Chef Lenny Russo: Steeped in Tradition

Posted by Lynda Bassett +

Like many Chefs, Lenny Russo grew up in a household that celebrated food. He has fond memories of watching his Italian-American family in the kitchen. At the age 10, he joined in. “The first dish I learned how to make was mussels in red sauce,” said Russo. He credits his mother and grandparents for “showing me an appreciation and understanding of our Italian culinary heritage,” he said.

Old-School Traditions
Chef Russo relies on those old-school techniques he learned as a child. At Heartland Restaurant in St. Paul, MN, his menu is a playful mix of ingredients, while still honoring the “tradition in every dish,” he said. “The bottom line is that I just try to get out of the way of some really wonderful food, and I encourage my team to do the same,” he said.

Respecting the Ingredients
The foundation of his cooking style is “respecting the seasons and ingredients,” he said. For Chef Russo, the farm-to-table movement is not just a trend; it is a philosophy of cooking. “I try to use the best ingredients available from small local farms. I rely on classic cooking methods and techniques to give those ingredients the best chance possible to showcase their qualities,” he said.

In fact, he sees the whole industry turning to this time-honored style of menu preparation. “If I was to predict which way the industry is going, I would say that it is returning to more traditional foundational cooking,”

One of the highlights of his day is getting his hands on fresh, local ingredients and creating a dish around “whatever is freshest and most exciting. Our menu changes daily, depending on what farmers bring to our door.”

Heartland features two nightly price fixe menus and many side dishes, but one of the most popular meals at Heartland is the Midwestern cassoulet, a dish which changes weekly, depending what’s available. Lately, the cassoulet includes heirloom beans, smoked pork, pork confit, grass fed beef, veal sausage, and pork belly. “I like to call it the Noah’s Ark of cassoulets,” said Russo.

A Mentor in the Kitchen
After 40 years of cooking, Russo has learned a thing or two and he’s eager to share it with others. “The best of part of my job is being able to work with wonderful food while mentoring young cooks while they find their voices as Chefs,” he said.

His advice to other Chefs? “Be prepared to work hard, listen and watch carefully. Be humble and ask as a many questions as possible.  Also, read a lot of cookbooks, no matter how insignificant or outdated they might seem. Cook a lot at home in order to fine tune your craft.  Be detail-oriented and keep a clean and organized work station. Respect your peers and coworkers,” he said.

The Thrill of it All
“The fact that I am still cooking after 40 years, and I’m still excited about the opportunity, is a real gift. I don’t need any motivation to get going (aside from a pot of green tea). I am always excited to go to work. It is the work that keeps me alive and engaged in this world.”

What’s Next
Russo is not one to sit still. He will represent Minnesota at Taste of the NFL at the Super Bowl in Phoenix, and give the keynote address to the Audubon Center of the Northwoods. He’ll be the guest chef on a Pullman train leaving Chicago on its way to the Kentucky Derby.  He’ll be leading the Minnesota culinary team to the World Expo in Milan, Italy, and he’s got a book coming out in in September of 2015.

As for his restaurant, “I am currently redesigning our market with the help of TriMark Strategic as we transform it into more of a deli in anticipation of the new Saint Paul Saints ballpark opening. We are also working on a contract to supply the ballpark with hot dogs and specialty sausages through our new deli which will be called Heartland Sausage Company,” he said.

Russo will continue to perfect his craft. As he put it, “Our profession is built on a glorious tradition. Respect the food that is the source of your livelihood,” he said.

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Photography courtesy of Shaun Liboon 

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