For 14 years, Heartland has celebrated the bounty of Midwestern farmers and food purveyors (eight years in St. Paul’s Mac-Groveland neighborhood, and the past six in Lowertown). The restaurant’s exciting and influential journey is coming to an end on Dec. 31. Chef/co-owner Lenny Russo talks details.
Q: The news of the sale of the Heartland space seems to have come out of the blue. Did it?
A: None of this should surprise me, because when we bought the property, we were on the five- to 10-year plan. We’re about 6 ½ years right now, so we’re on schedule.
We had to make a decision: Either hold on for another five years, or sell now. There’s really no in between. We figured if the right offer came along, we would know it, and we would take it. It so happened that it did. We’re essentially losing the lease to ourselves, as weird as that sounds. It’s that simple.
Q: What’s going to happen, come Jan. 1?
A: Nobody is getting rich, but we’re making enough money so we don’t have to jump into the next thing right away. We can take some time to make a decision about what’s next. I already have a couple of irons in the fire, but they’re long-term prospects. What I’ll be doing in the short term, I don’t know.
To a certain extent, I’ve kind of pigeonholed myself: I’m the “local food” guy. That’s great. I’ll wear that mantle. But I’m more than that. I wrote a book about it. I had things to say, and I said it in the book [“Heartland: Farm-Forward Dishes From the Great Midwest,” his 2016 cookbook]. I say it in the restaurant, every day. I’m not sure that I have more to say on this subject.
I’m almost 60, I have to be thinking about what’s next. I have a lot of different interests, and I want the opportunity to see if there are other opportunities out there. I’ll always be a chef, but I’m also ready to move in a different direction. I’ve been doing this for 14 years. I need to do something else. That’s who I am. I need constant stimulation to keep me interested. That’s why I’ve changed the menu at Heartland every day for 14 years.
Q: What’s foremost on your mind?
A: We’ve been really fortunate to have people support what we’re doing. Our partners, the guests, the community, my peers, the media. I’m really thankful for that. And my wife, she has been the most patient, the most gracious, the most supportive, to allow me the freedom to do it, and to help me in the pursuit. Mega could have done something else. She didn’t have to do the restaurant. It was my vision, and she supported me in that, and she helped me shape it. She also helped keep me in check. Whenever I got too blustery, she’d help me take a step back and say, “There has to be a better way to do this.”
Q: What can you tell me about your business partner, Kris Maritz?
A: Kris and I have been close friends for a long time. When the lease was coming up on St. Clair [the original Heartland location], she came to me and said, “Let’s partner up, buy a piece of commercial property together, and put Heartland in it.” There were only so many things that we could do in that tiny space, and only so much impact that we could have in that tiny space. I had a grand vision for the next step in the evolution of the restaurant, and I wanted to fully realize that potential.
Bob Cornelius — and Sandra, his dear, departed wife — were the investors at the original Heartland. And then Kris showed up and did the same thing. And I have no idea why. Why me? Why us? I just can’t understand how we’ve ever been so fortunate. Without them, the restaurant would have never happened.
Q: Why did you decide to announce the closing so far in advance?
A: Because we wanted to make sure that the institutional debt would be paid. We want our purveyors to know. We want our staff to know. They’re a surrogate family. You can’t pull the plug on those people. That’s not the right thing to do.
We have a lot of friends that we’ve met through the restaurant. We want to welcome them in, and celebrate our 14 years together. We can’t just say, “See you later.” We want to be able to say thank you. We want the people holding gift certificates to know that they need to cash them in by December 31st.
Also, we have a certain way of working with our product. We put up so much food in the spring and summer, anticipating that we’ll have to make it to the following March and April. I have hundreds of gallons of preserved vegetables. I have conserved morels, all of this charcuterie, pans of rendered fats. I want to make sure that we manage that inventory.
Q: The restaurant is doing well, right?
A: Yes. But the changing demographic pretty much told us, “Either change what you’re doing, or close the restaurant.” Millennials have a different way of doing things. They have a small plate and a glass of wine, then they go to another place and have another plate, and then they’ll go somewhere else for dessert. That sounds fun to me, but that’s not our model. Our model — the one where we spend two hours having dinner and conversation — that’s the model that’s dying. You can’t eat here in an hour. If you want the full dining room experience, you have to give us two hours. So there’s this disconnect. If Heartland were to be re-concepted in the current space, to make it more relevant for the neighborhood, it would no longer be Heartland. Rather than create some bastardized version of it, it seems more natural to put it to rest, and to do something else.
Q: Who bought the Heartland real estate?
A: I can’t say. It’s important to allow the new owner to control their message.
Q: Do you think that some people are going to label Heartland’s closing as another nail in the fine-dining coffin?
A: Oh, yeah, for sure. But I don’t know if that’s relevant to us. There was one fine-dining restaurant in this town, and that was La Belle Vie, and it closed. We’ve never been fine dining. I would say that we’re an upscale restaurant. But we don’t have tablecloths. I don’t have a captain, or a sommelier, or a maître d’. You want fine dining, you have to go to Chicago, or New York, or San Francisco, or maybe some of the old-school places in New Orleans. But not here.
Q: Am I wrong to think that one of your legacies will be as a mentor to generations of local chefs?
A: I’m proud of the number of people that we’ve mentored. I take pride in knowing that I was able to help inform people, instill confidence in them and help them find their own voice as chefs. Paul Berglund [chef at the Bachelor Farmer in Minneapolis] was my bread baker, and he won the James Beard award last year. Alan Bergo is now running Lucia’s. Rob Moore, he’s running the whole G Concourse at the airport.
The Heartland kitchen is special in that it’s experimental. We try to let cooks find their own voices as chefs. When you come into my kitchen, you’re actively involved in helping write the menu, every night. You’re expressing yourself. The idea is not “You’re going to cook this dish exactly the same way for the next three months.”
Of course, there are important skills that need to be learned before you can get to that point. When someone comes into the kitchen, they go downstairs and they learn how to receive the product. You have to learn the post-harvest physiology of those fruits and vegetables. You have to know how to care for the meat that came in, and how to butcher it. So by the time you get on the line and you’re cooking, you know where it came from, you know how to care for it. I want them to learn the way that I learned, so that when people leave my kitchen, they have a broad skill set and a broad knowledge base. That’s important.
Q: How do you want people to remember Heartland?
A: People are calling Heartland my legacy. It’s not. A legacy is something that should last a hundred years. I don’t want to make any grandiose pronouncements of what it is or what it was. It’s a restaurant. At the end of the day, we’re cooking dinner for people.
When we first opened, our original partner, Bob Cornelius, asked me, “Are you sure that you’re doing the right thing? Buying from local farmers, paying fair trade and a living wage?” I said, “I’m sure we’re doing the right thing, but I’m not sure if we’re doing the smart thing.” It turned out to be a combination of both.
I didn’t open the restaurant thinking that we were going to jump-start a local food movement in Minnesota, I opened the restaurant because I wanted to cook good food for people, and make them happy.
We’ve tried to do things the right way at Heartland. We made some mistakes, for sure, but all and all we can be proud of the body of work that we created, and the way the restaurant has helped transform the way people think about food.