Lenny Russo: Why There's No Such Thing as Cheap Food

Lenny Russo photo by Kate SommersLenny Russo photo by Kate SommersLenny Russo has been considered one of the top chefs in the Twin Cities for more than a decade. He’s served as Executive Chef at W.A. Frost; General Manager/Chef at the New French Café; Food and Beverage Director/Chef at the Loring Café; and Executive Chef at Faegre's. In 2006, four years after he and his wife Mega had opened Heartland Restaurant in St. Paul, Chef Russo was contracted by Bon Appétit Management Company to helm the kitchens of the restaurants in the new Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, including Cue—a post he left in 2007. That same year, Russo was named "Restaurateur of the Year" by Minneapolis-St. Paul Magazine.

Not only is he a local luminary, Russo knows local food, and he’s been heavily involved with brining the local food movement into the limelight, serving mostly at Heartland and inspiring other chefs to serve food within a 250-mile radius. I caught up with Chef Russo at Heartland, recently named Best Restaurant in St. Paul by City Pages, to discuss local food and what it means to the Twin Cities.

Lee Zukor: How did you get interested in local food?

Chef Russo: Being from an immigrant family, I grew up eating what was local and seasonal, so my interest has always been there. When I moved to Minnesota in 1985, I came here with the intention of taking full advantage of my new home in America's Breadbasket. I made sure to quickly acquaint myself with not only what being farmed locally but also what could be foraged here.  I talked with a lot of farmers and hunters those first few years. Many of them became good friends.

LZ: What do you feel makes Heartland such a special place?

CR: Heartland is a truly Midwestern restaurant that is run much like a small family restaurant that you might find in France or Italy, where one spouse in the kitchen and the other is in the dining room. In addition, we bring the same principles and integrity to our business that we uphold in our personal lives by practicing fair trade, paying a living wage, buying products that are not only of the highest quality but are also raised in a sustainable and humane way, and operating within our means so that we can ensure that all of our financial obligations are being met in an honest and timely fashion

LZ: Roughly how much of your food is purchased directly from local farms? Does that change by season

CR: Almost all of our food is purchased directly from local and regional farmers. That percentage varies from season to season with around 85 percent of it being purchased that way at the height of season from mid-spring through harvest, and about 70 percent of it being purchased that way from the middle of January through April. [Heartland stays very true to its Midwestern roots. The restaurant does not use olive oil, for example, preferring to stick with butter and oils available from local farmers.]

Read the rest of this article on Live Green Twin Cities.