We are back to work this week, ready to cook and bake wonderful things. I can’t speak for the whole staff, but I can speak for Sarah and I and say that it was nice having a week off from work to just stop and think about things other than this restaurant, even though all the conversations we have with each other tend to land back here anyway. At the very least, it was a moment to step away and think about our larger aspirations for Butterjoint
The thing that usually comes up for me whenever I have a little space from the daily grind is a renewed desire to minimize our business’s reliance upon violent and destructive systems. For us, the big one would be industrial meat farming. But also the general wastefulness and energy-intensiveness of the cooking methods we use is something I think about too (namely, boiling food in liquid, straining out that food, reducing the liquid to concentrate the flavor, and then using that liquid to braise another thing in). Then I get back into the kitchen, and the immediate needs are so great (someone calls off, the prep list is too long, something breaks, etc.) that the aspirations to find a new way are immediately moved to the back burner and the goal becomes to just get through the week. That’s restaurant life everywhere.
At our first restaurant, Legume, there was a major tension between my desire to cook the way I was trained to cook and which people had come to love (Americanized classical French) and a desire to do it in a way that minimized harm. Either one of these things is hard enough on their own. Trying to do both was insane, especially at the standards we held ourselves to. This ultimately led to a situation that was very difficult and stressful for me and the staff. In our effort to reduce harm via hyper-rigid sourcing practices, a new kind of harm was created because of what had to be absorbed by the kitchen staff. On one level, it was beautiful, but the kitchen eventually became a pressure cooker. I found myself in the role of a raging chef, something I really tried hard not to be after working for other raging chefs. But there I was. Eventually Legume lost its spark and the restaurant grew stale.
But it didn’t become that way for lack of effort or care, but because the thing we set out to do–being two things at once–was always leading to a dead end. Legume is a case study in what happens when one tries to make “ethical” something that is inherently unethical to begin with. Fine dining, with its reliance on underpaid labor, specialty ingredients, and extractive cooking processes is rather exploitative. Of course, I didn’t really notice this fact until I was years into owning my own restaurant, because I’d always been so enamored with the beauty of the cooking itself and the tradition of the craft that I didn’t think too hard about what made the scenario possible. But I can’t really ignore it anymore.
Don’t get me wrong–I do think there is a place in the world for fine dining. I love fine dining, at least being on the receiving end of it. On my birthday, I want oysters, martinis, a big steak and creme brûlée, and that will probably never change. But that’s one day a year. When I think about the food I want to eat on a daily basis, and about what work I am called to do, it’s something much different. I got into fine dining because I wanted to learn how to cook from scratch, and working in a classical kitchen was the best place to learn these skills when I started cooking in the 90’s. I still want to cook from scratch, but I want to do it in a way that is more life-affirming, making something that help bodies feel good; something that brings people together and nourishes them; something that doesn’t depend on extractive processes or violence to get here; something that makes me feel connected to other people. This impulse comes from the same place deep inside that led me to take a hyper-local approach of sourcing at Legume. Ultimately that approach would fail because it was more focused on keeping the “bad” out instead of gently creating the spaces for the “good” things to grow and take root. The approach may have been a little off, but it wasn’t a waste. I learned a lot.
I share with you these musings because I have a menu to write for when we open up the dining room in May, and I’ve had the distance this past week think about Butterjoint’s true mission. I wonder: is this the time to make a clean break? For the past year, we’ve been in survival mode. Our standards of sourcing have slipped a bit just because there are so few of us in the kitchen. Nothing radical, but little things, like purchasing canned tomatoes instead of preserving our own. Relationships with local farms are somewhat in limbo after our volume needs were so dramatically reduced last season. We’re still getting most of our meat locally, but not necessarily from sources practicing husbandry in a way that is truly aligned with our core values. I justify it by telling myself it’s at least not coming from a thousand miles away and that we’re keeping more money in the local economy, but in my heart I just know it’s a product of the same industrial model on a smaller scale, just closer to home. I don’t feel guilty or bad about making these choices because I think we still made some really great food this past year that brought much needed comfort to people when they needed it, and it’s what we had to do to make it happen. But as we emerge from “survival” mode and blossom into a post-COVID world, I really want to consider deeply how we might create the spaces for our core ideals to express themselves, instead of toeing a line we permitted ourselves at a low point.
I know it is possible to make great food here that minimizes harm to our planet and beings, and supports systems that are healthy and life-affirming. It just can’t look the way Legume looked. It can’t be fine dining as we think of it in Pittsburgh. It can’t be cut from the cloth of trendy New American restaurant ethos either, as Butterjoint was slated to be. It has to be different. Almost radically.
So changes are coming. But don’t worry. It will be good. This is really just our way of staying the course; we wouldn’t be ourselves if we weren’t evolving into something else.
Thanks for reading,