WHEN CHEF LENNY RUSSO ran Heartland, the glove-box-size restaurant in residential St. Paul, he was the guy who ordered the meat, cut and trimmed it, figured out how he was going to serve it, and cooked it—in between answering the phone and adding up the day’s receipts. During dinner, Russo could be seen bobbing about the kitchen: sautÃ©ing, tasting, plating, and generally fussing over every dish. On a busy Saturday, he’d feed maybe 100 people.
This past spring, Russo took a job with Bon AppÃ©tit Management Company as executive chef for the Guthrie Theater’s dining services, overseeing two restaurants (Cue and Level Five), a crudo bar (specializing in raw fish), and a catering service. Now he uses a keyboard as much as a knife, and he’s more likely to be tying up the phone line in his office than working the line in the kitchen. (Bon AppÃ©tit’s parent company, United Kingdom—based Compass Group, is the 12th-largest employer in the world, according to Fortune. “There are a lot of hoops that need to be jumped through every day,” Russo notes.) After returning dozens of e-mails and phone calls, Russo checks on $50,000 worth of edible inventory, then hikes the five flights of stairs between the two kitchens to train and mentor his staff, helping some employees clarify fish consommÃ© and others practice their English. When the rush hits, Russo mostly performs quality control, monitoring production and expediting plates. On a busy Saturday, during lunch and dinner at both Guthrie restaurants, he feeds roughly 800 people.
Any idea what it takes to provide Ã la carte service to 800 people a day? Plus catering parties of 600, or even 1,000? To save your sanity, you might order all the ingredients in individually portioned, pre-cooked vac-pacs from a wholesale food distributor. But Russo is feeding people like he did at Heartland: the hard way. He’s sourcing ingredients directly from local farmers (more logistical finagling), and he’s buying whole animals, shifting the burden, from farmer to chef, of figuring out what to do with all the cuts. Russo and Bon AppÃ©tit say they are committed to this farm-to-fork philosophy because it allows them to work with fresh, high-quality ingredients while also promoting sustainable agriculture. In fact, Russo took the Guthrie gig hoping to give local farmers more business; whereas Heartland’s annual revenue is about $700,000, Russo projects that the Guthrie’s dining services will take in more than $8 million yearly.
For efficiency’s sake, the kitchens at Cue and Level Five utilize some of the same ingredients, prep work, and menu items; even so, the two restaurants can feel worlds apart. Cue is a sophisticated, space-age place: a palette of black and midnight blue, granite, glass, and leather, with an exhibition kitchen jutting into the dining room like the thrust stage at the theater. Outside the windows, giant photographs of famous playwrights watch over the artsy-looking diners. At Cue, my guests and I enjoyed a number of fine dishes—ricotta-mushroom ravioli lavished with sage cream sauce, sockeye salmon with haricots verts, beef tenderloin with a cognac glace de viande—and fantastic desserts. Pastry chef Carrie Summer, most recently of Morimoto in New York City, boasts a lively repertoire of sweets, our favorite being her riff on a pancake breakfast: a miniature stack of toasted crumpet cakes, black cherry compote, a dollop of yogurt sorbet, and a shot glass of fragrant lavender syrup.
Level Five is a more casual space, a tunnel-like hallway that can feel like an airport lounge. Fifteen minutes before a performance, a stressful crunch occurs, with diners rushing through dessert and servers hastily swiping credit cards. After the show begins, the ghostly images of actors that decorate the walls often outnumber the guests. Level Five’s menu features simpler dishes that can be prepped in advance and plated on order. The value-driven pre-theater specials, in particular—salad, entrÃ©e, and dessert for under $20—cater to what Russo calls “the spaghetti and meatballs crowd.” A few of our favorite dishes were a fried walleye sandwich served with crusty polenta fries, a grilled eggplant entrÃ©e with roasted red pepper sauce (Russo, a former vegetarian, excels at meatless dishes), and a sourdough bread pudding with fresh berries and a fennel crÃ¨me anglaise.
Russo describes his cuisine as “pastoral farmhouse food that I brought into a professional kitchen and tweaked,” and, in general, when he strays outside his comfort zone, dishes don’t fare as well. Russo was wise to reject the Guthrie’s original oh-so-trendy concept for pan-Asian-French cuisine, as a dull-tasting curried cream soup reflected a lack of experience with an Eastern flavor palette. A too-fussy sheep’s milk cheesecake, with pine nuts, orange zest, and Pernod, had a curdled texture and mismatched flavors that made me long for a plain, New York—style wedge. A tenderloin meatloaf is Russo’s first attempt at the classic comfort food. (“I never worked in a restaurant where anybody asked me to make meatloaf,” he says.) But the Level Five loaf is soulless: while tenderloin—scavenged from the filet served downstairs—increases the dish’s cachet, Minnesota moms know that cheap, fatty cuts are what make a meatloaf matter.
With so many restaurants, employees, and menu items, Russo’s challenge is to keep from spreading himself too thin, lest dining quality suffer as seen in the Las Vegas or London outposts of famous New York restaurants…kudos to Bon AppÃ©tit, though, for promoting local talent instead of hiring a “satellite chef.” No one can be in two places at once—there are a finite number of plates a man can spin. Had I seen Russo in the kitchen, would my fennel-cured halibut have tasted so salty, or my elk roast resembled overpriced liver and onions? Time will tell if these mishaps were just a matter of opening jitters, or if completely-from-scratch fine dining is impossible to pull off in such volume.
Managing a staff of more than 100, Russo can’t possibly keep tabs on the waiter who described a tart as being “shaped like a Frisbee golf disc” (which I actually found endearing) or the waitresses who said the green gazpacho was made with tamales (er, tomatillos?) or, when I called the restaurant asking for Lenny Russo, the woman who responded, “I actually don’t know who that is.”
Who’s Russo? He’s the man directing this grand culinary show: working 100 hours a week, losing 45 pounds in the process. Why? To prove that the Midwest’s sustainable food system is ready for the big time. To see to it that local ingredients have an audience larger than that of a high school play. And to ensure that they dazzle every time they take the stage. MM
Rachel Hutton is Minnesota Monthly’s associate editor.
Cue and Level Five
806 S. Second St., Minneapolis, 612-225-6499
Cue: Tuesday through Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Level Five: Daily, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and, on performance nights, 5 p.m. until show starts. (Desserts served through intermission.)
Reservations recommended for Cue.
Parking in ramps across the street or at nearby meters.