says, is something Clean Plate delivers.
A far departure from her last project — a white-cloth, fine dining restaurant in upstate New York — Clean Plate is an easy-going, casual affair. As she puts it, Susan wants this one “to be fun. It has to be fun,” because decades of creating a reputation for herself have left her not wanting to “[fuss] over” the food, but instead to do what she “[dreams] about.” Coming down from the uptight, starched collar world of fine dining, maybe Alper wanted to create something that flies in the face of everything male cooks expect of a truly great restaurant. After all, Alper works with startlingly homey foods in an untraditional manner: what she does, she does remarkably well. Maybe it’s just a bit unanticipated.
Hidden away in a nook of the city, this new project is a diamond in the rough of Providence’s underappreciated riverside. For all the pleasure and enjoyment devoted to the restaurant’s interior, the plain, red brick exterior may conceal its broader appeal. Chef Susan Alper puts her energy into creative, rich meals that, while seemingly unoriginal, put a deceptively novel spin on the tried and true. Between its warm and welcoming décor and homey fare, Clean Plate is ultimately a taste of home in a city potentially unfamiliar for many. For Brown students, this restaurant offers comfort and convenience in one setting, a brief reprieve from the stress of College Hill. Though down the hill and a little tucked away, Brunonians can rest at ease with Clean Plate’s take on the home-cooked meal.
- [i] Agg, Jen. “Sexism in the Kitchen.” New York Times. October 19, 2015.
- [ii] Dixler, Hillary. “Time Editor Howard Chua-Eoan Explains Why No Female Chefs Are ‘Gods of Food.’” Eater November 7, 2013.
- [iii] Guthman, Julie. “Fast Food/Organic Food: Reflexive Tastes and the Making of ‘Yuppie Chow.’” Social & Cultural Geography 4, no. 1, (2003): 46.
Photo credit: Emily Contois