Many articles have been written about Rob Connoley, and for good reason. The self-taught chef and master forager has had national eyes on him since earning his first James Beard Foundation semifinalist nomination for Best Chef: Southwest for Curious Kumquat in New Mexico. He opened Bulrush in April 2019, which earned him another semifinalist nomination in 2022, this time for Best Chef: Midwest. A year later, he has earned another semifinalist nomination in the same category, with finalists announced in less than a week.
To Connoley, the distinction honors the St. Louis dining scene as much as it does his own standout work in the field. “I think, so often, outsiders view our food scene with cynical or maybe even antiquated eyes,” Connoley says. “We don’t want to be New York or even Chicago. Our independent streak, our local food system – farmers, foragers, local food distributors – is so solidly established. Our chefs aren’t vying for the best Instagram picture; they’re vying for the best food. So every time an organization or publication honors our town, it means we’ve connected with someone on a special level, and that only means good things in the future.”
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Connoley hails from Missouri; his family first settled here in the 1830s in Ste. Genevieve, long considered the gateway to the Ozark region. Childhood summers spent in his family’s cabin in Mark Twain National Forest fed his curiosity and surrounded him with opportunities to grow his passion for foraging. As an adult, it came into focus during a time where he was fleshing out different ideas. During an exploration of old church cookbooks, many of which hailed from the Ozark region, he became increasingly aware that so much of the origin story of Ozark cuisine had been largely left untold. This left him with the feeling that deeper work was needed to bring it forward.
That feeling solidified with the opening of Bulrush when Connoley and his team quickly realized that education was critical to the dining experience. “It wasn’t long after we opened … that we realized no one knew what Ozark food was, and that our personal curiosity put us on a quick trajectory to being the experts on the topic,” Connoley says. And so they did the work, aware of the gravity it held: To speak as an expert meant conducting rigorous, wide-ranging research on the topic in order to both defend it and to use it to generate excitement among guests stepping through the doors at Bulrush. “We have a great opportunity to get a lot of people excited about the region and its history – the whole, messy, complicated history,” Connoley.
And that opportunity to learn blooms outward from the center: At any given time, the team at Bulrush is in the midst of numerous research and outreach projects in the hopes of bettering the community at large. It can be seen in his work with the culinary program at Normandy High School, which gives students skills and confidence to step into leadership roles as they grow. It’s found in his extensive research and work with the 1841 Seed Project, an initiative to restore some nearly lost heirloom seed varieties to the region. Bulrush engages in these and other reparative restaurant strategies in an effort to lead by example. “I hope that beyond the meal, each guest … wants to become engaged,” Connoley says. “Maybe it’s just exploring the lesser known Ozark communities. Maybe it’s trying to grow the historic seeds from our 1841 Seed Project. Or maybe it’s supporting local organizations trying to lift up the economic and social health of historically marginalized people in the area. They may leave just with a meal, but I think enough people will leave with a spark that leads to much more.”
Bulrush has carved out a home in the St. Louis dining scene easily and effectively by sharing the history and origins of Ozark cuisine with all those willing to take a seat at the table, with Connoley’s self-described “quirky history and social cause projects” leading by example. He’s out to mix it up: to question what fine dining is today and to answer it with an example of what it could be, and perhaps what it should be. “I believe [fine dining] heavily emphasizes experience, human connection and interaction, stimulating the brain as well as the body, and most importantly, operating in a way that gives back to the community or makes amends for the past,” Connoley says.
And so, less than a week out from the James Beard Foundation Awards finalist announcements, the local kid who taught himself to forage and cook takes it all in. “It’s always so crazy and unbelievable for me, because being self-taught, and so often left out of the established chef community, and not really understanding how the whole process works in terms of industry and media relationships, each time I’ve sort of been blindsided with this honor,” Connoley says. In a very relatable way, it seems: Last year’s nomination came during lunch at his favorite Somali restaurant; this year, he was at Brew Tulum discussing a collaboration with another chef. Both times, he silenced his phone. “I guess I should pay more attention to the calendar,” he says, jokingly.
But the weight of this honor isn’t lost on him. “I was told early in my career that you can’t open a restaurant to get an award. You have to open a restaurant that makes you want to wake up and race into work because you love what you’re doing,” Connoley says. “And that’s what’s happening here. I know we’re doing something really cool, and slowly but surely, we’re gaining a group of guests who are excited about what we do.” Connoley acknowledges that awards like this are a way to broaden their reach, and give his team and opportunity to cook for a larger audience, a sentiment echoed by each of the 2023 St. Louis JBFA semifinalist nominees. The Bulrush team – an essential element in the restaurant’s success – feels it too; they’re increasingly confident in their work, proud of what they’ve achieved and aware that they’re making a difference. “I feel like this year, even more than in the past, we’ve stepped up and even more deeply demonstrated what we’re about.”
Connoley and the rest of St. Louis’ 2023 James Beard Award Semifinalists will find out if they advance to the next round (Restaurant and Chef Award Nominees) on March 29; winners will be announced June 5.
Bulrush, 3307 Washington Ave., Grand Center, St. Louis, Missouri, 314-449-1208, bulrushstl.com