Photo by Eliesa Johnson
Heartland, the most important locavore restaurant in the mid-North since Odessa Piper’s L’Etoile, is closing this New Year’s Eve.
Yes, locavore fans, you’re allowed to cry. Where are you going to get sunfish ceviche, hen of the woods ragout, and wild boar ribs now? Plenty of other places, chef and owner Lenny Russo told me after he told his staff in a Monday night meeting. “Look, I’ve been saying what I had to say for more than 30 years—14 of them here. I think that what we’ve seen in the rest of the industry, across the country and in Europe as well, is that a lot of people have adopted the principles we stood for here and the ideas we put forward here.”
Well, that’s true. Russo’s ideas were largely about using almost exclusively foraged, wild, regionally farmed and indigenous ingredients such as bison, elk, and venison; duck and pheasant; choke-cherries, jerusalem artichokes, sunflower seeds, and bush hazelnuts; and sunnies, pike, and crappies and perch. However, while those ingredients have spread from Russo’s kitchens to restaurants regionally, even inspiring newcomers like the forthcoming Chicago-based North Loop Hewing Hotel with its “Lakes and Woods” cuisine, no one took it as far as Russo did, often getting little but salt and coffee from outside the local foodshed, and inspiring a newfound appreciation, and market, for ingredients like sour sumac or peppery prickly ash berries.
The chefs Russo mentored in his relentlessly local idiom now top a who’s-who of local kitchens. Steven Brown of Tilia and St. Genevieve, and Doug Flicker of Piccolo and Esker Grove both worked for Russo at the Loring Café. Paul Berglund of Bachelor Farmer and Alan Bergo of Lucia’s worked for Russo at Heartland, and Sean Sherman, of the forthcoming Sioux Chef, got some of his first international exposure when Russo invited him to cook at the American World’s Fair pavilion in Milan.
“Sean, he’s going to be so much better than I am,” says Russo. “He’s doing his own thing. If we were going to take the next logical step here, we’d serve nothing from before colonization—you’d lose pigs, you’d lose all sorts of stuff. But Sean will do it better than I would because it’s his culture. Alan, with his foraging, he’ll take it farther than I could. People say, 'the restaurant – that’s your legacy'. No, it’s not. It’s a fucking restaurant. A legacy is something that lasts 100 years, I’m really happy and thankful for every day here, but at the end of the day it’s a restaurant and there’s more stuff I want to do with my life and I’m not dead yet – there’s more I want to offer.”
The logic for closing the restaurant, says Russo, 58, was simple: buy low and sell high. His real-estate partner always had a plan that they’d keep the building for five to ten years and sell, and with the completion of the new Saints’ CHS ballpark across the street the time was now. “We can do it right, everyone can get paid, we’ll have a bonus for everyone in the kitchen and we’re not leaving anyone hanging with bad paper [debt]. It’s the right way to go and the right time. I never just wanted to be only a chef, I have a ton of interests, I want to make a positive change, however that opportunity presents itself, and this is how the opportunity presented itself.”
It might have been 30 years, but it’s a testament to the depth of his vision that it felt like Heartland’s work was just beginning. You have three months to go get your last meal at the gold standard of Northern locavore spots. When you do, raise a toast to Russo, who has joked on a few occasions, “There’s no one as provincial as we are.”
Nor as essential.