Lenny Russo

F&W Star Chef

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Chef: Lenny Russo

Restaurants: Heartland Restaurant & Farm Direct Market (St. Paul, MN)

How did you transition from clinical psychology to cooking?
I juggled both careers for a while. I worked my way through college at restaurants, working my way up from dishwasher. Because I went to a hippie school that didn’t have any grades or required courses, I designed my own program where I could cook from 3 p.m. to midnight, then stay up all night reading and writing till the sun came up, then present my work to professors in the morning, go home, eat dinner, shower, sleep, get up, go back to work. When I started doing clinical work, I catered and worked in friends’ restaurants on the side. At one point, after designing an acute care unit for a hospital outside Gainesville, Florida, I realized I was happier in the kitchen. About a year later, I moved to Minnesota.

Who taught you to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from them?
My mother. I grew up in an Italian-American family. Both sets of grandparents were from Puglia, the heel of the boot. We lived in Hoboken, New Jersey, in an apartment above a deli called Fiore House of Quality, where they made their own cheese. Everything you wanted you could get within a couple of blocks. Next door was the bakery, Carla’s. The fishmonger and green grocer were around the corner. My great-uncle had a store that sold live chickens and rabbits. You picked one out, and he would slaughter it and clean it for you. Then my grandpa in Jersey City, he grew figs in his backyard, by wrapping the fig tree in newspapers and old carpets over it during the winter. He had another tree where he’d grafted different stone fruits to the same rootstock. His tomatoes were gorgeous. In his basement, he had two big barrels: one for red wine, one for white wine. They were so big; as a little kid I could walk inside them. I grew up in the kitchen, rolling out pastas, making orechiette. That’s how I learned how to use whatever was local and seasonal and at hand. I also never developed a sweet tooth, because we never ate a lot of sugar, mostly fresh fruits and vegetables. I grew up eating sliced fresh fennel at the end of the meal. I’m still not great at making pastries.

What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself?
Mussels with red sauce. I asked my mom to let me cook it when I was about 9 or 10.

What is the best dish for a neophyte home cook to try?
I’d start with breakfast. Pancakes are easy. So is frying an egg. If you can master an omelet without browning the eggs, you can sauté anything. Use a good pan, don’t let it get too hot, and keep the uncooked eggs moving by swirling the pan and pushing them to the edge.

What’s the most important skill to be a great cook?
The patience to understand that good food can’t be rushed. We naturally ferment all of our bread here. We don’t add yeast. If you’re going to allow bread to fully develop and be flavorful, you have to allow the yeast to do its work. You can’t rush it. We also cure all of our own meat. When we make proscuitti, I have to let that leg of pork sit on wooden dowels in my cooler for a year while the lactobacillus bacterial fermentation cures the inside of the meat. And then we have to scrape the penicillin mold off of the outside, give it the salt water wash, and coat it with pork fat which we mix with black pepper and (since everyone’s gluten intolerant these days) wild rice flour to help the fat adhere to the meat. (The black pepper is not a seasoning agent—it’s a natural preservative and insect repellant.) Then we hang it in our curing room for at least another year. If it’s a very large pig or a mangalitsa with a lot of fat, we’ll hang it for as long as two years. So we start our hams three years out. I can’t rush that. So for me, I guess the best advice I can give a home cook is to be patient.

Favorite cookbook of all time?
I’ve always referred to Escoffier and Larousse Gastronomique because I’m such a traditionalist. Jacques Pépin’s La Technique and La Methode helped when I was coming up. Anything Ducasse has done is cool, particularly his more rustic stuff, like Flavors of France.

What's a dish that defines your cooking style?
I still like working with rabbit. I’ll often preparing it with wild mushrooms, chasseur-style. If it’s winter, I’ll pair it with farro or soft spring wheat berries from here in Minnesota. But my cooking style is really just about what happens to be fresh and seasonal.

What’s a technique everyone should know?
This is a fallacy that young cooks believe: “If I have the flame turned up all the way, it will cook faster.” Unless you’re cooking mushrooms, a high flame will only wreck it. When we’re on the line, during dinner service, I’m very particular about the way everyone cooks their food. Almost nothing gets cooked on high flame. I’m always telling cooks to lower their flames. If you’re cooking protein in a pan, your flavor is going to come from good caramelization, which takes time.

The only thing you cook on high flame are mushrooms. The reason is you don’t want them to sweat out their own liquid. You want them to caramelize as quickly as possible before any juices come out. So you want the pan really hot to give it color as quickly as possible.

What's the best house cocktail, wine, beer and why?
It depends on the time of year. If it’s summertime, I’m usually drinking dry rosés. We have great local beers, particularly Summit, made in St. Paul. In the wintertime, if I’m drinking hard liquor, I usually drink rye.

Best bang-for-the-buck food trip?
Slovenia. I got to go for three weeks. The country is the size of New Jersey but borders so many countries—Hungary, Italy, Croatia. It has influences from the Turks, Italians, the Slavs. It was a very exciting trip for me. The wineries are gorgeous; my wife is trying to get more on our list. There’s an old salt flat that goes back to medieval times, whose fleur de sel is some of the best I’ve tasted. There’s an olive oil producer, Franc Morgon, whose family, which is of French descent, traces its Slovenian roots to Napoleonic times. He makes some of the best olive oil I’ve ever tasted, and I’m Italian, so I know what I’m talking about. After Slovenia, we spent a week in Paris. And I have to tell you, if I had to choose between Ljubljana and Paris, I ‘d take Ljubljana hands down.

If you were facing an emergency and could only take one backpack of supplies, what would you bring, what would you make and why?
Pasta is my go-to. And good quality canned tomatoes, obviously, and garlic, and olive oil. We use olive oil at home, but not at the restaurant.

Why don’t you use olive oil at Heartland?
Because it’s not Midwestern. We use grapeseed, sunflower, walnut and hazelnut oils here. And we render a lot of duck and pork fat. They’re from pasture-raised animals, so they’re higher in omega 3s than our butter, and we use good butter.

If you could invent a restaurant for your next (imaginary) project, what would it be?
Something really tiny, like 30 seats, only open during season, with a garden. There would be one seating at 7 or 8. Everybody would get the same eight- or six-course menu. You wouldn’t know what it was until you got here. It would be whatever was fresh in the market. It would have a tiny staff; no more than three or four people in the kitchen, one or two people on the floor. If I ever hit it big where I didn’t have to worry about supporting myself, I would do that.