Rob Connoley wears so many hats—chef, restaurateur, forager, author, academic, activist, philanthropist—that I’m tempted to get him a hat rack on his next birthday.
The thing about Chef Rob, though, is that all the hats combine seamlessly into a fascinating journey through the culinary and wider worlds, fueled by a devotion to doing what’s right, not only for his cuisine of choice but for those preparing and partaking of it.
If you’ve visited Rob’s restaurant, St. Louis’ exceptional Bulrush (3307 Washington Ave., St. Louis MO. Tel: 314-449-1208. bulrushstl.com), his uniqueness in the gastronomic world is a given: how many other spots can you name that specialize in the cuisine of Missouri’s Ozark region? It’s been a fascinating journey to his current spot and one informed by a love of his native area.
After careers in grant writing and non-profits (he was Executive Director of Indiana Youth Group, the second-oldest group for LGBTQ youth in the country), he opened the restaurant The Curious Kumquat in New Mexico, which brought him a James Beard Award semifinalist spot (his second came in 2022 for his work at Bulrush). Eventually, he moved back to St. Louis, where he was born and raised: “I moved back because of family, I wanted time with my mother,” he tells me, adding, with a laugh: “says the guy who is sitting in 100-degree weather and 80% humidity!”
As for what he would now do in St. Louis, he wanted to continue ideas he’d begun in New Mexico, where he studied the history of the local Mimbreño tribe and worked on the land with the Apache people. “I knew I was going to do the same style of restaurant, but not the same theme. I knew it would be a foraged restaurant with the local farmers. At one point my spouse was doing some work down in the Ozarks, and I told him, when you’re in the churches, ask the old ladies for some recipes.
In that process I learned about Ozark cookbooks, but they seemed more geared toward tourists. The Ozarks as a distinct region had never been covered by a chef and it had also never been covered academically.” A trip to Little Rock’s Butler Center for Arkansas Studies fortified the learning process: “In the archive there, everything started to gel for me. They were giving me letters from the 1820s and 1830s, people who settled in the area, the indigenous people who lived there and the enslaved people brought by the settlers. The interaction of those three cultures created the food we eat.”
Bulrush is more than just a restaurant: it’s an exploration of the area’s history and the diverse groups that created that history: “Most restaurants,” says Rob, “it’s like, well, I’m a pizza place. Here, everything’s inspired by the research. After three and a half years, I’ve barely put a drop in the bucket!”
Specializing in the cuisine of pre-1870 Ozarks, Bulrush offers a voyage through local products, many obtained by the foraging Rob does and fueled by the research he’s done into the area. If it sounds like a purely academic exercise, just wait till you visit, with Rob himself leading you through the many unique and amazing creations. You’ll savor a multi-course tasting menu and learn about each of the ingredients that go into the astounding food.
Every dish is a little work of art, both on the plate and the palate and if you had any doubts about freshly foraged items or Ozark cuisine itself, they’ll vanish with your first bite of an acorn flour donut topped with morels and a goose demi-glace (incredible!), or turkey thigh confit, beet mole and collard greens tossed in house-made fermented hot sauce with fresh kohlrabi (one of my favorite “unsung” vegetables).
The delights don’t stop there, as the ensuing, equally remarkable dishes might include such things as rhubarb-poached walleye or a savory apple tarte tatin with parsnip/miso ice cream, catfish fumet and nasturtium. Your dessert could be rutabaga cake with salted forest nut custard, or maybe an extravaganza of roasted peach, marshmallow fluff, malted milk crumb and candied sunflower seeds!
This is cooking so creative, so out of the usual culinary lane, that it’s one of the best dining experiences I’ve ever had. There’s always an eye toward authenticity, the results of untold hours of research into contemporaneous accounts of the territory. He recalls that they didn’t serve beef at the restaurant because he had no documentation of cattle being raised in the region, until one day they found references to it.
“I texted the sous chef saying `put beef on the menu!’” he smiles. A similar thing happened with trout, when a professor commented on the walleye being served: “It came up that we didn’t have records of trout in the Ozarks and she said, `Oh we have records of trout in the 1890s!’ Okay, it wasn’t before 1870, but it was close enough! So now we can serve trout.”
With his devotion to foraging for ingredients, it’s not unusual to see this celebrated chef (and author of the cookbook Acorns & Cattails: A Modern Foraging Cookbook of Forest, Farm & Field) in a field or forest, gathering what’s needed. He’s even formed the Bulrush Land Partnership, which allows him and his staff to forage on land with the caretakers’ permission.
“We put the word out on social media saying we’re looking for land, and people let me go forage on their property.” It has really (pardon the pun) blossomed into a major project: “At this point we’re up to 10,000 acres of private land that we have been given access to. Most often the landowner is a customer who gets excited about what we do and has confidence in our land stewardship practices, so that they invite us as an extra set of eyes on their land (i.e., watch for hunters or other trespassers).
Typically, our first visit is us exploring the property with them and showing them the foraging opportunities on their own land. Landowners are always offered complimentary meals to thank them, but they never take us up on that offer since they see it as more of a service to them than us.”
In addition to the Land Partnership, there’s always something new going on at Bulrush. The Historic Drinks Program has roots in saloons in St. Louis and the Ozark region from 1837 to the 1917, including the work of famous African-American bartender Tom Bullock. The Genealogy Project focuses on family histories of freed slaves. The Heritage Seed Project operates in conjunction with almost thirty local growers to resurrect and preserve the heirloom seeds of the rea, while the Ozark Vinegar Project presents a wide spectrum of delectable vinegars, a staple in the early nineteenth-century Ozarks, with vinegars made from walnut sap, pawpaw, dandelions, beets and much more and, of course, one of the most singular sweets of the region, vinegar pie!
One of my favorite aspects of Bulrush is that Rob maintains a zero-waste kitchen, which is not only great for the environment but results in creative uses for things most people might just discard. Beet scraps might be fermented and turned into a mole, or perhaps a condiment like the wonderful beet ketchup I once had there. “We season almost exclusively with zero waste products,” notes Rob, “end pieces, peels, cores, we’ll dehydrate them or powderize them.”
“The one I’ve always been proudest of: I’ve always wanted to make sweet potato caramel, so we took like forty pounds of potatoes and ended up with about a quarter cup. Totally not practical! Then we had all these roasted sweet potatoes. So I boiled them, strained them and the liquid went into the bar for a cocktail, but I still had the sweet potatoes!” The solution? “We mushed it up and made it into a kind of miso.” It was an idea that stuck. “Now I have twenty different flavors. I even have one that’s cattail being turned into a miso!”
Connoley also believes in fairly compensating his staff, the majority of whom are LGBTQ (who, he believes, “are very underrepresented in the fine dining community”). So the cost of staff salaries is built into your dining price, which is a comfort for the diner, knowing that the remarkably nice staff is being paid a living wage (along with insurance and three weeks of annual paid time off). Connoley proves this by sharing all finances with the staff. For him, it’s a matter of simple honesty: “When you’re setting yourself as an example of zero waste or ethical sourcing or compensation for the staff, you can’t bullshit.”
As someone who’s experienced the homophobia of the restaurant world and the food press, Rob has always been a big supporter of establishments run by members of marginalized populations, including collaborative events with Ugandan chef Christine Sseremba (a fundraiser for the St. Louis International Center, an immigrant and refugee organization) and Korean-American chef Melanie Meyers (a benefit for LGBTQ health services at Planned Parenthood).
Currently, he’s working on an article for a local food publication about African food establishments. “There are so many African restaurants and food markets here that people don’t even know about. I thought I’d done my due diligence, but during an interview I said to the person from a Somalian restaurant, `Where do you go shopping?’ and he mentioned two Somali grocery stores I didn’t even know existed. This article is the most formal thing I’ve done,” he notes, before asking the obvious question: “but why haven’t the food writers done it?”
Connoley has also been a consistent supporter of LGBTQ causes, which he feels is essential. “I am a unique specimen because I am fully, fully out. I know how important it is to be fully out in your professional life.” One of his most fun projects: a “bake sale” involving some of the major luminaries of the St. Louis food scene, also a benefit for Planned Parenthood’s LGBTQ health services. His Instagram Pride statement sums it up beautifully: “Pride is not a one day party that you get to share with us, It’s about doing the work of allies: Fighting discrimination in the workplace (which is rampant in the restaurant industry); fighting legislation that erodes basic human rights (especially including the trans community right now); creating welcoming and safe spaces for queer employees and customers, from bathroom signage and marketing messages to hiring practices and commitment to leadership development. Pride is not a drink special. It is year-round commitment.”
Perhaps most gratifying has been diners’ reaction to Bulrush: “People have been overwhelmingly pleasant and enthusiastic. It’s like nothing they’ve ever had before. And that gets people very excited.” That’s been the case from the onset. He recalls one person who heard about the project when it was new and sent him a message saying. “I’ve been reading the articles about what you’ve been doing and it means the world to me. When I was a kid, everyone in school would be having things like pizza in the lunch line and we’d have whatever my mother had canned or dehydrated. And it means the world to me to see those things that I ate elevated to this level.” Another, a visitor to the restaurant, proclaimed, “It doesn’t taste like anything I’ve ever eaten, but somehow it reminds me of my childhood.” How could there be a bigger compliment?
That’s the thing about Bulrush and Rob Connoley: the results of what he’s doing speak for themselves. Being authentic in the cuisine, having admirable policies in running the restaurant, supporting marginalized communities and furthering research into a little-known area of history and geography are that much more satisfying when coupled with/leading to spectacular cuisine. And trust me on this, a dinner at Bulrush is among the most original, stunning and memorable meals you’re likely to experience.
Perhaps Rob Connoley himself said it all more succinctly with one simple declaration: “I wanted to do something bigger here.”