Call him the ambassador of Minnesota cooking.
Lenny Russo, chef/owner of Heartland Restaurant & Farm Direct Market in St. Paul, has been named to the elite American Chef Corps, a culinary partnership with the U.S. State Department, its protocol office and the James Beard Foundation.
The corps links chefs to embassies and foreign audiences where they showcase American culinary traditions and foods. The roster of the chef corps reads like a Who's Who of the culinary world: Jose Andres, Dan Barber, Rick Bayless, John Besh, Cris Comerford (White House chef), Sam Kass (Michelle Obama's food policy advisor), Marcus Samuelsson, and many more.
Last fall when the program was announced in Washington, D.C., then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said via video: "Sharing a meal can help people transcend boundaries and build bridges in a way that nothing else can. Some of the most meaningful conversations I've had with my counterparts around the world have taken place over lunch and dinner."
Lenny's first mission -- which he has clearly accepted, since he's already in Slovenia with many bags of wild rice -- is to showcase Minnesota foods at the U.S. Embassy during his two-week stint in the country. Chef Cassie Parsons of Harvest Moon Grille in Charlotte, N.C., will finish up the monthlong American immersion there. The two will cook at the embassy and travel throughout Slovenia to learn about the traditional ingredients, dishes and preparations (he in the west, she in the east). Felina Films will follow them and produce an eight-episode TV series for Slovenia called "Seasoned by Americans." Much of their travel will be in villages were tourism is uncommon.
The U.S. Embassy in the capitol of Ljubljana, Slovenia, is using a grant from the state department's Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs to fund this effort. This is the first time chefs have been sent overseas under this arts program. Lenny and Cassie were chosen because of their commitment and successful presentation of the farm-to-table philosophy of food. "We wanted chefs who were passionate about what they did, but whose vision and philosophy transcended mere business -- in other words: two progressive chefs who walked the walk," noted the embassy in a press release.
In addition to his work at Heartland, Lenny has been a three-time nominee with the James Beard Foundation and is an outspoken proponent of farm-to-table. In addition, he's active on the Food Literacy Task Force and the Minnesota's Organic Advisory Task Force.
Cassie Parsons's career has gone from farmer to owner of a small food cart in Charlotte to being named Restaurateur of the Year in 2011 by Charlotte magazine. She also is an advocate of sustainable traditional American foods.
Slovenia, a tiny country bordered by Austria, Hungary and Croatia, with Italy off to the west, has little ethnic or religious diversity. It does have some similar ingredients and styles of cooking to that found in America.
Lenny and his wife, Mega Hoehn, co-owner and general manager of Heartland, arrived in Slovenia yesterday. "We are taking the first two days to finalize the plans which at this point include truffle hunting, turbot fishing, sea salt harvesting, wine tasting, cheesemaking, prosciutto curing, a wine dinner in collaboration with Igor Jagodic, who is the young up and coming Slovenian chef of Strelec Restaurant in Ljublana Castle, and another dinner at the U.S. Embassy here," Lenny wrote in an email.
We will hear more from him as he blogs about his experiences in Slovenia. Look for his comments here later next week.