It’s hot in the kitchen at Heartland Restaurant. Really hot. The ovens are going at 400°, the grill is smoking and spitting, saute pans are steaming. There’s not much room either, maybe four feet of work space between the line and that hot oven.
This is home for a chef.
Heartland is known for its strict farm-to-table policy, working with small farmers from within a 200 mile radius of the Twin Cities, and for bringing fine dining to a city virtually devoid of it back when the restaurant opened in 2002. Their move in 2010 from the residential Mac-Groveland neighborhood to a large, elegant in space in Lowertown was both a testament to the city’s emerging food culture and Lowertown as a destination.
Doors open at 4PM, but the the kitchen staff usually get in around 11 or noon to prep and get ready for dinner service.
Behind the line, Amy Buckmeier and Natalie Allesee run the show. A dynamic duo, you might say, like Batman and Robin; except that they’re both Batman, and they’re both Robin, (and sometimes the Joker) depending on the situation. The chefs run one of the finest kitchens in Minnesota, splitting cooking, expediting, and leading duties to make sure those plates come out looking nothing less than perfect.
It’s Lenny Russo’s kitchen, to be sure, but night in and night out it’s Amy and Nat that are producing your food, with their team of Chas Grant, Kyle Hodgen, and Jenny Rue behind them. Or to the right of them. Or passing on the left.
It’s certainly a physically demanding job, a job full of cuts and burns (as Natalie says, “Cooks burn themselves. A lot.”), but the toughest parts of the job are often intangible.
“When a customer sends back their steak because they don’t like it, or because it was a tiny bit under-cooked, for a passionate chef that’s defeating,” Natalie says. “If you are enraptured by what you do for a living, the customer who probably has no idea what medium rare plus looks like has the capacity to ruin your evening. Because those who are passionate about what they do ride the roller coaster of emotions on a daily basis. But that’s what passion is, and what it’s supposed to be.”
But then, of course, there’s always the the flip side.
“When I make food I’m proud of,” Natalie says, “I’m elated beyond compare.”
While it’s not a glamorous life necessarily, it’s the only life for some. It’s not so much a profession you choose, it’s a profession that chooses you. As Natalie says simply, “I cook because I love to.”
Amy as well tells us, “I have been working in restaurants since I turned 15. After starting my first job in a restaurant I realized I was more comfortable there [in the kitchen] than anywhere else in my life. It just felt like home to be in the back of the house with like-minded people. I was hooked and made it my career choice from that point on.”
Natalie remembers college at the University of Minnesota-Duluth as the turning point for her. “I struggled to narrow down what I wanted to major in,” she says. “I found myself avoiding homework by cooking for my four large, rugby-obsessed roommates. The pleasure I received from watching them inhale copious amounts of food became a driving force behind my decision to leave Duluth and attend school at Le Cordon Bleu.”
But it’s not only cooking that is the draw, it’s cooking someplace special; someplace that shares in your philosophies about food. There’s a certain pride in cooking in the right kitchen.
“I sought out a position at Heartland because I believed in the principals of the restaurant and wanted to be a part of it,” Amy says. “I took a demotion from a sous chef to a line cook when I first started because I wanted to be part of this place so much. I hope that what I do as a part of this restaurant and in any future projects helps to spread the philosophy of the need for local, sustainable food to the community.”
Natalie agrees. “I choose where I work because of my values. My goal, above all else, is to advocate for sustainable practices in restaurants, and in how we all eat. As a chef I can help propel the local foods movement forward, and eventually, make it mainstream. I think there are a lot of restaurants that want to jump on the farm to table bandwagon without spending the time and money to really back it up. I’d love to advocate for farmers and get them connected with the restaurant community.”
These are the things that make the injuries, the stress, and the long hours in a hot kitchen worth it.
Back in February of 2015, MSP Magazine came under fire for publishing a feature on the top local restaurants, represented on the cover by each their chefs. The problem? There wasn’t a single woman included.
Is professional cooking still a male-dominated profession? Have you felt that your gender has limited you in the kitchen?
“I suppose I have been lucky in most of my employment,” Amy says. “I have worked with many other female cooks and chefs and never felt as though women were much of a minority in the business. I can only think of one specific incidence of being called out or treated differently because of my sex. Because of my mostly positive experiences I suppose the notion of being a ‘female chef’ as apposed to a ‘chef’ rarely occurs to me.”
“In a couple of situations I found that men were given certain types of opportunities first, even though we were equally qualified. I was passed up for a few harder line-cooking jobs, and even a managerial position in one case.” Natalie reflects on past employment, then acknowledges, “[But] I’ve been fortunate enough to work with a lot of men who I feel have actually appreciated gender diversity in the workplace.”
And now they’re running one of the most respected kitchens in the Midwest. Perhaps their own magazine cover is in their future? We are, after all, living in a culture of celebrity chefs.
Natalie is unconcerned. “I think that most chefs driven to be a celebrity are a joke and don’t represent the strife and struggles of running a restaurant, and cooking behind the line.”
So wait, not everything looks exactly the way that Bobby Flay and Gordon Ramsey tell us it does?
Amy shrugs at this, “…I think the simple truth is that if you’ve never worked in a restaurant, especially a true scratch kitchen restaurant, you really can’t understand what it’s like. It isn’t anything like what you see on TV cooking shows.”
But, perhaps as a result of this celebrity-chef culture, new restaurants are opening constantly. This what people want: exciting new restaurants with exciting new chefs. Has this rabid “foodie” culture led to a Twin Cities dining scene that is overrun with new restaurants? Something new opens every week, it seems, whether in Lowertown, the North Loop, or anywhere and everywhere in between. Even the suburbs have gotten in on the action.
Natalie isn’t fazed. “Not all of these restaurants will last. The next economic swing will probably bring us back to where we were 5 years ago.”
“I enjoy the booming culinary scene here in the Twin Cities,” Amy says. “Though I do fear that we can’t sustain the current rate of restaurant openings. In conversations with other chefs and sous chefs around town, everyone seems to be having trouble with finding enough qualified staff.”
What a problem to have. It’s interesting to think back to a Minneapolis and St. Paul food scene dominated by mom-and-pop restaurants and supper clubs. The landscape has shifted dramatically. Natalie points to Heartland head chef and proprietor Lenny Russo as a major part of the shift, saying that, “[Lenny] and Lucia Watson have had an impact on local cuisine in MN for years, and I admire them greatly for it.”
Who else has been a role model?
And Amy? Any role models?
Working at Heartland is more than just a collect-your-paycheck type of job. Each night is tough, and each night is rewarding. Each night is a struggle within the sweaty confines of the line, but it’s a labor of love. To put a smile on the face of a skeptical diner, to watch a couple share an anniversary dinner, and to have people push their empty plates back with complete satisfaction after a great meal is a thing of beauty that existed long before this culture of TV personalities and Pinterest.
It’s a simple art, cooking, but like any art it’s driven by passion and the desire to create the very best you can. That’s exactly what Amy and Natalie strive to do night in and night out. You can find them behind the line at Heartland Restaurant, 289 5th Street East, St. Paul, MN 55102.