Photo by Eliesa Johnson
Big news from St. Paul today. Chef/owner of Heartland, Lenny Russo, has accepted the position of Director of Culinary Operations from Madison Hospitality (Public Kitchen, Handsome Hog, and plenty of coming stuff).
WHAT AND WHAT?
It’s true, St. Paul’s favorite locavore and Susan Lucci of the James Beard Awards (he’s nominated again this year and will find out in May if he wins!) has taken on the food leadership role for one of St. Paul’s fastest-growing restaurant groups. Madison Hospitality is part of Madison Equities which owns a ton of properties in St. Paul.
Public Kitchen and Bar, which has been flagging and rather blah, will get his immediate attention. Chef Joan Ida is now gone, and along with owner Carol March (no relation, ahem) Russo’s appointed the young and hungry chef Cole Ductan to take the lead. Russo has already worked on the Spring menu that will launch in late April. “We are streamlining a lot of things and really bringing it down to the elemental flavors of the ingredients,” Russo told me, “simplifying preparations so that we can let the good stuff shine. You know we want to buy the best ingredients we can and just get out of their way.” So will it have the same flavor of Heartland? “Public will have its own vibe, of course we’ll be using a lot of my same suppliers who've I developed great relationships with, but this won’t be a strictly local menu, we’re going to open it up. We’ve got a great dish coming that’s mussels in coconut broth with coriander—simple and beautiful and just a really good execution of those great ingredients. We’ve also got a rotisserie here that’s totally underused.”
Russo also mentioned that one of his main goals is to help create a solid food and service culture throughout the company. “You know Handsome Hog is great and already kicking on all levels, I just want to make sure that we all get that excitement of opening a new restaurant every day when you come to work. We want to help passionate people love their work—you know we’re not just machines feeding people, we entertain, we nourish on many levels.”
But. What about Heartland?
“I’m not leaving Heartland, but it’s complicated. For now things will go on with the team that we’ve built, it’s been a place of collaboration and unique mentorship for so long that it’s not like I’m the only one at the wheel. But there will be some changes. When we opened 14 years ago, we were trendsetting, now we’re trying to find a way to keep appealing to the next generation of eaters. The way people eat changes, it’s a fluid industry and you have to stay on top of it, and we’re in the process of figuring out what that means to Heartland. The core will stay the same, the adherence to local values and supplies, and we’ll always try to appeal to the veggie/vegan eaters, but I’m looking forward to see what else it can be.”
So, wow. Big ideas and changes to the St. Paul dining scene. Of note, they’ve also hired chef Christian Di Matteo, most recently of New York’s Cipriani Restaurants, to help in the Public Kitchen for now, but more with the eye toward something else in the future. The project loosely known as Parco400 has been put on hold, but there is nothing but forward momentum coming from this group.
“Some people might not understand why I’m doing this, but really, when does someone get an opportunity to put their stamp on an industry in an entire city? Who gets that chance?” Lenny Russo and St. Paul together get that chance, and I’m excited for the ride.