Legume Still Sprouting
After a dozen years of running Legume, trevett hooper discusses digestion and the idea of “Rustbelt Farm to Table”
Things are changing at Legume. June will mark the 12th year of the multifaceted business, 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 business marks the perfect time to incorporate new ideas and to 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. 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.
What do you see for the next 12 years of Legume?
I really want to bring Legume back to its bistro roots. 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 put 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.
Are there changes that guests can expect to see in the menu?
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.
Even though I consider myself an open-minded eater, who likes trying new things, what I really want 95 percent 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 12 years to indulge my chef ego. That’s enough.
You have described the way you present food as “maternal” rather than “sexy.” Can you define those?
I think this means valuing the physical act of eating over how it looks or its 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.
We’ve also talked before about a consideration for how food treats the consumer, about digestion.
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, our basic food groups. We’ve been given a food pyramid, and are expected to eat these set portions from within. Most places have a culture of eating but we don’t. We have to fend for ourselves and figure out what we eat and make it up as we go.
We don’t think about digestion as a culture as much as we should. Rather than 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.
How has your work over the past 12 years lead you to redefine the nature of farm to table?
I think a more genuine farm-to-table movement has to come from the ground up. It’s more complicated than the all-or-nothing purity approach which, in my opinion, is formulaic and simplistic. 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? 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 with what we are given? To me, this is rich, fertile soil to be working in.
What is the greatest lesson that the past 12 years of Legume?
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.