Call him the ambassador of Minnesota cooking.
Lenny Russo, chef/owner of Heartland Restaurant & Farm Direct Market in St. Paul, is the first Minnesotan to be named to the elite American Chef Corps, a culinary partnership with the U.S. State Department 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: José Andrés, Dan Barber, Rick Bayless, John Besh, Cris Comerford (White House chef), Sam Kass (Michelle Obama’s food policy adviser), 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.”
Russo arrived in Slovenia on Friday with many bags of wild rice. He plans 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 elsewhere, 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 where 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. Russo and Parsons 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, Russo has been a three-time nominee with the James Beard Foundation and is an outspoken proponent of farm-to-table. He’s active on the Food Literacy Task Force and the Minnesota’s Organic Advisory Task Force.
Cassie Parsons’ career has evolved 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.
A lesson in ingredients
Slovenia, a country the size of New Jersey, 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.
“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 Ljubljana Castle, and another dinner at the U.S. Embassy here,” Russo wrote in an e-mail. Mega Hoehn, his wife and co-owner/ general manager of Heartland, is accompanying him.
On Saturday he and Hoehn hiked up a mountainside to get to the restaurant and meet Jagodic. He was Russo’s collaborator in preparing a dinner for 60 at the restaurant on Wednesday, with a guest list of chefs, restaurateurs, embassy guests and businesspeople.
Russo and Jagodic, who has worked at Noma in Copenhagen and at restaurants in Paris, planned a menu that started with a vegetarian course of sunchokes, celeriac and wild garlic, followed by sea bass with fish fumet. Next was a venison loin with root vegetable purée, fried sage and a venison glacé scented with juniper. Slovenian cheeses followed, with tiny pears poached in a dessert wine. A light ice cream flavored with orange essence finished off the meal.
We will hear more from Russo as he blogs about his experiences in Slovenia. Look for his comments in www.Startribune.com/chefcorps.
Follow Lee Svitak Dean on Twitter: @StribTaste