If a customer walks into a restaurant hungry and walks out feeling like they still need to satisfy their hunger with a greasy slice from Antonio’s on Thayer Street, that restaurant is doing it wrong.

Chef Susan Alper has made her way around the Northeast and is finally calling Providence home, but this time with a different mindset. Unlike her other restaurants, Clean Plate in Providence, RI is all about Alper- what she wants to eat and what she wants to cook. She is past trying to please others and wants to have fun concocting what she describes as, “International Soul Food.”

Clean Plate

Photo courtesy of 990wbob.com

Upon first glance, Clean Plate’s awkward, tucked away location may ward off customers. However, once you make the decision to step foot inside, the rustic, homey ambiance of the restaurant pulls you in. With dimmed lighting, walls painted with warm colors like deep beet red complemented by golden yellow, and long wooden tables, the two-tier lofted arrangement of Clean Plate, which includes a full bar, radiates a casual and welcoming energy. Susan Alper and her partner Lauren have spent the past twenty years in the restaurant industry being discredited by customers, turned aside by banks and ridiculed by male peers. After trying the gourmet takeout route in Massachusetts, they switched to the high-end creative scene in upstate NY. Finally, following the economic recession they decided to pack up once again, this time heading towards Providence.

Home to a diverse population, Providence’s food scene has tried to keep up with its cultural variety. From Little Italy on Federal Hill, to authentic Mexican in Olneyville, with Asian fusion, Indian, Mediterranean and NY-style pizza in between, Providence is a melting pot of ethnic flavors. Alper’s menu reflects this diversity.

She incorporates chicken and waffles, Reuben and Cuban sandwiches, clam fritters, Middle Eastern hummus and kisir, and matzo ball soup among other ethnic dishes. Alper does not want her food or restaurant to be taken too seriously, as she wants customers to enjoy themselves, be comfortable, and try new things. Some may associate the restaurant’s offerings with comfort food, Susan prefers “International Soul Food”. She believes comfort food is overdone in the U.S. and lacks passion, whereas Clean Plate’s menu speaks to the soul, triggering happiness and satisfaction.

Clean Plate

Photo courtesy of Angel Tucker from rhodeislandmonthly.com

Alper’s “MePu Platter” and her Trinidadian “Doubles” were my favorite dishes when I tasted her menu. The authenticity of Alper’s “MePu Platter” was tangible; the soft textured hummus was perfectly coupled with the grainier kisir and muhummara. The two primary ingredients in the muhummara, roasted red peppers and walnuts, were both individually recognizable as the walnuts added a slight crunch and the red peppers slightly sweetened the dish. This Lebanese trio was evenly spiced, one bite not overpowering the last. Paired with the grilled Lebanese bread, the spread made for the perfect appetizer and could even be used to embellish other entrees.

Comparably, Alper’s “Doubles,” which are a popular Trinidadian street food made of curried chickpeas within a flatbread sandwich, were much more rich and savory than any of the greasy, overly salted or buttery fried foods commonly found on American streets. The Trinidadian flatbread was thick yet soft, while the curried chickpea filling inside brought a delicate balance of spiciness and sweetness. Both options were vegan, but unlike stereotypical vegan foods, the entrees were bursting with sharp flavor and hearty texture.

Clean Plate

Photo courtesy of yelp.com

Unlike local favorites such as Al Forno, Gracie’s, Birch, North and Capriccio’s, which operate under all-male kitchens, Alper takes pride in Clean Plate being a female-run restaurant. At first glance, Alper is rough around the edges, stern, and even intimidating. However, as her passionate story of hardship and frustration flowed from her heart Susan revealed a genuine, affectionate, and even humorous side. Even after opening her own restaurants the gendered criticism has continued as Susan constantly feels pressure to “qualify” and justify her cooking abilities and business decisions to her customers and employees.

Within the restaurant industry gender is inescapable- Women are labeled as a “female chef” rather than as a “chef”. This title becomes linked to their performance, compensation, and future. In almost every aspect of their career, gender becomes a handicap and puts their status as second to male counterparts. Although the industry has seen major changes in regard to gender in the last couple of decades, male and female chefs are far from being dubbed equal.

Unlike previous restaurants where Susan’s menu attempted to satisfy customers and meet society’s expectations, at Clean Plate, the menu is reflective of her own passion. Instead of catering to the industry’s demands, Susan has chosen to embrace her female identity and the consequences of being a female chef.

Clean Plate

Photo courtesy of rhodeislandmonthly.com

In some ways, frustration has creatively driven Alper to open Clean Plate. Only a short walk from downtown Providence, the jewelry district and the Wickenden Street area, Clean Plate is a new scene for Rhode Island foodies. Although the location is not ideal, the laidback atmosphere and authentic street food makes for the perfect spot to escape the college dining halls or grab lunch after a day of exploration, with reasonable prices and great service you will surely leave full and content.