10 questions for Meritage chef Russell Klein
Expect to see the streets of St. Paul paved deep with oyster shells on Sunday, September 30, the date of the second-annual OysterFest, Meritage's bivalve bacchanal. Amid the planning for celebrity shuck-offs and dancing in the street, Russell Klein, chef and co-proprietor of Meritage, took time recently to ponder the meaning of the French restaurant, comment of the role of awards in the culinary world, tell us where he and his wife and co-owner Desta like to eat when they're not eating at what many folks consider the best restaurant in St. Paul, and drop a few hints about what they're planning next.
Meritage chef Klein talks oysters, French cooking, good and bad meals, and plans for the future
1.OysterFest is coming September 30. The buzz is that this year's event is going to be even bigger and better. What will be difference about this year's party?
Russell Klein: This year's OysterFest will be bigger and better. We have two live bands, the Como Avenue Jug Band and the Southside Aces, so even more dancing in the streets. Summit Brewery has signed on to brew an Oyster Stout for us, the first time in their 26-year history that they have done an oyster stout, so that's cool. We'll also be serving some innovative kegged wines for the first time. We expect to shuck around 20,000 oysters for the day, which, although there are no official records, I'm going to go out on a limb and say will be a St. Paul record.
2. Why oysters? With your oyster bar and Oysterfest, it's a logistical nightmare, right, getting them from their ocean beds to the heart of the Midwest? Isn't it a high-risk proposition for you, both financially and in terms of your reputation for quality and consistency?
Kara Buckner Chef Klein
Klein: It's a passion. I've been in Minnesota for almost 11 years now, and the one thing I just can't get past missing is the ocean. And my family, but mostly the ocean. The logistics can be difficult, but I think they are worth it. Mostly it takes a lot of attention each day to inventory and projecting ahead a day or two; pretty much what we do with all of our ordering. I'm really particular with what I order, and visiting the farms has been a huge part of elevating our quality. Whenever possible we purchase directly from the oyster farms. The idea was to extend the farm-to-table purchasing we do for the rest of the restaurant to the oyster bar. I want to know who is growing the food we serve. The result is that most of our oysters are less than 24 hours out of the water when
we receive them.
We have made some significant trips the past few years to meet and get to know oyster farmers on both coasts. We just got back from Prince Edward Island a few weeks ago, and it was a really educational trip. There is just no substitute for seeing where the oysters are grown and the techniques the farmers use. Whenever we talk with oyster farmers, or any farmer for that matter, I learn something I can share with our guests.
3. Your front-of-the-house staff is all French now. Chance or design?
Klein: We should clarify that all of our front-of-the-house management is now French, with the exception of Desta. Chance or design? A bit of both. We are obviously a magnet for the French community in the Twin Cities. At the same time, we certainly seek out employees who are either French, Francophiles, or French-trained.
4. So how did a boy born in Queens end up running an impeccably French restaurant in St. Paul, Minnesota?
Kara Buckner The Meritage oyster bar
Klein: I moved to Minnesota almost 11 years ago. I arrived in St Paul on Christmas Eve 2001. I always knew the first restaurant I would do would be French. It's my training and the foundation of my passion for fine cuisine. I spent a good amount of time training in France, and Desta and I try to get there every other year or so.
My not being French is sometimes an issue for people. Somehow they perceive my cooking to be less French because I don't have an accent. Meritage has always struggled with people saying we are not French enough, but I think that's because too many people have too narrow a view of what French food is. At Meritage we really enjoy cooking the classics, but we also enjoy contemporary French cuisine. It's the balance we constantly try to strike. So much of the cuisine we call "New American" is French food described in a way that is less scary to Americans. We can be so parochial about what we eat, although it's getting much better. When you start to study food a bit, you realize that there are so many similarities between different cultures' foods. And of course, in this country, everything has been brought together.
5. Any good cooks in the family who inspired you? Or, are you the family cook now whenever you go home? What about here -- does anybody have the confidence to ask you over for dinner?
Klein: Lots of good cooks in the family. My mother is a great cook, she likes to follow complicated recipes. My dad can grill as good a steak as any grill guy in town -- although he could never cook 50 of them in a three- or four-hour service, which is one of the biggest differences between professionals and talented amateurs. He's a bit more freewheeling, rarely following a recipe. My brother-in-law is an amazing cook. He's a New York City fireman, and like lots of fireman, he can bust out a great meal. Its a big part of the culture in the firehouse, especially since he's stationed not too far from Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, home of some of the best Italian markets in New York City.
I'm an easy dinner guest. Happy to help, and very understanding of what can go wrong in the kitchen. We get plenty of dinner invitations; it's just often difficult for us to accept since we are at the restaurant most nights.