One day last year, I was standing in front of the restaurant and struck up a conversation with a guy walking by. “Your menu never changes,” he said. At first I thought that was ridiculous, because we print a new menu every day. But when I really thought about it, I realized the guy was right. The menu really hadn’t changed much from day to day, at least not significantly. With the exception of a few details–the vegetables, sauces, condiments, etc. that change all the time and create the illusion of a changing menu–the menu had actually been revolving around the same animal proteins for years: rib steak, fish, a vegetarian thing, lamb, chicken, pork, and a seasonal dish or two such as cassoulet that come and go.
The reason for this is because of how we’ve been sourcing animal proteins for most of the past seven years, which come mostly from farms here in Western PA. I almost said: “I know the menu doesn’t change much and the choices are limited, but that’s because we source meat that is really good, raised by people we know, and from animals fed healthy diets.” But such explanations for this quirky aspect of Legume had long fell flat, so I bit my tongue, thanked him for his feedback, and went inside.
Though it wasn’t pleasant to hear, it got me to thinking about some things. The menu was stagnant, and even I was becoming bored. I had for a long time felt like a part of my training had been lying dormant and had a desire to focus on cooking again, doing the things I loved like preparing sweetbreads, as I first did twenty years ago when I was learning to cook from the best chef I ever worked for. But local veal sweetbreads aren’t something that can be had in any significant quantities in these parts, and so it was off the list of things I allowed Legume to make even though there is a part of me that doesn’t really fret too much how far they travel, or how the animal they came from was raised.
Over the past twelve years of running Legume, I have found that the pendulum of what I value in cooking swings back and forth between two very different priorities. I read an article about global warming, and I start planning on ways to never serve beef in my restaurant again. Then I cozy up with a Simon Hopkinson cookbook, and I just want to be a practitioner of good cooking for good cooking’s sake, leaving the moralizing about food ethics for others to work out.
The reason I wouldn’t cook sweetbreads for so long is because so many people have told me over the years that they come to Legume because they trust how we source things. I appreciate this a lot, and it is something I take very seriously. But this responsibility to be true was also a straight jacket; a thing that kept Legume from growing. I’ve come to realize that how people think Legume supposedly sources its food is, for some, like a Rorschach test of their own personal food values. People who really think deeply about food and care about how it comes to them really want a place where they can get what they want that aligns with their values, and I think Legume is that place for many folks. But the need to live up to this amorphous and undefined set of values which only a tiny fraction of our guests actually care about has been cause for my staff and I to put a ton of energy into things I don’t necessarily care about the way I used to. For example, five years ago my ultimate goal for Legume was to cook food that was as untethered as possible from the commodity food grid. Today, paying better wages to my staff and not losing my mind are much bigger priorities.
Yet, Legume wouldn’t be Legume if sourcing weren’t important. It’s the connections we have with people like Chris and Aeros, Bryan, Tim, Neal, Neil, Brad, and other local farmers/craftspeople I talk to every week that make Legume what it is. A lot of what gives our food character is that it is very connected to place, this place, in a real and genuine way. Thus, it would be impossible for Legume to ever be a “normal” restaurant that avoids such interconnectedness with the local food system. It’s much more prudent to revolve one’s menu around reliable commodity ingredients, as is evidenced by most restaurant menus, even ones peppered with farm names and adjectives like “local”, “sustainable” and “organic.” I think my problem has been that in seeing how beautiful a real connection with a local producer can be, I have been prone to seek out connections that aren’t very practical or good for the restaurant in order to go deeper. I sometimes make connections for connections sake, even when it doesn’t yield a better tasting meal for our guests. Getting peppers from Chris and Aeros, kale from Tim, Shaker dried corn from Bryan, and lamb from John and Sukey are no-brainers, because they’re amazing foods. Continuing to use a local product that is routinely inconsistent is a waste of time, money, and energy. It’s been clear for quite some time that prioritizing connection over what is practical or good has meant hamstringing our creative process.
If this all seems kind of obvious, I suppose it’s because I’m a slow learner. Or maybe just stubborn. Still, I don’t have regrets about all those years we sourced this way, and all the dumb mistakes we made. It’s pushed my cooks and I to creative territories we would not have otherwised traveled. Beginning at the root of the root of the ingredients you work with teaches you a lot about cooking, and I feel like I’ve grown as a cook on a visceral level in a way that I wouldn’t have had I ran my kitchen any other way. Those years sourcing all of our pork and beef from whole animals, making thousands of pounds of fermented foods every year in an attempt to use local produce all year round will always inform everything we do here. It was kind of like spending four years at an artsy fartsy college that doesn’t teach you much that is specifically practical, but shapes the way you think about everything.
This fall, the pendulum has been swinging towards the craft of cooking for cooking’s sake side of things, ethical concerns be damned (for now). We’ve been getting corn-fed beef chuck tail flaps and braising them in Duck Rabbit Milk Stout and it’s been quite wonderful. (The tail flap is one of the more marbled parts of the chuck–like the best part of Mom’s Sunday pot roast.) This is a dish we did back in 2012 which everyone seemed to love. The other day I braised some Duroc pork bellies in homemade sauerkraut, chicken stock, white wine, caraway and some “paprika” made with carmen peppers from Chris and Aeros we dried last month, in order to make an updated Legume classic: Pork and Sauerkraut Goulash. We put veal cheeks on the menu one day a couple weeks ago–something I don’t remember making since the Regent Square days–and we received a call from Mrs. Wasserman, who eats at Legume far more regularly than just about anyone else, to tell us that it was the best thing she’s ever had here, so we got some more in. (I just hope I remember what I did. I think I just braised the cheeks with white wine, garlic, mirpoix, bay, rosemary, and chicken stock, then reduced it all down and added some preserved Amish paste tomatoes Bryan Greenawalt got for us last summer, and served it all over Whetherbery Farms Polenta, from Avella PA.) These are dishes we wouldn’t have offered on the menu a year ago because of self-imposed rules, but they are effing great, and it’s kind of nice to have them back in the fold, like reconnecting with old childhood friends one drifts apart from and discovering that they never really left your heart.
These are some of the dishes that will be rotating on and off the Legume menu in the next few weeks. Come and get em’ quick–before I read another article about global warming and turn this place into a vegetarian joint.
Speaking of vegetarian food, we’ve been quietly keeping a three-course vegetarian menu going daily since Vegetarian Month last July. This means we have a three-course vegetarian tasting every day, along with an additional vegetarian entree on the regular menu. It’s a little daunting to think about how we’ll continue this into winter, but not being so tethered to an ambitious whole animal meat program frees up time and energy to focus on more vegetarian things.
Thanks for reading and supporting our restaurant. Every visit you make to Legume and other independently owned, chef-led restaurants helps keep creative, soulful cooking alive and well in Pittsburgh.