10 questions for Meritage chef Russell Klein

Meritage chef Klein talks oysters, French cooking, good and bad meals, and plans for the future
Meritage chef Klein talks oysters, French cooking, good and bad meals, and plans for the future

Expect to see the streets of St. Paul paved deep with oyster shells on Sunday, September 30, the date of the second-annual OysterFest, Meritage's bivalve bacchanal. Amid the planning for celebrity shuck-offs and dancing in the street, Russell Klein, chef and co-proprietor of Meritage, took time recently to ponder the meaning of the French restaurant, comment of the role of awards in the culinary world, tell us where he and his wife and co-owner Desta like to eat when they're not eating at what many folks consider the best restaurant in St. Paul, and drop a few hints about what they're planning next.

1.OysterFest is coming September 30. The buzz is that this year's event is going to be even bigger and better. What will be difference about this year's party?

Russell Klein: This year's OysterFest will be bigger and better. We have two live bands, the Como Avenue Jug Band and the Southside Aces, so even more dancing in the streets. Summit Brewery has signed on to brew an Oyster Stout for us, the first time in their 26-year history that they have done an oyster stout, so that's cool. We'll also be serving some innovative kegged wines for the first time. We expect to shuck around 20,000 oysters for the day, which, although there are no official records, I'm going to go out on a limb and say will be a St. Paul record.

2. Why oysters? With your oyster bar and Oysterfest, it's a logistical nightmare, right, getting them from their ocean beds to the heart of the Midwest? Isn't it a high-risk proposition for you, both financially and in terms of your reputation for quality and consistency?

Klein: It's a passion. I've been in Minnesota for almost 11 years now, and the one thing I just can't get past missing is the ocean. And my family, but mostly the ocean. The logistics can be difficult, but I think they are worth it. Mostly it takes a lot of attention each day to inventory and projecting ahead a day or two; pretty much what we do with all of our ordering. I'm really particular with what I order, and visiting the farms has been a huge part of elevating our quality. Whenever possible we purchase directly from the oyster farms. The idea was to extend the farm-to-table purchasing we do for the rest of the restaurant to the oyster bar. I want to know who is growing the food we serve. The result is that most of our oysters are less than 24 hours out of the water when we receive them.

We have made some significant trips the past few years to meet and get to know oyster farmers on both coasts. We just got back from Prince Edward Island a few weeks ago, and it was a really educational trip. There is just no substitute for seeing where the oysters are grown and the techniques the farmers use. Whenever we talk with oyster farmers, or any farmer for that matter, I learn something I can share with our guests.

3. Your front-of-the-house staff is all French now. Chance or design?

Klein: We should clarify that all of our front-of-the-house management is now French, with the exception of Desta. Chance or design? A bit of both. We are obviously a magnet for the French community in the Twin Cities. At the same time, we certainly seek out employees who are either French, Francophiles, or French-trained.

4. So how did a boy born in Queens end up running an impeccably French restaurant in St. Paul, Minnesota?

Klein: I moved to Minnesota almost 11 years ago. I arrived in St Paul on Christmas Eve 2001. I always knew the first restaurant I would do would be French. It's my training and the foundation of my passion for fine cuisine. I spent a good amount of time training in France, and Desta and I try to get there every other year or so.

My not being French is sometimes an issue for people. Somehow they perceive my cooking to be less French because I don't have an accent. Meritage has always struggled with people saying we are not French enough, but I think that's because too many people have too narrow a view of what French food is. At Meritage we really enjoy cooking the classics, but we also enjoy contemporary French cuisine. It's the balance we constantly try to strike. So much of the cuisine we call "New American" is French food described in a way that is less scary to Americans. We can be so parochial about what we eat, although it's getting much better. When you start to study food a bit, you realize that there are so many similarities between different cultures' foods. And of course, in this country, everything has been brought together.

5. Any good cooks in the family who inspired you? Or, are you the family cook now whenever you go home? What about here -- does anybody have the confidence to ask you over for dinner?

Klein: Lots of good cooks in the family. My mother is a great cook, she likes to follow complicated recipes. My dad can grill as good a steak as any grill guy in town -- although he could never cook 50 of them in a three- or four-hour service, which is one of the biggest differences between professionals and talented amateurs. He's a bit more freewheeling, rarely following a recipe. My brother-in-law is an amazing cook. He's a New York City fireman, and like lots of fireman, he can bust out a great meal. Its a big part of the culture in the firehouse, especially since he's stationed not too far from Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, home of some of the best Italian markets in New York City.

I'm an easy dinner guest. Happy to help, and very understanding of what can go wrong in the kitchen. We get plenty of dinner invitations; it's just often difficult for us to accept since we are at the restaurant most nights.


6. Where do you eat in town when you go out?

Klein: Desta and I have a weakness for sushi and Japanese food generally. We got to Masu, Oragami, and Fuji Ya in St Paul fairly often. We eat at Meritage four to six nights per week, so when we are off we like something completely different. Otherwise, we just try to support the other independent owner-operators who are making it happen in their restaurants.

7. You have a reputation as being very particular about your products and your vendors. I tried to order a bagel the other morning and was told that you had turned away your delivery as not being up to snuff. A bagel?

Klein: Actually, Desta and I are pretty particular about all aspects of the restaurant, and of course, about the ingredients we use. Fundamentally if you don't start with good product you can't finish with a good result. Garbage in, garbage out. It's the most basic aspect of cooking, and one that takes pretty minimal skills to execute.  As a chef if you care enough about what you are serving, you take the time to source the best version of a product you can find and afford to sell. In fact, I find it one of the most enjoyable aspects of my job. It takes persistence to find what you are looking for.  Tenacity and attention to detail are key to all facets of this business.

The bagels are shipped to us from a bagel store where I grew up in New York. There are no good bagels here. Ours are shipped to us overnight within hours of being baked. It costs us a fortune, but I don't give a shit. If we are going to serve a bagel it's going to have to be good, or what's the point? I don't understand chefs and restaurateurs who purchase crap product. I know they eat their own food; why would they want to eat processed crap?  Why bother being in the food business at all?

One of the great things about Meritage is that we have no investors. Desta and I can do whatever we want, and one of the fundamental things we have chosen to do is emphasize quality over all else. I'm sure we could squeeze a lot more profit out of the place if we lowered our standards.

8. What is a bad meal?

Klein: One with bad company and not enough wine. I like restaurants that are succeeding at what they are trying to be. My favorite meal of the past year was on Prince Edward Island at a mom-and-pop clam shack: paper plates, picnic tables, super casual, and completely successful at what it was trying to do. It's owned by a couple who previously owned a large pub. They got sick of dealing with it all and opened a clam shack with no employees. Now that's my dream restaurant.

Lately most of the bad meals I've had around the Twin Cities have been ruined by the service. There is some tremendous cooking happening in this town, but too often poor service really undermines the experience. Good service and warm hospitality can make up for some fairly mediocre food. Bad service can ruin even the best food. The biggest problem restaurateurs in the Twin Cities face is the dearth of talented restaurant professionals, both in the kitchen and the dining room. It doesn't help that some of the biggest chef names in town have no qualms about calling your employees and flat-out trying to poach them. The code that used to exist between chefs about that sort of thing is breaking down.

Even with all of the culinary schools in town, cooks are fundamentally unqualified when they come out of school. They simply have not been taught the work ethic, skills, and proper mentality to be successful in this business. Of course, there is no school for front-of-the-house people. At Meritage we have always emphasized training, but now even more so. We literally have to create the employees we need. We've created a series of "schools" we send our staff though: wine school, oyster school, service school, etc. It's a huge investment of our resources.

9. Where are you and Desta taking Meritage next? Any other restaurants in your future?

Klein: We are getting ready to launch Meritage en Route. We'll be offering catering with the Oyster Bar and Crepe Stand. We've been talking about adding private dining, but we'll see. We believe in conservative, sustainable growth.

Lately we have been looking at spaces, but none of them have seemed quite right. Creatively we have the itch to do something, and we have an incredible staff, many of whom are ready to grow. I would like for them to grow with us, if we can create the opportunities. Meritage is approaching its five-year birthday, so I think we are ready. Opening restaurants is like what women say about childbirth: Enough time has to pass to forget the pain to make you want to do it again.

10. You are as good as and better than most any chef/restaurateur in this town. Why haven't you yet won the James Beard award?

That's very flattering, but it's really not for me to say. It has been a tremendous honor to be nominated the past few years. I will say that the biggest award I can win is a busy restaurant. We are very lucky to have an amazing clientele, with more regular guests than any restaurant I have ever worked in. So long as our business is successful and I continue to get paid for something I love to do, then I've won everything I need. The rest is just ego.

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