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Acclaimed Missouri chef closes his restaurant, citing state 'hate politics' against LGBTQ community

Chef Rob Connoley, James Beard Award semi-finalist at Bulrush in St. Louis.
Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Chef Rob Connoley, James Beard Award semi-finalist at Bulrush in St. Louis.

Rob Connoley was a finalist for "Best Chef Midwest" at this year's James Beard Awards, sometimes referred to as “the food Oscars.” His lauded St. Louis restaurant Bulrush gained national recognition for its food inspired by traditional Ozark cuisine.

Bulrush, the lauded St. Louis restaurant that gained national recognition for its food inspired by traditional Ozark cuisine, has served its last meal.

Owner and chef Rob Connoley, a Missouri native, said he did not want to continue bringing attention to the state because of its policies affecting gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender residents.

“I have become uneasy promoting a state that is actively working to harm the LGBTQ community, especially the trans community,” Connoley, himself a gay man, wrote in a Facebook post announcing the restaurant’s closure. “As an owner of a reparative restaurant working to make amends for the harms of the past, I can not continue supporting my own oppressor.”

Missouri is one of several states that has restricted gender-affirming care for transgender minors. Its legislature in 2023 passed a law that barred health care workers from providing gender-affirming surgeries, cross-sex hormones or puberty blockers to those under 18.

Although the law exempted patients who already were receiving treatment, many medical providers in the state stopped providing such care, citing legal risks.

Connoley criticized Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey in the post announcing his restaurant’s closure. Bailey has been fighting for access to health records of transgender patients as part of a state investigation into gender-affirming care for minors.

The Attorney General launched the investigation after a worker at the Washington University Transgender Center accused the clinic of rushing children through treatment and providing hormones and other care too hastily.

Connoley said the state’s suit seeking medical records was the last straw. He added he doesn’t know where he will go next, but that he plans to move out of the state.

“I'm out, I'm definitely out,” he said. “Because Missouri, it's not a blip. It's a trend. And it's gone from being a conservative state to a radical state.”

Connoley said he had weighed closing for weeks and had discussed the decision with the restaurant staff. He called Missouri and Bulrush “his entire world.”

“[But] I was in London teaching cooking classes at a National Geographic event, at the request of the Missouri Department of Tourism…and I became very aware at this point I was promoting a state that was working to oppress me and take rights away,” he said.

Connoley this year was a “best chef” finalist for the James Beard Awards, sometimes referred to as “the food Oscars.”

He is one of several regional professionals who are seeking to distance Midwestern and Ozark cuisine from “hillbilly” stereotypes.

The restaurant’s perpetually changing tasting menu included local ingredients such as mushrooms, acorns and quail eggs. It took culinary cues from what European settlers, enslaved and indigenous people ate in the past.

Copyright 2024 St. Louis Public Radio

Sarah Fentem reports on sickness and health as part of St. Louis Public Radio’s news team. She previously spent five years reporting for different NPR stations in Indiana, immersing herself deep, deep into an insurance policy beat from which she may never fully recover. A longitme NPR listener, she grew up hearing WQUB in Quincy, Illinois, which is now owned by STLPR. She lives in the Kingshighway Hills neighborhood, and in her spare time likes to watch old sitcoms, meticulously clean and organize her home and go on outdoor adventures with her fiancé Elliot. She has a cat, Lil Rock, and a dog, Ginger.
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