Nicks on Broadway. North. birch. Persimmon. What do all of these restaurants have in common? They’re all delicious reasons to head to Providence — and they are run by Johnson & Wales University alums.
“If you look at all the successful restaurants in the city, the majority are run by JWU alumni. My staff is 90 percent students or graduates,” says Matthew Varga (’05), executive chef at popular Providence establishment Gracie’s. Another graduate, Benjamin Sukle (’08), runs birch and sister restaurant Oberlin, which was named one of America’s Best New Restaurants 2016 by Bon Appetit.
The culinary school, lovingly called “J-Woo,’’ has functioned as Providence’s gastronomic epicenter since launching in 1973, going on to change the city’s dining scene for the better. Decades ago, Providence had one big-name restaurant: Al Forno, an upscale Italian spot (current sous chef is Phil Niosi, class of ’93). Now there are about 400 restaurants, and many JWU graduates feel no reason to flee for New York or Boston. (Not all grads stay local, of course: Big-name alums include Food Network star Tyler Florence (’94), who went to JWU’s Charleston, South Carolina, campus, and Fall River’s own Emeril Lagasse (’78).
The restaurant community in Providence is strong and supportive, grads say, and the close-knit alumni network helps students segue into restaurant jobs. “When my wife and I opened our restaurant, I had deans and instructors eating there,” says Persimmon’s Champe Speidel (’00). And Gracie’s Varga says, “I can’t walk down the street without waving to someone who might grow my broccoli.”
The local flavor infuses Providence’s restaurant culture.
“In the late 1990s, the food scene started to change. Cuisines are now based around local food, and Providence was a leader in this movement,” says chef TJ Delle Donne, assistant dean of culinary relations at JWU. “We’re the ‘ocean’ state — and we have more than 2,000 farms.” The school retains close relationships with these purveyors, and it helps make the city a logical choice for sustainability-minded chefs to put down roots.
“There’s a level of accessibility to products; we have real farms, legitimate farms, 15 minutes outside the city,” says James Mark (’08), who worked at high-profile New York City restaurants like Momofuku Ko and Milk Bar before returning to Providence to found North. “I can drive 35 minutes and be at docks. I wouldn’t be able to do that in New York. Still, it has enough of a population to support a restaurant like mine.”
Providence chefs praise JWU’s Experiential Education Department, which offers academic credit for restaurant work. The school week runs Monday through Thursday, allowing students time to work at restaurants and begin networking. “There is a massive population of young cooks. It’s a huge blessing,” Mark says.
They come for JWU. They stay because diners happily follow.