Behind the big chef-bravado of Lenny Russo is one pretty cool guy. This week join Russo and The Hot Dish for a little chit-chat about important issues and beautiful dreams.
CP--Was your mom a great cook?
LR--My grandparents and my mom were big influences on me when I was young. When you are Italian you kind of grow up in the kitchen. Whether you want to or not.
CP-What was the first thing you were taught you to cook?
LR-The first two dishes I learned to cook were chicken cacciatore and mussels and red sauce. By the time I was ten I was cooking for the whole family. We grew up eating really good things, whole foods. It just does not occur to me to walk into the store and buy something that is in a package.
CP--Do you believe in the dream of living on a farm, growing the big garden with the chickens?
LR--I think we all look at that in this sort of romantic way and I guess in our minds-eye it is. The reality of the situation is that it is back-breaking labor. It's difficult to own and run a farm particularly in today's America. My wife and I have talked about retiring to Italy and buying a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere.
CP--Nice. Would you grow olives?
LR--Yes. Olives, figs, grapes, vegetables and artichokes.
LR--[And now] I think that what makes it hard to be a small farmer in today's America -and now the case in other nations as well-- our elected official officiate for a mechanized and industrialized system that isn't necessarily the best interest of the people, its not in the best interest of the health of the planet, and certainly not in the best interest of small farmers. A better world is not a world where the majority of the population eat processed foods. A better world would be where people can be healthy.
Essentially what we are doing is feeding people poison, that's the system--eating poison while we destroy the environment, that is what we do. Then people get really sick, and the health care industry makes a fortune providing for diseases that we have promoted and/or created. In the same way that people weren't educated about the evils of tobacco until the 60's and that didn't even take hold until the 90's-- I am asking for [the government] to educate people. I can guarantee that anything in a box that has a health claim on it is not going to be healthy. A tomato does not have a health claim on it.
CP--So, no one is taking responsibility.
LR--No one really seems to give a shit at all.
CP--Did you ever imagine that you would be anything else [but a chef]?
LR--Yes. I imagined that I would be a psychologist. First I wanted to be a writer, but I wasn't stable enough to be able to do that. I was reaching down to places that I was sometimes not prepared to reach and it was making me kind of wacky. So I stopped writing and I switched my major and finished a degree in psychology.
CP--You would be a great writer.
LR--Well, I am working on my book again. It is a cookbook, but it focuses on farms. Each section will have recipes and I want to interview my wife's grandmother--she grew up on a farm and before it is lost I want to get her story. But, you know, I am not aspiring to any sort of artistic expression here.
CP--Isn't that just part of it the job?
LR-It is a creative job, it is craft. But, when I feed people food I am not necessarily trying to elicit an emotion from it--other than joy and this tastes really good.
CP--Isn't that all you can do? When your craft comes from your deepest beliefs, then you can hope that the success follows. And if it doesn't...
LR-You have your integrity. To run this business in an ethical way--if we don't make it won't be because we didn't work hard enough, or that we weren't good enough, it will be because people didn't respond to what it is we are doing.[When it comes to business] I am sure I am doing the right thing, I am not sure if I am doing the smart thing.