Best Chef - 2011
Lenny Russo of Heartland Restaurant & Farm Direct Market
289 E. Fifth St.
St. Paul, MN 55101
Usually we judge our chefs by their accomplishments on the plate. And Lenny Russo has certainly been widely praised for his haute Midwestern cooking as he treats indigenous ingredients—whitefish, currants, elk—with impressive reverence. But when he recently relocated his Heartland restaurant to Lowertown St. Paul and expanded operations to include a lounge and banquet rooms, plus a market and deli, Russo truly broadened his ambitions. He wasn't simply on a mission to please diners' palates but to strengthen the entire upper Mississippi foodshed. In doing so, Russo leveraged his reputation as a restaurateur to promote his best suppliers and created a more robust infrastructure for these area farmers to market their products. So each bite of Heartland's juicy bison rib eye, for example—either cooked to order in the restaurant or purchased raw from the meat counter and taken home—not only tastes delicious, it helps nourish a more sustainable local food system.
Higher volume floats (sustains) more boats. Kudos to Lenny for leading from the top with a diverse business, and also to Alex Roberts with multiple outlets for principled meat.
Back to what's on the plate, the burger on the bar menu at Heartland (the only meal I've had there) was the best I've eaten in Twin Cities, in part due to the fact that it was not commodified meat, but on flavor it was great. Affordable too.