"What do I do in the middle of winter when I’m faced with eight different types of root vegetables and not much else?" says chef Lenny Russo of St. Paul's Heartland Restaurant and Wine Bar and author of a book by the same name.
[Ed. note: Lynne is a longtime friend of Russo's; she wrote the forward to his book.]
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: I want to know about the realities that a chef faces when you’re talking farm-to-table.
Heartland (Courtesy of Burgess Lea Press)
Lenny Russo: It really depends on how farm-to-table you are, so to speak. The reality is that we use just local product. Given how northern we are, winter poses a significant challenge.
Another challenge is to make sure that you’re using everything the farmer provides you. We’re buying whole animals and using everything. You have to find a place for the kidney -- you have to figure out how you’re going to use it -- the liver, the tongue, everything.
When you’re talking about sustainability, which is part of the local food movement, we’re not just talking about sustaining the land, we’re talking about sustaining people on the land. It’s really important if your farmer is using cover crop that you’re using cover crop as well. If it’s rye, then you want to use the rye.
LRK: Why don’t you explain what a cover crop is and how it’s used?
LR: When a farmer is rotating his or her fields, if they have something that is drawing a lot of nutrient from the soil, they want to follow with something that replenishes the soil. That’s all about sustaining the land while you’re sustaining the farmer, so you’re buying the cover crop. We use lentils; we use lots of different grains that might normally not be seen.
LRK: Is this what most restaurants do when they are doing farm-to-table?
LR: No, I don’t think so. I don’t think that most chefs recognize the fact that you have to buy the cover crop as well. That’s extremely important. If we’re going to sustain the farmer, we have to make sure that there’s some place for all the crops to go.
LRK: You came to Minnesota from Florida.
LR: From St. Augustine.
LRK: Why in heaven’s name Minnesota?
LR: I missed the North. I grew up in New Jersey, like you, an Italian family in New Jersey. I was in Florida for 10 years, but I never really took to the place. It didn’t connect with me culturally. When I was looking for a place to move north, in my obsessive-compulsive way I did a complete breakdown. This is before the internet, so it all had to be done manually. The things that were important to me were the things that I listed at the top. Minnesota scored highest.
LRK: What were the top three things?
LR: The farms were very important. The cultural scene was very important. The educational opportunities and how educated the population was, the politics, were important. It just scored really high in all the categories. I moved here sight unseen.
LRK: You started working in this idea of farm-to-table long before a lot of other people did.
LR: It’s pretty much the way I always cooked.
Russo's recipe: Green Asparagus Soup with Celery Seed Sour Cream and Toasted Hazelnuts (Photo: Heartland)
LRK: How do you make this pay?
LR: Very meagerly. It can be a challenge. Part of the challenge is we pay fair trade and living wage at the restaurant.
I can probably buy sustainably raised product, particularly meat, that would fit all the parameters except for being local. For instance, if I wanted to buy lamb, I could probably buy from New Zealand more cheaply than I can buy it from a local farmer who has a very small production and does not have government support for pricing. You have to spend a little bit more, but I think that what’s important for us is keeping as much of the money in the local economy as possible and helping our small farmers prosper.
Back when we opened Heartland 14 years ago, paying living wage, paying fair trade, buying from farmers who practice humane and sustainable culture were considered relatively revolutionary concepts. Today if you’re not doing that at least to some extent, you’re not even in the game.
LRK: If someone came to you today -- if I were a young chef and I said, “I want to do what you’re doing” -- what would you say?
LR: Lock yourself in a closet until you change your mind.
It’s really important to educate yourself and certainly to get out to the farm and see what’s going on. That’s really an integral piece of what we do is understanding the farmer -- what they do, what they go through -- so that you can be a better partner. That would be the first step.
The second step would be embed yourself in a place that you respect and learn. If you need to learn butchery from head to tail, ask a chef who does that if you can spend some time in the kitchen.
The other thing that I would encourage people to do is try and think outside the box when it comes to creating the food that you want to eat and you want others to eat. The combinations might be different -- what do I do in the middle of winter when I’m faced with eight different types of root vegetables and not much else? Rethink how you would use those vegetables. Just rethink ways to use them, everything from the first course to the last.
LRK: Which leads to turnip ice cream. Which, believe it or not, I’ve actually had. It wasn’t too bad.
With all these ideas, with all these great beliefs, do you ever want to just throw up your hands and call the Sysco truck?
LR: No. Never once have I ever wanted to do that. As a matter of fact, I don’t have a broadliner at all, even for supplies for the bar.
LRK: What is that?
LR: A broadliner is a purveyor that has a broad line of products -- everything from produce to pre-made frozen stuff in a box. Typically, a restaurant would employ a broadliner to supply things that maybe your bar needs, like different juices, mixers and things like that. We don’t use that. We manufacture much of that. It takes a concerted effort. It takes a lot of hard work. It’s not that easy.
LRK: Do the customers tell the difference?
LR: I believe so. They appreciate the freshness of the product. They understand the creativity that’s behind it. When you’re changing your menu every day, at least to some extent, like we do because their limited supply on certain items forces us to constantly change the menu, they appreciate the creativity and the collaborative nature of the kitchen. It's very experimental in the way that we do it.