Legume’s First Dozen Years: an Interview

We were delighted to be included in the most recent issue of Table Magazine! Here is the extended version of the interview between Thommy Conroy and Legume’s Chef/Co-Owner, Trevett.

After a dozen years of running Legume, the chef discusses digestion and the idea of “Rustbelt Farm to Table”

Things are changing at Legume. June first will mark the twelfth year of the multifaceted businesses, which grew from a shoebox bistro to a three tiered enterprise, with offerings that range from old world favorites, to some of the most delicious eggs I’ve ever encountered. A dozen years of service marks the perfect time to incorporate new ideas and celebrate what have become classics.

Throughout the summer, changes will appear both to the physical appearance of the beloved restaurant as well as new developments to the time-tested menu. As part of the process, I have been commissioned to create new interiors that reflect the progress and future of the restaurant. The process has involved a dive into the nature of what makes Legume special, from the approach to food all the way to the care for service.  All of this has been fuelled by discussion and investigation. Here we discuss what the chef envisions for the future of the restaurant, a better approach to eating and redefining farm with a rust belt sensibility.

Thommy: What do you see for the next twelve years of Legume?

Trevett: It’s really hard to be specific about what I see for Legume for the next twelve years. We’ve gone through so many changes–first when we moved from our tiny Regent Square location to our current location, re-branding the Legume bar as Butterjoint, and, in this past year, opening Pie For Breakfast next door. Now, I’m transitioning out of the kitchen to make room for Csilla to take over the menu. All of this has happened rather organically, from the gut, and without a whole lot of long-term strategic planning.

One thing that is for certain is that I really want to bring Legume back to its bistro roots, where we started twelve years ago. By that, I mean orienting Legume back to being more of a neighborhood place than a destination place. We’ve received a lot of national press and accolades over the years, but it’s really gotten me wound up, and stressed out trying to maintain standards and trying to outdo myself from one year to the next. I actually think this ambitious striving has taken us away from our true mission, which has always been to take care of the people who come to eat with us week after week, year after year.

I’ve also been thinking more holistically about what it means to eat a meal here, and design plays a big part in that.  Our priorities have always been heavily focused on the food and service, and I’m happy to be putting more effort into the dining space. We now have this beautiful wallpaper in the front room, and it’s another reason to come to Legume.  I’m really excited to see how working with you unfolds.

Thommy: Are there changes that guests can expect to see in the menu and their dining experience?

Trevett: Yes. The big thing I’m excited about is having Csilla Thackery here, who joined us as Chef de Cuisine in February.  It’s been a slow training process, as we have three restaurants here in this one building, and it’s a lot to learn. However, I’m really excited for her to spread her wings this summer and take more control of the menu.

Csilla and I have been talking about offering a menu that is a little less formal and more familiar to people. We’ve been viewing our menu through the lens of the “picky uncle,” making sure there are options on the menu every day that anyone can enjoy.

Our challenge has always been that Legume’s niche is as a destination restaurant, and I’ve always been really worried about watering that down.  But more and more, I think satisfying “Picky Uncle” makes Legume a better restaurant, because we all have a Picky Uncle in us. Even though I consider myself an open minded eater who likes trying new things, what I really want 95% of the time when I go out to eat is something comforting and familiar.  I have very little interest in indulging another chef’s self-centered, chefy vision, which has really made me take a hard look at what I am asking of my guests. I’m 44 now, and I know what I like, and I’m kind of inspired to give people what they like. I’ve had most of the past twelve years to indulge my chef ego. That’s enough.

Thommy: How has your work over the past 12 years lead you to re-define the nature of Farm to table- can you define your term “rust belt farm to table”, and where you think it will lead?

Trevett: The “farm to table” ideal in America, or at least the ideal that Legume aspired to for a long time, was really cast by Alice Waters and Chez Panisse in the 1970’s. It’s this idea that everything on the plate should be pure and clean, sourced from the best farms, and served at the peak of freshness.

In my heart, I really do think this is the best way to cook, and it goes really deep for me.  My whole style of cooking is based in childhood memories of eating from my parent’s garden, and foraging in the woods and fields behind my house. So when I learned about Chez Panisse in the early 90’s, it made me want to do this for a living. However, the food system in this country is so out of whack, that to really cook and eat that way requires great expense, ideal conditions, and Herculean-like effort for most folks, because it means going against the grain. It’s just not possible for every American to eat this way all the time. So what we really need, I think, are models of cooking and eating that help resolve this conflict between what we should be eating (which is high-quality food that is nourishing to the body, mind and spirit, which will mean different things to different people) and the fact that the conditions of our food system do not really support this, yet.

I think there is this idea that places like Chez Panisse and Blue Hill at Stone Barns epitomize a kind of all-or-nothing “purity” that all farm-to-table restaurants should be aspiring to.  A lot of folks, then, project that kind of thing onto a place like Legume, and I’ve felt a certain kind of pressure to live up to that ideal in order to be a supposedly “genuine” farm to table restaurant.

But what I really want to do these days is help change the narrative of what a genuine farm to table restaurant can be, to include more diverse models than the all-or-nothing purity model. Chez Panisse and Blue Hill might be great restaurants, but they exist in highly artificial conditions. They are kind of like supermodel restaurants: they represent an ideal standard, but they don’t necessarily serve as practical guides for how a restaurant in the regular world might engage their local foodshed a genuine and real way.  Supposedly, a place like Blue Hill at Stone Barns is doing important work that will “trickle down” to others in the farm to table movement, but that smacks of top-down Regan-era thinking to me.

I think a more genuine farm-to-table movement has to come from the ground up. What this means, exactly, is a little harder to define, because it’s a little more complicated than the all-or-nothing purity approach which, in my opinion, is kind of formulaic and simplistic when you really think about it. When you have access to nothing but perfect, “ethically raised” ingredients all the time, you don’t really have to come up against the rough edges of compromise. The Rust Belt, however,  doesn’t afford us the luxury of looking away. We’re forced to come up against questions like: what does it mean to be committed to one’s local food system knowing that you’ll be forever tethered to commodity foodways, at least to some extent? How far do you push, and where is the line where healthy compromise veers into watering down one’s values to the point where they become meaningless? And the most important question: how do we eat well as possible with what we are given? To me, this is rich, fertile soil to be working in.

Thommy: You have described the way you present food as “maternal” rather than “sexy”- can you define those ideas and how they affect the customer’s experience.

Trevett: I think this means valuing the physical act of eating itself over how it looks or it’s fashion appeal.  When I eat something, I want it to taste good, of course, but I also want it to sit well in my stomach and derive good energy from it so I can be happy and productive in my life. I think cooking from scratch with healthy ingredients achieves this.

A lot of folks who go out to eat are looking for something fashionable to remind them of what they ate on their last trip to a more cosmopolitan city, or something with a stunning visual appeal that they can post on instagram. That’s fine, but it’s not our priority at Legume. We’re about satisfying physical needs first. Occasionally, our food is instagram worthy and fashionable too, but that’s more of an accident than a priority.

Thommy: We’ve also talked before about a consideration for how food treats the consumer- about digestion.

Trevett: We don’t think of digestion as Americans. I believe we are one of the only countries where the government is telling us what to eat – from ur basic food groups. We’ve been given a food pyramid and are expected to eat these set portions from within. Most cultures have a culture of eating but  we don’t- we have to fend for ourselves. We have to figure out what we eat and make it up as we go.

We don’t think about digestion about a culture as much as we should. Rather then considering what it’s going to do to us, our food is just supposed to taste good. Maybe we worry about if it is going to make us fat- but we should worry about how it makes us feel. Legume is about that, it is a long term investment. When regular customers leave to try new restaurants, they return to us and say it is like coming home. They say it makes them feel good.

Thommy: Can you share about one thing your are particularly proud of that you make at the restaurant?

Trevett: Of all the things we do, I’m most proud of the pierogies we make, because it touches every part of the kitchen.  Jess, Legume’s head chef, makes the filling in the morning. That evening, the Butterjoint cook scoops the filling into little balls that firm up overnight, making it easier for the pastry chefs to hand form into the dough the next day.  Once the pierogies are made, the afternoon cook blanches them in salted water and cools them down. Finally, each pierogie is pan-fried to order in a mixture of clarified butter and olive oil.

None of these things are particularly difficult, but there are so many places where it can go wrong: the seasoning in the filling, the seasoning in the blanching water, the consistency of the dough, mis-rotation, being rushed on the pickup during service, etc.  That’s why the pierogie is the barometer of the Legume kitchen. If we’re making good pierogies every day, I can trust that most things are running well.

Thommy: What is the greatest lesson that the past twelve years of Legume has shared?

Trevett: Like most young, ambitious chefs, I had an agenda when I opened Legume. I had a lot of ideas about what the food scene in Pittsburgh needed, and how I was going to fix it.  But running Legume has taught me that Legume needs Pittsburgh more than Pittsburgh needs Legume. While I do think Legume brings something important to the restaurant community here, we’ve had to bend a lot to survive here. For a while, we were like a plant, separate in our own little pot, and it was easy to weed and keep pristine. Now we’re in the garden, and our roots are all tangled with a community. I like it this way.

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