It’s 9:30 a.m. at Legume
in Oakland and the air is crackling with anticipation. The Penn’s Corner Farm Alliance, a local farmer cooperative that provides fruits, vegetables and meats to area restaurants, will deliver a whole pig later in the day. Already, chef-owner Trevett Hooper, butcher Andrew Sluk and the many cooks on staff are musing about the various cuts of meat they’ll get from the pig and how they will be served on the plate.
It is this philosophy of whole-animal cooking, along with an unflinching commitment to serving local, picked-when-ready fruits and vegetables whenever possible that helps Legume stand apart on the local food scene. Other similarly-minded chefs at restaurants include Cure, Habitat, Eleven and The Porch at Schenley.
Chef Hooper’s approach may not make the most business sense – the restaurant will often run out of dishes on its small, carefully-crafted menu to the consternation of guests – but it’s a small price to pay for a team keen to stay away from factory-farmed foods in order to offer a dining experience that can be revelatory.
“We want to be sure that every animal protein we serve is healthy, that it didn’t travel far, that the animal ate a good diet and didn’t suffer, that it was slaughtered and processed properly,” says Hooper. “We’re not trying to be goody two-shoes. It’s because that’s how you get the best flavor and what’s most healthy to eat.”
This approach is what drives Legume’s menu and, in order to help facilitate the desired outcome and ensure that no part of the animal is wasted, Hooper has re-imagined the restaurant’s bar as Butterjoint, where house-made burgers and sausages will be menu staples.
Hooper opened the original Legume restaurant in Regent Square five years ago, a 34-seat charmer that quickly became the hit of the neighborhood. His newer, more spacious digs in Oakland, tucked between the Pitt and CMU campuses, draw heavily from an academic crowd that appreciates the chef’s approach to food and cooking. “It was a good thing to go big because we couldn’t do whole-animal cooking [at the smaller restaurant],” notes Hooper. “And when you’re too small, you can’t make meaningful economic relationships. At this scale, I can say to farmers, ‘grow this.’ The way we source our food is so fragile, there are so many judgment calls and daily decisions...if you do it this way, there are moments of great beauty and moments when it just doesn’t work. Beauty is far more meaningful.”
A native of Bangor, Maine, Hooper obtained a degree in religion from the nontraditional Oberlin College (“we’re freaks,” he jokes) and tried his hand at a variety of jobs but kept coming back to the kitchen. “The career chose me,” he says. “I tried hard in my 20s not to be a chef because it’s hard. And yet, for me, it’s a certain freedom. I’m much happier when I know what I’m supposed to be doing. When you work in a kitchen, it’s so clear. It’s never felt like work, more like a hobby.”
He counts California chefs Alice Waters and Paul Bertolli as inspirations since their approach to cooking speaks to how he grew up eating. “My mom wasn’t a gourmet but she had a sense of seasonality. We ate lobster and steamers, we went apple picking, ate blueberries and corn in August. My parents always had a garden and my mom made relishes and canned. There’s a difference between cultural seasonality, which you find in many restaurants, and agricultural seasonality, which is what we do.” The chef is also a fan of fermentation and creates his own kim chee, sauerkraut, miso and sour pickles. He is currently working with the Department of Agriculture toward approval to sell these fermented goods at retail.
What's troubling about farm-to-table
The notion of farm-to-table restaurants is one that clearly troubles Hooper. “Farm-to-table, for the most part, is a fallacy. You have restaurants serving factory-farmed foods garnished with a few heirloom vegetables, and the percentage of food on the plate that stands up to the values they’re purporting to express is small. They’re not thinking deeply about it. With whole-animal cooking, every bit on the plate conforms to our highest ideals. We don’t do it because it’s easy. We have a lot more challenges in Pittsburgh, a long winter when nothing grows. You have to resist the temptation to be the first person to have asparagus on the menu in the spring, which could mean getting it from Peru. Unfortunately, our ideals aren’t matched by the average diner.”
At Legume, Hooper has surrounded himself with an equally talented, and passionate, crew. Chef de Cuisine Jamilka Borges recently returned to Pittsburgh from a stint as stagier
at the vaunted Blue Hill at Stone Barns restaurant north of New York City. It was an eye-opening experience for the Puerto Rico native.
“I missed Pittsburgh a lot!” she laughs. “The Pittsburgh dining scene is more honest, you know everybody and people are extremely friendly.” Her recent travels took her to Mexico City. “What I like about Mexican food is that it’s feminine food. Men cook to show off their skills. Females cook to feed people, gather, enjoy.”
Late in the afternoon, Borges takes the lead on preparing a “family meal” for the staff. It’s an opportunity to break bread and to plan for the evening ahead. Soon after, Hooper joins his cooks in the kitchen, picking imaginary crumbs off a gleaming stainless steel counter and pacing as soups are stirred and ingredients prepped. He samples an assortment of dishes including a roasted bell pepper salad with tomatoes, pea shoots, feta and pickled dragon tongue beans, and a corn crepe plump with peppers, pea shoots and ricotta that’s napped in a stinging nettles pesto.
“If I don’t have my hands on something, I feel like I’m losing control,” he offers, swaying back and forth. He’d also like to place more of that control in the hands of women, sounding somewhat disappointed that most of the applicants he sees are men. “All male kitchens are the worst place to work. You need men and women – we’re creating art and
food. Legume is pretty feminine as a rule, the nurturing aspect. We’re about putting nurturing food on the plate, not ‘let’s see what I can do.’”
The dining room is abuzz by 7 p.m. Servers stride purposefully in and out of the kitchen, ferrying plates of food to eager patrons. Hooper stands to one side, watching and smiling. “Everything on the plate is meaningful,” he says. “Andrew butchered the animal, foraged the mushrooms, made the terrine...we’re offering something that people don’t know they want yet.”
Featured dishes: Grilled radicchio, sweet potato sformato, cipollini onions and candied pecans; caramel pot de creme with maldon salt, whipped cream and cocoa meringue.
Photographs copyright Brian Cohen