Heartland chef travels to Slovenia for food cultural exchange

Lenny Russo in Slovenia
Lenny Russo, chef and owner of Heartland Restaurant in St. Paul, with Jerca Oman and Franiva Kopavnik, in Ratece, Slovenia--where Slovenia, Austria and Italy come together. Russo is in Slovenia as part of a cultural exchange with the U.S. Embassy in Slovenia.
Photo by Chris Wurst

Lenny Russo, chef and owner of Heartland Restaurant in St. Paul, has been in Slovenia for about the past two weeks as part of a cultural exchange with the U.S. Embassy in Slovenia. Russo's also recently been named to the American Chef Corps, a new cultural partnership through the State Department.

Russo spoke to Tom Weber from Slovenia.

Lenny Russo: I got one of these emails that says "Greetings from Ljubljana, Slovenia." I'm thinking OK, the email will say, "I was mugged by a Serb, send me cash." (Laughs) I realized soon after reading it that it was actually a valid inquiry, which was, "Every year we do a cultural exchange with the United States and Slovenes and the last two years we did the music of Bob Dylan and R.E.M. Now that we have the rock 'n' roll out of our system, we'd like to do food and wine. Would you be interested?" I said sure.

They flew in to interview me, [U.S. Embassy Ljubljana Public Affairs Officer] Chris Wurst did with his wife Chiara, who's a choreographer here in Slovenia, and they interviewed me for about three hours actually. They brought me a bottle of Slovenian wine, I gave them some wild rice and the cultural exchange began. This is all about reaching out to Slovenes and understanding their culture and then taking the ingredients that I see and learning from the people here and then recreating food and hosting them.

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Today, I did another dinner here, which was some heirloom beans, some sausage, eggs and things from different farms that I had visited. Also, beer that was made there and schnapps. I took those ingredients, created a dish, filtered it through my creative process and the things that we do. Here's what an American would do with your ingredients. That's how the cultural exchange is happening.

Tom Weber: You're taking the Slovene ingredients and making an American dish.

Russo: What makes the dish American is that an American is cooking it. Also part of it is helping Slovenes understand that we're more than Coca-Cola, Levi's and McDonald's. The country is very small, it's about the size of New Jersey. You can go 100 kilometers from one place to another and have it be completely different. Different languages being spoken, different dialects. They're at such a crossroads, not only a crossroads geographically, but historically.

They're very diverse and I think they're beginning to understand that America is the same way. If you're in New England, it's different than being in Miami. If you're in Miami, that's different than being in the Southwest or Midwest. It's all distinctly different. I'm trying to help them understand that America's not meatloaf and mashed potatoes. That's not to say it isn't meatloaf and mashed potatoes, but it's not exclusively meatloaf and mashed potatoes.

Weber: I don't know that we necessarily have stereotypes of what Slovenia food is, so give us a taste. How would you describe food over there?

Russo: Again, very culturally diverse. I have so far been down on the coast, where it's strongly influenced by Italy and the language spoken down there is not only Slovenian but Italian and the road signs are bilingual. I was all the way up in the northern Alps, where Austria, Italy and Slovenia come together, and they were speaking Slovene and German to me. I can tell you that the ingredients that I've seen are all top notch.

Part of this is talking about sustainable agriculture and the traditions of the sustainable farming practices and what they have here and helping them understand that it's important to preserve these things and maybe not fall under the spell of what might be an industrial model for agriculture that we as a country felt was necessary after World War II in order to feed the world, and now we're thinking in a different way. They, of course, are new to the European Union. There's a lot of pressure for them to abandon some of their more traditional farming practices and some of their handcrafted ways of doing things. What I'm asking them to do is to think really hard about these things and hopefully make what I would consider to be the right decision, but these are decisions they have to make for themselves.

Weber: You do write a blog for the Star Tribune website and you've been noting your travails there. You wrote, "Then they gave me lessons on the making of traditional Slovenian krape, which are dumplings, both savory and sweet, stuffed with a mixture of reconstituted dried tepka pears topped with either a sweetened béchamel or ground pork. We finished with some tepka schnapps." That sounds like something that would be awesome back here at Heartland. Is this something you can bring home and will be on the menu when you get back in St. Paul?

Russo That's a thought. We have had crappie on the menu but not this particular krape [a fish]. The tepka pear is unique to Slovenia and that's what's right outside their back door, in the same way we serve what's right outside our back door. There's an interpretation there that could occur. They've taken these pears, dried them, reconstituted them and ground them and then made a filling in a dumpling.

What I did with the old ladies that were there, one was well into her 70s, the other was well into her 60s. They're adorable. I just left them again today after cooking with them for the second time. One of them hugged me so tight I thought she was going to break my ribs. But the idea of that — it might not have occurred to me to take a pear, a dried pear for instance, reconstitute it and grind it and make a stuffing and fill a dumpling and serve it in a savory way. That's something that's unique. The combination of ingredients are unique in many ways and I think we might be able to take some of this stuff back and gain some inspiration from us.

The long and the short of it is, yes. We could do maybe a sweet béchamel if we wanted to do a dessert or we could do the savory part, which was a ground pork that was over the top of this. The ground pork and the pear together and this dumpling was really delicious. That was actually my favorite. I'm not particularly fond of sweets, but the savory part was incredible. It was very, very good.

Weber: Is there some kind of food item that you have a new-found respect and love for after this trip?

Russo: There are just so many things here that are great. Wild garlic would be one. They have a wild garlic here that's really intensely flavored. I used that in one of the dishes and that one really caught my eye. The dried pear is really interesting but I have to tell you that above anything, the wine that's being produced in Slovenia and the olive oil is on par with anything I've tasted. The winemakers are incredibly sophisticated, the same thing with the olive oil.

And they don't just stop there. The guys who are making olive oil, make a digestif from olive oil. The guys that are harvesting pears and the women who are harvesting the pears are making schnapps from the pears. They're using everything here and it's really refreshing. I do believe that we don't fully appreciate the sophistication of what it is that they're doing and the quality of the work.

By the way, Amy Klobuchar is Slovene. Just throwing that out there. There are a lot of Slovenes in Minnesota up in the Iron Range, especially where the mines are. I think that we would do well to perhaps bring some of that in. The sad part is that because the country is so small and some of these farms are so small that what they produce in terms of quantity is being consumed right here in the country and some of it is just not available.

Weber: I know you have a film crew with you, you're going to be a TV star there in Slovenia. But, Lenny, did you get pulled over by the police?

Russo: Yeah, we did. That was interesting. We were driving back and the crew did not have a camera mounted on the hood of the car, but they were shooting out of the back of the van that had their equipment in it and I had another cameraman in the back seat of this little Fiat 500 I've been driving around.

As we were heading down the highway an unmarked Slovenian police cruiser went by us and pulled us both over and wanted to know what was going on. The director of photography was in the car along with the producer and the answer was, "We're filming a cooking show." The cop said, "Who are you kidding? You're cooking in a car? Who's the joke on now?" It got a little tense there for a minute and so they came back and talked to me and asked me for my papers. I didn't want to drop the name of the American Embassy because I didn't want to look like an arrogant American saying, "Oh, by the way, I'm here representing the United States, so back off." I just thought that was out of line. So, I said, "OK, here's my passport. Here's my driver's license."

They brought the director of photography back to the car and sat him down and finally he just said, "Look, he's here with the American Embassy." And then we were magically not only sent on our way, but given good luck and good tidings. I'm not sure why we needed good luck, but I was definitely happy to get the good tidings.