Lenny Russo: Chef Chat, Part I

Stunning is the scope of Heartland's move to Lowertown, from its current location at 1806 St. Clair Ave. Heartland Restaurant & Farm Direct Market, scheduled to open on Thursday, July 15, 2010, will be in the Market House building, a 1902 warehouse across the street from the St. Paul Farmer's Market. The new space will be massive, roughly 18,000 square feet, and will have area where meat and charcuterie preparation will be visible from the street. Not only a restaurant, the new Heartland will also be a year-round market, stocked daily with all things beautiful and sustainable in Midwestern produce, meat, fish, cheese, flowers, as well as functioning as a deli and bakery.

Heartland's chef and owner, Lenny Russo, a native of Hoboken, New Jersey, who also holds a degree in psychology, is often criticized for his outspoken opinions. But his imprint on local food culture, and the farm-to-table movement, is undeniable--especially with this new project under way. From the center of this swirl of momentum, Russo took the time to talk to The Hot Dish and shared his thoughts on the craft he so clearly loves.

What is your proudest moment as a chef? Being named a finalist for the James Beard Award Best Chef Midwest.

In your opinion, what is the best food city in America? This is a toss up for me among New York, Chicago and San Francisco. They all have their own strengths and weaknesses, but we should also be very proud of our own Twin Towns.

What is your favorite music to cook by? Depends upon my mood, but Frank Sinatra, Django Rinehardt, Juan Carlos Jobim & Chet Baker usually end up in the rotation.That is at home only. I never allow music in our restaurant kitchen. Anything that makes communication more difficult is not allowed, and music is something that can hinder accurate communication among the staff. What are the rules of conduct in your kitchen? Have a good time and enjoy your work, but remain professional while doing so. Off-color comments and language are acceptable until someone takes offense. It is important that everyone be treated with respect, and that sometimes requires us to curb our language. Playing grab-ass, throwing objects, showing up stoned, stealing from your peers or the restaurant, and not properly respecting the food are all no-no's.Only one person should be speaking at a time. That facilitates better communication. Personal communication devices including cell phones are not allowed in the kitchen unless you are a salaried manager working crazy hours or have children or a sick relative at home. Uniforms must be clean and orderly. Jewelry that can pose an injury risk such as large rings or hanging earrings is not allowed. All surface areas must be kept meticulously clean and sanitized. All food must be labeled, dated, and, if applicable, covered. Raw food, especially portioned meat and fish, must be uniformly laid out in pans in even rows and facing in the same direction. All proteins must be kept on ice overnight. Important safety procedures such as proper care of utensils, warnings when walking behind someone and maintaining clean and dry floors are not negotiable. Frequent handwashing is required. Show up on time and ready to work. Leave promptly as a group when all of the work is done. Above all else, show a complete and unwavering dedication to our profession and to the desire to be the best you can possibly be, and absolutely never call me "Dude." What is your favorite restaurant in America? There are so many outstanding restaurants that I can't pick just one, but my wife and I very much enjoy Frank DiCarlo's work at Peasant in NYC. We try to make time to visit it when we are in town.

What has been your most embarrassing moment in the kitchen? Whenever a plate comes back to the kitchen because we failed somehow in its preparation, then I am embarrassed, so it's hard to single out one such time as the most embarrassing. We did lose a specially ordered birthday cake not too long ago. My pastry chef put it in an auxiliary cooler in our basement, and we never thought to look down there. I ended up buying the table a round of desserts only to discover the cake about 20 minutes later. That was pretty embarrassing. What is your favorite dish to cook at home? Any kind of pasta. It's an Italian thing. You wouldn't understand.

Check in tomorrow for Part 2 of Chef Chat with Lenny Russo.

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