BEST LOCAL CHEF - 2007
What makes a great chef? One good measure is the influence he exerts on the world around him, and no one has done more to exalt the possibilities of northern regional cuisine lately than Lenny Russo. His restaurant Heartland has become a must-visit destination for visiting foodies who dip in to see what magic he's working with local ingredients. Like brick-dark venison tartare ($10) given definition with Canadian ice-wine vinegar and made plush with the yolk of a local pullet egg. Or pan-roasted wild boar chops with Wisconsin gruyere-wheat berry risotto and Door County cherry glacée ($36). These dishes spring from both a creative vision (that venison tartare tastes like silk made of winter iron) and a commitment to day-to-day work supporting local networks: Area farmers and foragers know that they can always count on Lenny if they've got good product to sell. Yet it's one thing to cook with local ingredients in a small, easily supervised environment like Heartland, and quite another to do so at a large-scale, cost-conscious venue like Cue, the restaurant that Russo opened in the new Guthrie Theater. Russo's partnership with Cue ended recently, but the place has continued the showcasing of local ingredients that Russo began, and those menu items are the best the restaurant serves. Since Russo left Cue he's been working on his cookbook (can't wait!) and on getting a year-round Minneapolis farmers' market off the ground, and on founding a distribution network so local farmers can reach local buyers. (Want to help? Call him at Heartland!) In our opinion, no one is doing more to elevate regional cuisine right now, and hence no other chef's cooking is more influential, more inspirational, more important. Who knew there could be so much import in an appetizer? Thanks, Lenny, for taking our little slice of the world so seriously—it's made us see it anew.