There is no consensus on how to become a great chef. Some rely on experimentation, intuition and tradition – as well as the guidance of the heart and the stomach – to inform their style. Others take a decidedly technical approach, pursuing rigorous educations that establish theory, order, method, chemistry and nutrition as the frameworks of their craft. Neither emphasis is inherently better than the other – there are many paths to a potent set of cooking skills. However, the best culinary artists know that without a sense of balance between the theoretical and the practical, all the passion and talent in the world can easily be negated in the face of the kitchen’s many challenges.

 

 

 

Chef Jori Rieben_Aspire Main Dining RoomJӧri Rieben’s nontraditional path upwards through the culinary world has given him a balanced perspective on just what it means to prepare and serve a meal. Rieben is the Executive Chef of Aspire Seasonal Kitchen, the restaurant and kitchen counterpart of Hotel Providence. Since taking leadership in January, Rieben has worked tirelessly to push Aspire into the top echelon of Providence’s vibrant restaurant scene.

 

 

Rieben’s longtime love of food had organic, emotional beginnings. As a child in Spring Valley, NY, Rieben would watch spellbound as his father joyfully prepared meals for family and friends. The elder Rieben’s enthusiasm spilled over, and young Jӧri came to love the food and the process, eagerly assisting his father with what needed to be done. The family moved to Switzerland when Rieben was 10, and by the end of high school, he had secured a three-year apprenticeship at Restaurant Am Gallusplatz, a fine-dining restaurant in the city of Saint Gallen. Rieben stayed on for another year after the apprenticeship, before reporting for his compulsory Swiss military training. During his training Rieben managed to work his way into the kitchen, even staying on in a culinary role at the military for another half-year after his training. After that Rieben took on a roughly six-month engagement aboard the cruise ship MS Europa. After another stint at Am Gallusplatz, Rieben decided to return to the United States, landing in Rhode Island and finding no shortage of need for his skills around the state.

 

 

 

Learning on the job at young age in Saint Gallen and the Swiss military gave Rieben a crash course on respect, timeliness, and maintaining focus in stressful situations. Thankfully, all the discipline and struggle resulted in very tangible rewards. “It was just nice, you know, to give pleasure to people.” Rieben says. “Going through functions like funerals, you are always doing something right for them. And I think food is a big part of making people happy.” For Rieben, these early experiences cemented the mental connection between the preparations in back of the house and the happiness of the diners in the front. This perspective has been essential to Rieben in his role as executive chef, where the big picture must always be kept in mind.

 

 

 

Aspire Seasonal Kitchen is far more than an obligatory hotel restaurant. With a stately dining room, a private wine room and a gorgeous outdoor patio, Aspire exudes an elegance well-suited for both formal and casual dining. The well-appointed A-bar is another important part of the restaurant. The fully-stocked bar’s decor projects a tasteful ambiance, and its signature cocktails brim with both alluring colors and unique flavors. Aspire’s kitchen services the restaurant for breakfast, lunch and dinner during the week, and brunch and dinner on the weekends. The kitchen also serves the A-bar and does the catering for room service and in-house events like weddings, banquets and conferences. The sheer breadth of cuisine that the kitchen is responsible for creates many opportunities, but also requires a good deal of creativity, attention to detail, and hard work.

 

 

 

This is why Rieben’s leadership is so important. Despite the pressure that restaurant service can create, Rieben is careful to avoid managerial pitfalls often ascribed to head chefs – particularly the intimidation of employees or the practice of imperious delegation. “It’s not like I’m a chef where I just tell them what to do,” Rieben says. He takes pride in his hands-on, teaching approach – an echo of his own graduated path to head of the kitchen. “I will go hands on in it,” Rieben says. “I will teach them, I will show them… I just think it’s very key to have a good leader, someone that they can look up to. I think if the lead person works hard, the others will work hard too.”

 

 

 

Rieben tries to extend this somewhat egalitarian approach to the menu. Though his travels and roots have resulted in a menu with strong Swiss, French Bistro and German influences, Rieben also strives to be inclusive, working closely on ideas and recipes with the other chefs. “I like to get the people who I work with involved because I think everybody has a say in it.” Rieben says. “Say somebody can create a dish, and then if it’s a seller, he actually created it. It will bring his work ethic up, it will make him happier. He can say ‘I made this dish.’ Most importantly, Rieben has a strong understanding of balance. He will play to an employee’s strengths, or push them out of their comfort zone, depending on the situation. There are no specialists in the seasonal kitchen, as Rieben needs chefs who are versatile enough to perform any kitchen task competently – a consideration of special importance when staff members are unable to make their shifts. Rieben makes a point of training chefs and others in their weak areas, so that an unaddressed Achilles heel does not derail a hectic meal or banquet service.

 

 

 

If Rieben has one frustration, it is the time he must spend on administrative work. “I like to make the food, I like to create the food, I like to be there. I like to be with the customers, I like to see the people. The administrative, it is what it is… Just putting in numbers and looking at the computer all day – it’s just not my thing.” Rieben lives on a working farm in Seekonk and competes in triathalons – so time spent punching inventory into a spreadsheet is tantamount to torture for him. Fortunately, Rieben has been able to avail himself of one of Providence’s most abundant natural resources: student interns. With Johnson and Wales right next door, Rieben is able to stick the youngsters with the more tedious tasks and get back to the important work of molding Aspire’s epicurean aesthetic. Of course, the relationship is not completely exploitive. Inquisitive, dutiful interns can learn a great deal from being a part of the day-to-day workings of Aspire’s kitchen. Rieben says that he just hired one such intern to a full-time position.

 

 

 

Like any chef worth his salt, Rieben closely monitors the quality of his ingredients. As they say, garbage in, garbage out. Rieben works with Aspire’s suppliers to ensure that everything in the Aspire kitchen is of high quality, and as fresh as humanly possible. He will not hesitate to pull a dish from the menu if it cannot meet the high standards at Aspire. Freshest of all are the herbs and spices that Rieben and the other chefs grow in Aspire’s humble rooftop garden. Given the abundant sun, the plants grow vigorously in the warm-weather months, producing striking flavors. All the household names are there – basil, sage, oregano, parsley, mint, cilantro, lavender, thyme – but there are less common plants as well, like lemon verbena (aloysia citrodora), whose leaves taste for all the world like fresh lemon zest.

 

 

 

A quick visit to Yelp.com will reveal that over the last few years, Aspire Seasonal Kitchen has not made all of the people happy all of the time. “It was just going downhill,” Rieben says, referring to the days of low numbers and unhappy customers – a long slide Rieben watched unhappily from his position as banquet chef. Rieben was promoted in January to right the ship, and nearly eight months into his tenure as executive chef, Rieben is confident that the restaurant is on the upswing. Since assuming his new role, Rieben has worked long and hard, going close to five months without two off-days in a row. As a result of this campaign, Rieben does not have the time or energy to eat at other Providence area restaurants. He does not cook at home either, asking his wife to handle the evening meals – mostly uninterrupted by sneaky tasting spoons and friendly professional advice. All things considered, Rieben does not regret the time and labor spent at Aspire Seasonal Kitchen, as the work has resulted in visible improvements in teamwork, cleanliness, timeliness and customer satisfaction. “We’re all happy,” Rieben says of the restaurant’s direction. “I just hope over a year’s time I can prove to people, I can say to people, ‘we actually brought it back.’

 

 

Written By: David Sano

 

 

Hotel Providence

 

 

 

 

 

www.hotelprovidence.com

139 Mathewson St., Providence, RI‎ – (401) 861-8000‎

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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