So What’s Up with Tropical Foods Month Anyway?

It occured to me recently that the underlying values that have driven most of our decision-making at Legume over the past decade are rooted in the thinking of my twenty-something self. After graduating from college, and with the writings of Wendell Berry, Gene Logsdon, Wes Jackson, and other philosophers/thinkers who write about industrial agriculture and its effects on our culture, the environment, and our democracy fresh in my mind, I entered my professional cooking career with a head full of ideals. Sarah and I spent most of our twenties in San Diego, where we bought most of our food at farmers markets and the organic food co-op. Most of what we ate at home was from scratch and either local or organic. When we moved back to Pittsburgh and opened Legume, part of our stated goal was to cook for the guests of our restaurant the same way we cook for guests in our home. In 2007, the farm-to-table thing, though not at all a new idea in certain parts of the country, was finding mainstream popularity. Legume’s ethos fit perfectly with the kind of things food writers wanted to write about then, and we easily and quickly got a buzz going about our restaurant.

As the years went on, we burrowed down deeper into this ethos. I envisioned Legume moving towards a point in the future where 100% of what we were putting on the plate was from Western PA,  and giving up things like citrus, white sugar, and all purpose flour. Even though I knew that 100% was not truly attainable, moving towards this end was a powerful creation myth that energized my staff and myself, and took us down creative paths we wouldn’t have otherwise traveled.

For the first seven years or so, it really felt like we were making progress towards this end. Each year, we were able to preserve more produce than the previous year, which meant more local produce in the winter, and less reliance on produce shipped in from away. For a while, we were hand-grinding our own polenta from local corn, and whole wheat for pasta. We had a full-time butcher, and for several years purchased all of our pork, beef, and goat as whole animals from local farms. Each year, the percentage of local foods used was more than the year before, which fueled the belief that the abstract goals we had made for ourselves were attainable. Cooking like this took many, many hands in the kitchen.

Meanwhile, the trajectory of how Sarah and I ate at home was moving in a very different direction. As our family at home grew in size, so did our business. I was putting so much time and effort into making Legume a bubble of farm-to-table purity, while our fridge at home was stocked with foods I wouldn’t serve at Legume. Instead of reflecting the earnest, fun-loving way we had cooked at home in our carefree twenties, Legume was something different. It had become ambitious, a little bit rigid, and became (and continues to be), draining.

Around 2016, things started to plateau in terms of sourcing locally. I also began to notice a few things. While we’d developed the capacity to preserve enough produce in the summer and fall to get well into spring, this dreamy accomplishment was not met with the enthusiasm I had hoped for. While a steaming bowl of well-made Shchi (Russian soured cabbage and beef soup) is very much appreciated on a cold January day, it doesn’t exactly hold the same appeal on the first spring-like days of March. Since things don’t really get going produce-wise here until May (and even then, it’s mostly just greens, rhubarb, and asparagus until the middle of June), hyper-localism means sauerkraut and root veggies for way longer than people really want it.

Also around this time, we were beginning to feel the first effects of what has now become a full-blown kitchen labor crisis here in Pittsburgh. It has become increasingly difficult finding people to do kitchen work. Scratch fine dining restaurants like Legume have, for decades, relied on an unofficial apprenticeship model in which cooks worked for less pay than what they would have made at a corporate box restaurant where the cooking is more like manufacturing, in exchange for the opportunity to hone techniques that are only found in a kitchen environment skewed more towards craftsmanship.

It has becoming clear, however, that this apprenticeship model isn’t going to work as well as it used to. I think for chefs of my generation, who came up in the business before 9/11, before the recession, and before the country was saturated with boutiquey chef-owned restaurants, there was a great sense of optimism among us that if we worked hard enough and gained enough skill as apprentices, we’d be successful chefs making a good living doing our own thing. It made sense for us to work for free, and/or for low wages. The most I ever made after working a decade in food service for other people was $10 an hour, without any benefits. That was okay, though, because it was my education, (and an education that did not involve any debt, either.) I also think that young people today have more expenses than my generation did. Rent is higher here in Pittsburgh than it was when I was cooking here in the late 90’s, and now everyone has a monthly cellphone bill. It’s clear that the apprentice system, which I paid into for a decade as a young cook in the 90’s and early 00’s, can’t depend on a dangled carrot of future chef-hood. We need to find a way as an industry to pay our kitchen work better now. This means working leaner, smarter, and giving up certain things.

Now in my 40’s, I’m as much as an idealist as I have ever been, though, perhaps, a slightly more sober one. I still want Legume to be a force for good in the world, but what that means, exactly, is much different than it used to be. It used to be that the most important thing was Legume moving towards a point in the future where our cooking would be completely untethered from the industrial food system. Now it is more important to me that Legume be a healthy business that provides stable, good-paying jobs for its kitchen workers. In this way, I think we make more of a positive impact in our community than being a bubble of farm-to-table purity.

How we source is still important–Legume will still lead the way in terms of sourcing local foods from Western PA, and we have every intention of maintaining the relationships with farmers we’ve built over the past twelve years. Our winter repertoire is thoroughly tethered to house-canned tomatoes, sauerkraut, kimchi, sour cherries, and rhubarb chutney we make in the growing season. It’s just that instead of making enough of these things to get us through next June, we scale back and do enough to get us through March–right around the time people get sick of it anyway. I might also be a little less likely to do some of the fringe stuff, like making dandelion wine or 200 pound batches of pickled garlic scapes.

We’ve also found ways to outsource things without really diminishing quality–such as letting Suzanne from Kistaco Farm make the applesauce we use at Pie For Breakfast, instead of buying apples from them and making it ourselves. Another big shift has been letting Brad Thoma grind our beef for Butterjoint burgers at his meat shop in Saxonburg, instead of buying sides of beef each week and butchering and grinding it ourselves. They’ve been doing it there for four generations; who am I to think Legume could do it better?

A lot of our ambitious endeavours over the years were driven by curiosity, and I don’t regret the years of whole animal cooking and grinding our own grains for what they taught us about our craft. The lessons learned during those inspired years will live on in the collective memory of our kitchen. But so do the bad. The effects of the chef rage I visited upon my staff–which is inevitably cooked up when a young chef has such an ambitious agenda, is immersed in a “yes chef” culture, has a list of nice accolades and articles written about them, and has the financial pressures of this godforsaken business constantly on the mind–is still felt along with the good. It’s certainly a mixed bag. Though the freakouts these days are more rare, much shorter, and less intense than they used to be, it will take a long time to heal these wounds completely. The best thing I can do is learn from my mistakes and work to make this place less of a pressure cooker.

It’s time to shed old ways and move on. The economic realities of our time no longer support such a heavy, labor-intensive approach to cooking, just as today’s restaurant work environments won’t stand for chefs raging like two year olds anymore. This may be good, though I can’t help but wonder if I would be the kind of chef I am today if I hadn’t experienced the kinds of pressure-soaked environments I did as a young cook.  Regardless, it’s not the kind of environment I want to work in these days. The nice thing about cooking is that there is so much to be curious about, so many ways to approach things…

Tropical Foods Month, which is happening next month at Legume, is our way to shake up everything we’ve thought about what it means to be thoughtful, considerate consumers here in Western PA and investigate it in a new light, and perhaps liberate ourselves, if only a little,  from our addiction to the “shoulds” of hyperlocalism. During Tropical Foods Month, we put our attention into the many ways we might actually make a positive impact by reaching beyond the borders of Western PA, like working with more fair trade ingredients, instead of following what has become the predictable farm-to-table formula of our time, which is to “just say no” to what isn’t local as the crow flies.

It’s no coincidence that we’re doing this in March, a time of year when the doldrums of winter really hit hard here, and when a lot of tropical ingredients are at their peak. We kick things off with a tropical foods buffet on March 3rd, exploring the Caribbean roots of some of our staff members: Oliver, Erica, and Duane. Former Legume chefs Jamilka and Raf will return on two different nights: Raf for a menu of authentic and modern Filipino dishes revolving around fish and fruit, and Jamilka cooking up the memories of her childhood in Puerto Rico. In addition to these events, we’ll be featuring tropical and fair trade ingredients at Legume, Butterjoint, and Pie For Breakfast on our daily menus all month long.

Thanks for reading this and for supporting our restaurant. Trevett

Leave a Reply