Ep. 24: Chef Lenny Russo - The Philosopher Chef

Photo credit: Twin Cities Pioneer Press

Photo credit: Twin Cities Pioneer Press

Chef Lenny Russo is a forty year veteran of the food & beverage industry, a member of the U.S. Department of State American Chef Corps, participating chef at World Expo Milan 2015, author of "Heartland: Farm Forward Dishes of the Great Midwest", founder and owner of the seminal Heartland Restaurant in St Paul, MN, six time James Beard Award finalist nominee for Best Chef Midwest, and is currently the Executive Chef at The Commodore Bar & Restaurant in St. Paul, MN.

Chef Lenny's name has become synonymous with the local food movement in the Midwest and he has spent a majority of his career championing issues important to our food by contributing the remaining time he has when not in the kitchen to the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce, the MN Organic Advisory Task Force, the Ramsey County Food and Nutrition Commission, and many other organizations tackling the biggest challenges our food systems face.  Chef Lenny's philosophy was evident in his cooking as he would change his menu every day at Heartland based on what the farmers brought him that morning, ensuring only the best possible ingredients were used. 

For the most part, Chef Lenny’s accomplishments as a chef have been widely covered internationally and a quick Google search will show he’s been written up numerous times in various food publications.  However, most don’t get to hear about his other experiences and interests.  He studied Philosophy and Literature in college, worked at an architecture firm, and was even a clinical psychologist before heading to the kitchen for good and so for this episode, we delve into the other aspects of his multi-faceted life.  We definitely talk about his early days in the kitchen and his approach to food but we also talk about:

  • Food and Family as non-monetary “Wealth”
  • The need to have a healthy sense of skepticism but also an open mind when trying to leave the world a better place
  • The challenges but necessity of finding common ground especially during these polarized times
  • Relinquishing control and having the a sense of confidence that in turn allows others to pursue their best selves
  • Evolution as a Choice

It’s very easy to pigeonhole Chef Lenny into the "Chef Box" but as he once mentioned, he’s not JUST “The Local Food Guy”.  Give this one a listen all the way to the end if you’re serious about helping heal this world because I guarantee you this episode will leave you inspired, thought-provoked, and just a little bit more inquisitive.  


7:00 - Chef Lenny circa 2012 // the American Chef Corps
9:20 - How Chef Lenny introduces himself
    *The Dago from Hoboken and the Early Years
    *On "Wealth" and Poverty
12:15 - From Dishwasher to Chef Garde Manger
    *Cooking...not a "Real Job"
    *The Learning Cycle // Getting paid to Learn
20:45 - What kept drawing Chef Lenny back to the kitchen
    *On Empiricism and Spirituality
23:30 - On creating Meaning // Chef Lenny's time as a Clinical Psychologist
    *Questions Humanity has to answer // On the accumulation of Knowledge
    *"I don't excel in one thing, I am above average in many things"
26:45 - On the curse of labels and being a multi-faceted being
34:15 - On finding Common Ground during polarized times
    *see: Ep. 21 with Jabber Al-Bihani
    *The need for Open-mindedness vs. living in a "Silo"
    *The hypocrisy of "No to GMO" and the challenges of feeding the future
42:45 - On a daily-changing menu and instilling Confidence in your team
44:20 - On getting out of the ingredients' way // On "putting too much shit on the plate"

Rapid Fire with Chef Lenny
Most Influential Person: Chef Lenny's Mom
Best Cooking Tool Ever Purchased: Revere Cookware Pan (Stainless Steel outer, Copper inner, Brass handle).  Probably no longer produced since Chef Lenny's pan is over forty years
3 Ingredients That Describe Chef Lenny: Garlic, Sea Salt, and Wheat
Resource for the Common Person: Chance & Necessity: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology by Jacques Monod
If Chef Lenny's Life Story was Written in One Sentence: "He Was a Good Person"

Food Referenced:
Mussels in Red Sauce - Italian dish aka "Spaghetti Fra Diavolo Con Vongole"
Chicken Cacciatore - Italian dish of braised chicken in "hunter style" with onions, tomatoes, wine
Poussin - young chicken (less than 28 days old) often confused with the term "Spring Chicken"

Other References:
US State Dept. American Chef Corps
Sean Sherman aka The Sioux Chef
Fiore's Deli on Adams St., Hoboken, NJ (Chef Lenny lived above this historic deli.  Walk inside, turn right at the Provolone)
Carlo's Bakery (formerly beside Fiore's)
Julia ChildGalloping Gourmet, and James Beard
The Betty Crocker Cookbook and The Fannie Farmer Cookbook
Fetzer Vineyards

Follow the Story...
: chef@thecommodorebar.com
Website: The Commodore Bar & Restaurant
Facebook: Lenny Russo
LinkedIn: Lenny Russo