James Mark '08 opened 21-seat North on the West Side of Providence in 2012 with partners Tim Shulga '08 and John Chester.
From the start, this collective of cooks (don’t call them “chefs” — they are strictly non-hierarchical) have made it a priority to give back to the community as much as possible, including donating a portion of every dish sold to Amos House or the RI Food Bank. (That community focus earned Mark a Star Chefs Coastal New England Rising Star Community Chef Award in 2014.)
Categorizing North’s food is tricky. The ever-changing menu is defiantly meat-minimalist, with a marked emphasis on pickling, fermenting and other techniques that extend the seasons as long as humanly possible.
Almost everything on the concise menu — which always starts with raw bar selections — is sourced locally, extending the sense of place and making North a true New England restaurant.
We talked to James about the sometimes tricky balancing act required to keep menu prices low while obtaining the best and freshest ingredients in the state.
JAMES MARK: I think the whole farm-to-table movement — and local as a whole — has gone in a couple different directions as far as what it means and what its purpose is. For us, I like to think that — we’ve never really used it as a marketing thing, it’s never been an advertisement kind of thing. But we decided to take it as, “This is the product that we have,” and we use it as more of a way to define the food that we’re going to cook, if that makes sense.
But [when we’re asked], “How would you describe the food?” we’ve kind of settled on is: We say that we’re an American restaurant, and that we really try to use product that is almost all sourced from Rhode Island.
And by making that choice … it’s actually about learning about the state, what is raised here right now, what grows well here. And learning about the microseasons of everything that we have, whether that’s fish, whether it’s produce, whether it’s meat. And what can we use all year long? What can’t we use all year long?
We try to use product that is almost all sourced from Rhode Island.” -James Mark, north
And how can you extend that? You do a lot of fermentation, drying, etc. to extend the lifespan of your product.
We do a lot of preservation. We care about it. I guess it goes back to the multi-faceted nature of local.
For example, we pulled the cauliflower salad that off the menu — cauliflower season’s over. I loved it too, but at the same time, when it’s done, it’s done. We’re not going to continue to order cauliflower from a purveyor [as opposed to getting it locally] just to keep it on the menu. Even though we like it, even though it’s delicious, it will be delicious again next year — or some iteration of it will be delicious next year. And we can cook something else delicious in the meantime.
You’re not just going to extend a dish for the sake of extending it, even though you could.
We could. And that’s a question we confront a lot. And it comes down to a question of PRODUCT, both the quality of product that we’re using, and also, beyond just the pure quality of the product, where you are buying that from.
I could make all of our lives easier and start buying from purveyors. And maybe people would not notice a difference, I don’t know.
For the sake of argument, let’s say that they wouldn’t — it would make our lives a lot easier. But then, I don’t want to give my dollars to a big company that’s out of state, or even a big company that’s IN state. I’d rather just give it directly to the farmers that I know, because they’re people who are working hard in the fields every day.
Actually it’s a LOT more work for us. We’re running around all the time and working to develop these relationships. We have 20 different people that we’re buying from, throughout the week. That’s 20 different farms, farmers, shellfish guys.
Ultimately, by doing that — by cutting out the middleman — we can pay our farmers more, and make sure that we’re keeping our dollars in our own community. We are able to make more money by keeping our prices reasonable — although, I will say that prices are always going to go up a little bit every year, just because things cost more money, and we’re using better product than we ever have before. And still, hopefully, able to pay our cooks as well as possible.
The importance of prep (left) and a picture-perfect asparagus dish topped with a dashi-poached egg yolk, wild onion and spring garlic. Photos: James Mark
Being affordable is very important to us — it’s as important to me as providing for our cooks, making money for projects, and making money for our farmers. All those things matter equally to me — because they are [equal] in my eyes, and the toughest part is the balance.
My everything right now is working those 4 factors and figuring out how we pay our farmers a lot, pay our employees a lot, keep our prices low, and hopefully come out with a little bit on the end for ourselves and for new projects that we want to do.
For the size of what we’re doing here, we need to find every weird financial efficiency to make it work for US. But it’s complicated.
I’m curious if you had a lightbulb moment about the value of buying locally? You took some time to figure it out.
Totally, totally! When we first started, the menu was much smaller. Day 1 had two, three items on the menu! The first opening day menu was country ham, oysters, a lobster roll, a squash salad, and all the booze that was left over from Ama’s [North’s predecessor]. That was the ENTIRE menu — it was ridiculous.
And anyone can look up our oldest menu and see the price difference from then to now. It’s also because we’re using better product now.
There was no lightbulb moment. It was very much a gradual thing. We go to the farmers markets every week, which is something that I picked up in NY, and it’s something that I’ve always done. I like picking out my produce and meeting my farmers.
By going to markets and meeting farmers, you’re seeing the product and choosing the best…
And you can talk to people. That’s a huge part of it — developing those relationships between the people who are selling you those goods (9 times out of 10 they’re the farmers themselves) and you can have that conversation. “Oh, the sunchokes are really good this week, and they’re going to be gone next week, so you need to buy as many as you can right now,” or “The carrots are really beautiful this week.” They can let you know when things are starting to run out, that sort of thing.
Land in RI is super-limited. It’s why meat is so expensive, because it’s so land-intensive. Produce is actually ok, but meat is very expensive.
It’s nice to be able to say, ‘Hey, I can run a restaurant like this. It IS possible.’”
How do you extend the seasons? Preserving, pickling + canning is a way of life at North. Photos: James Mark
Do you get whole animals?
Yes, it’s the only way it’s affordable, to be honest with you. We get whole lambs from Hopkins every week. We don’t get whole chickens, but Baffoni’s is such an efficient operation that they’re able to find for us what we need. We’re hopefully starting to get whole pigs in this week. And all our fish comes in whole, because that’s the only real way to do it.
We really use one guy for fish. We have a couple guys for oysters and squid, but we have one fish guy: Steve from Kin Trawler.
Steve only goes out when he can, and he’s only one boat, and it’s not a big operation — it’s literally just him and his first mate. And if the weather’s bad, he doesn’t go out. And he doesn’t buy from other people to sell to us. If he doesn’t go out, there’s no fish available. So it’s hard to run a restaurant like that — or, it’s hard to run a dish. So that’s why we have a guy we use for squid who’s a slightly larger purveyor. So we always have squid on the menu.
We have two oyster guys that we’ve been using them since they opened.
One is Dave Roebuck from Salt Pond Oysters, who I think has the best oysters in the state, if not the region. There’s one of the few bottom-seeded oysters — they’re very special, because they’re grown very differently than anyone else.
Most oyster growers grow their oysters in bags. That’s what Walrus & Carpenter does, and it’s the traditional RI way of doing it. So there’s water flow above and below, and they sort through them, and toss them around so they develop a different kind of shell.
Being affordable is as important as providing for our cooks, making money for projects, and making money for our farmers.”
[By contrast], Dave direct seeds the shell in the sand, which is how oysters grow naturally, so they naturally just get tumbled around in the sand, and the water flows around. And they hand dig all of them. And they’re operating in 18 feet of water. So they have a very long rake to rake every oyster up with, and then they sort them out back on land. It’s a very intense operation, but it creates an oyster that is very easy to shuck, and has a lot more complexity of flavor, in my opinion.
Walrus & Carpenters are very Rhode Island-style: Sweet and salty and really delicious. Dave’s have a mineral complexity to them that I think I think you can only get with bottom-seeding, or at least what I’ve found. Dave’s seem very different to me.
The Walrus & Carpenter summer dinner series is one of the most unique culinary events in the state. [Diners eat on a sandbar overlooking Ninigret Pond in Charlestown, RI, where Walrus & Carpenter’s oyster farm is located.]
The Walrus & Carpenter dinners are really special, and I’ve never heard of anything really like it. I know Island Creek does something similar, but the salt ponds are a very special thing to RI.
Ninigret Pond is beautiful, and East Beach is right on the other side of the sand bar — I think it’s the prettiest beach in RI. There’s no car access, really. To be out there on the water, and it’s warm and beautiful… All those things come together to create an experience that’s really special.
The W&C dinners also seems really emblematic of how close-knit the RI restaurant community is. [In addition to North, Derek Wagner ‘99 (Nicks on Broadway), Ben Sukle ‘08 (Birch), Jeanie Roland (Ella’s) and many other celebrated RI chefs have taken part.]
Totally. We all know each other really well and have known each other for years. I went to school with Ben, I’ve worked for Derek, I’ve known Beau since he was just a chef at New Rivers. [Now he is an owner.] Matt from Gracie’s… all those guys. So yeah, I think it’s a really good community event. But I waver back and forth whether or not I’d like to see more of them, because there’s something really special about them being limited to those few weeks in the summer.
Did you ever envision these successes when you opened on a wing and a prayer in 2012?
It is nice to be able to say, “Hey, I can run a restaurant like this. It IS possible. You can run a restaurant and hit all these factors. You don’t have to make sacrifices in one particular direction or another.” We’re not wildly successful by any means. We don’t make a lot of money — but we’re happy.
The food is consistently surprising but the restaurant also feels like a neighborhood place. Which is not an easy balance to hit.
That’s what we’re trying to be, from Day 1.
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Study in green: Dry-roasted asparagus and a roasted monkfish special with salsa verde. Photos: James Mark