It was all about flexibility and accommodations -- making quick changes on the menu and adding extra guests -- when chefs Lenny Russo (Heartland in St. Paul) and Sean Sherman (The Sioux Chef catering in Minneapolis, and soon-to-be food truck Tatanka) brought indigenous foods to the menu at the James Beard American Restaurant in the Seven Stars Galleria of the World Expo in Milan. More than 50 U.S. chefs will cook at the Beard restaurant during the six-month Expo.
Lenny Russo provided a day-to-day diary of the events.
June 9, Day 1
Thanks to Delta Airlines Senior Vice President Bill Lentsch, Mega [Hoehn] and I arrived safely and in style two days ago.
I was finally able to get a tour of the kitchen where Chef Rick Moonen of RM Seafood was busy prepping for his dinner. Rick made some fish stock for us, which was very kind.
June 10, Day 2
I arrived at the kitchen in midafternoon. An invitation to Rick’s dinner was extended. Since Mega and I already had plans with friends that evening, we had to pass, but I was able to verify that most of our ingredients had arrived. We were still waiting for a delivery from the U.S. to clear customs.
My co-chef Sean Sherman was busy stocking our dry goods that he successfully smuggled into Italy in his suitcase, and we made plans to hit the ground running around 9 a.m.
Somehow, the fish stock that Rick made for us had disappeared.
I checked the reservations, and formulated a plan.
June 11, Day 3
Sean and I arrived promptly at 9 a.m. We would be prepping in the newly built pastry kitchen behind the main kitchen where Michelin-starred chef Matias Perdomo [Al Pont De Ferr] was busy with his team working on that evening’s menu.
Restaurant general manager Daniel Alley told me to expect 60 guests each night, which was the maximum the dining room and kitchen could effectively handle. He said he hadn’t seen a response like we were receiving since Daniel Humm [chef/co-owner of Eleven Madison Park and The NoMad, both of New York City] had cooked there.
I jumped on the rabbits right away. There were only 25 of them, and I needed 120 portions. My intention was to use the hind legs, but that would give me only 50 portions so I had to rethink my plan. I decided to use both the loins and the forelegs. Since the forelegs can be stringy and tough, they would need to be turned into confit, and the loins would need to be removed from the backbone and trimmed to remove the sliver skin. That would double my prep time, and I would still be five rabbits short. Restaurant chef Paul Sanguinetti would need to bring in more rabbits with the next day’s fish delivery.
Our herb sprouts and garnishes were still held up in customs, and it wasn’t looking good so we gave Paul a list of what we needed, and he ordered some reasonable substitutions.
My bison still hadn’t arrived. It was due in from Calabria. That made me nervous, but I was assured it would be there in time. I would learn the next day that that wasn’t going to happen.
We had freshwater trout for Sean’s pâté, but my bass would have to be saltwater branzino. It was a good substitution.
That evening, Sean, Dana, Mega and I attended Matias’ dinner. He is a great guy and a native of Uruguay, who grew up in Denmark and now cooks in Italy. It’s a fascinating story.
June 12, Day 4: Evening of the first dinner
Sean and I arrived promptly at 9 a.m. The plan was to prep for both the dinner that evening, as well as for the next evening so that we didn’t have to repeat tasks and so Paul’s team could begin prepping for Sunday brunch on Saturday instead of helping us.
The fish was supposed to come in whole, but it arrived filleted. There were no bones or heads so I would have to substitute rabbit stock for the fish stock needed for my watercress sauce. The rabbits were head on so I knew they would make good stock. I roasted the rabbit bones and got the stock rolling.
As expected, our garnishes didn’t make it through customs so we would be using the substitutions that Paul provided. He also went hiking up at Lake Como and foraged some native ferns for my rabbit course.
Things were looking good until we realized that the bison would not be arriving. Paul had ordered it a week prior, but that was apparently not sufficient. He was pretty angry, but there was nothing he could do.
Sean had smuggled in some pemmican, which is a traditional Native American form of dried bison that is usually cured with chokecherries. This version was cured with cranberries so we decided to bring in some lean Piedmont beef and grind the pemmican to add to it. Then I trimmed and minced the beef and blended it with the ground bison, some mint, some ground sumac, minced spring onions, and rose hip purée that Sean made from reconstituted dried rose hips that were part of his smuggled larder. The rose hips would provide the acid we needed for the bison tartare that was my first course. It would be finished with sunflower oil, topped with a raw quail egg and garnished with chive shoots and an amaranth cracker of Sean’s making.
I cured the rabbit forelegs in salt and maple sugar, and I poured some rendered goose fat over them. I set them on low heat in an oven to cook very slowly. That would give us the confit we needed to stretch the number of rabbit portions.
Meanwhile, I butchered 10 more rabbits that had just arrived and began removing the pin bones from the bass and trimming the fillets. The bass would be dusted with seasoned wild rice flour and fried in corn oil. The fillets would be presented on top of wild rice cakes that were supposed to have dried cranberries in them, but we forgot to smuggle those in so I used fresh red currants instead. The wild rice came from White Earth Nation, which I pulled out of Heartland’s dry-goods storage and gave to Sean. He turned out to be quite the smuggler. I guess I am a bad influence.
As the time of our dinner approached, reservations were standing at 55. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was supposed to be in attendance, as was a delegation from the Minnesota legislature, but the Secretary had broken his leg in a biking accident in Switzerland and our legislators had been called back home for a special session. Our numbers kept dropping so we knew we would have far less than the maximum, but we still didn’t know for sure how many guests to anticipate.
Sean kicked out three amazing canapés for the aperitivo portion of the evening, which began at 7:30 p.m. Once the guests were seated, we finally got a head count. There were only 38 guests, almost half of whom were the Expo Minnesota 2023 team who were in town to promote our efforts to bring the Expo back home. It was a little anticlimactic, but it provided a good chance to execute all of the dishes, including my rabbit course and Sean’s dessert, both of which had multiple plating steps. It was also a good way to entertain our Minnesota team. It was great to see them there supporting our efforts and working hard for Minnesota. The response from the guests was over the top so we knew we had done well.
By the time we were done, we had logged a 15 hour day. I had worked straight through without a break, and my nearly 57-year-old body was feeling the effects of that. Even so, it was great to be back in the kitchen. It was stressful, but I loved every minute of it.
June 13, Day 5: Evening of the second dinner:
With only 28 on the book for evening service and being almost completely prepped from the day before, Sean and I strolled in around 11 a.m. just to check on things and tighten up our inventory. Sean kicked out another batch of amaranth crackers for the tartare, and I banged out the last 10 rabbits. Since I now had 32 hind legs of rabbit, it was looking like I wouldn’t need the confit and loins, but I cured the forelegs and trimmed the loins anyway. It was a good thing I did.
Around 12:15, I met Mega and our friend Kjara for a light lunch and some coffee. Then Mega and I took in a Leonardo Da Vinci exhibition in the Galleria. Mega went to do a little shopping while I went up to the restaurant. It was 4 p.m., three hours before service.
I checked in with Daniel, and he told me our reservations had just increased by 10 and appeared to be climbing. We now had 38 on the book. He found that to be somewhat unusual since summers in Milan can be uncomfortably hot and humid, and many people leave the city on the weekends to head to the lake country. Apparently, word about the previous night’s dinner had gotten out, and a fair amount of excitement had been generated. We were now expecting both the U.S. General Consul to Milan as well as our Ambassador to the Expo and their guests, so I had to ask Daniel and his assistant Joselyn to work with the headwaiter Daniele to plot the dining room for me so I could make sure that everyone seated at the same table would be eating the same version of my rabbit course. Then I headed to the kitchen where Nicola and Michele where busy prepping brunch for Paul, who was tied down ordering food for the upcoming week when more chefs would be arriving from America.
The first thing I did was check the tartare that was left over from the previous night. To my dismay, the critic acid from the rose hips had essentially cooked the tartare, turning it brown. It was unusable. It would have to be prepared again from scratch, but we were out of Piedmont beef. Paul secured a tenderloin from the Galleria hotel pizzeria. I am not sure why a pizzeria had a whole beef tenderloin, but I wasn’t asking any questions. I immediately set about cleaning that and cutting off a large section of the tail and a bit of the crown for the tartare. Sean ground some more pemmican and reconstituted some rose hips, which he puréed. Then I had Nicola mince the meat and pass the purée through a chinois. Meanwhile, I prepped the rest of the mise en place for the tartare, and then Nico mixed it according to my instructions.
Compounding matters was the mysterious failure of Sean’s amaranth crackers to properly set up. He prepared them exactly the same way as the day before, but for some strange reason they didn’t work. We had no choice but to cut in half what remaining crackers we had. Then I went to check the reservations.
The reservation count was now in excess of 40. On top of that, we had two pescatarians, one person who didn’t eat crudo and six people who wouldn’t eat rabbit. Paul was able to secure six quail, which he marinated and smoked while Sean created some vegetarian substitutions for the other guests.
The reservations had continued to climb reaching 48 before falling back to 45. I blocked out the dining room with Daniele and Joselyn so that 22 people would have the rabbit legs while 18 would have the foreleg/loin combo. Two guests were having vegetarian dishes while six were scheduled to have quail. As it turned out, two of the guests who were slotted for quail were young teens, and they wouldn’t eat quail either, so we cut a couple of steaks off of the remaining beef tenderloin for them. That meant that we would have to prepare five different plates when it came time for the rabbit to be served.
James Beard Foundation Executive Vice President Mitchell Davis kicked off the evening by making a few statements before introducing me and Sean. I followed with a brief history of my work on the Expo reaching back to a year and a half ago, which included how and when I came up with the idea of presenting the culture of our Upper Plains indigenous peoples through food and how I invited Sean to collaborate with me and accompany me to Milan. Then Sean spoke at some length about his culture including the large reproduction photographs of Obijwe and Sioux that were donated by the Minnesota Historical Society and that Dana hung on the walls of the dining room. The photos will stay there through the remainder of the Expo.
We then served the crudo course followed by the rabbit. As one might imagine, things got a little hairy as we plated five versions of the next course, but, with Daniel Alley working the pass and coordinating the pickups, things went off without a hitch. We finished with Sean’s dessert course, which required several steps to plate, prompting both amazement and good natured ridicule on the part of the culinary team. It was quite wonderful and, as was the rest of the meal, prepared sans any cream, gluten or processed sugar, in keeping with the tradition of Native American foodstuffs.
The evening culminated with a question and answer session followed by some photos, and ending with Sean and I signing the “Chef’s Wall,” where the autographs of some of America’s most prominent chefs were already on display. With John Besh [August in New Orleans and other restaurants] and Rick Bayless [Frontera Grill in Chicago and other restaurants] following next week, that wall will soon bear the names of at least 60 of America’s and Italy’s finest culinarians.
As we prepare to depart Milan, we will be travelling throughout the Alto Adige visiting winemakers and chefs before returning to Minnesota. Hopefully, we will have an opportunity to recreate this meal at Heartland upon our return.
DINNER MENU FOR THE EVENT
Smoked duck, with blueberry, prairie onion and pumpkin seed
Seared hominy cakes with sunflower seed pesto and raspberries
Sunchoke chip with smoked trout and caviar
Bison tartare with rosehip, sumac, quail egg and amaranth cracker
Pan-fried bass with wild rice crust currant-wild rice cake, watercress puree and sprouts
Smoked rabbit with mushrooms, dandelion greens, onions, ferns, asparagus, plum coulis
Native corn-wildflower honey sorbet with burnt maple squash, sweet bean cake, glazed seeds and cracked corn