Story by Alice Short
Photos by Carol Banks
Eating out at a first class restaurant is a treat. Something looked forward to; something savored both at the restaurant and in the memory of the meal. We want and expect everything to taste great. Do we think about the ingredients that are the starting point of that great taste? Probably not. But Russell Klein, Executive Chef at W. A. Frost and Company in St. Paul does – every day. And every day he can, Klein buys the best local Minnesota produce and creates recipes to show it off.
A look at Frost’s menu is a tribute to what Minnesota producers grow and raise. Take lunch. Two items offer Minnesota-grown vegetables – one of them a summer vegetable thin crust pizza. Also for lunch, a dark meat turkey salad sandwich made from Wild Acres Farm birds, and a Fischer’s Farm barbecued pork sandwich. Prefer dinner? Five of the eleven entrées on the summer menu feature local products: a chicken confit or a duck breast, both with Wild Acres Farm poultry; a pork loin entrée made with Fischer’s Farm pork; and a grilled rainbow trout from Star Prairie Trout Farm in Wisconsin. There is also what Klein calls “A Composition of Summer Vegetables” – a sampler plate consisting of carrot pancakes, a stuffed onion and a vegetable ragoût.
“As a chef, you realize that unless you start with good stuff you can’t finish with anything good,” says Klein. “That means you are going to want to deal on as local a level as possible to make sure that things are as fresh as possible and have as much flavor as possible.” A native of New York City, Klein’s love of local ingredients began when he was learning his trade at the French Culinary Institute there, and spent his spare time wandering around Manhattan’s Union Square Farmers’ Market in New York, which he considers one of the best in the country – quickly adding that he puts the St. Paul Farmers’ Market in the same class.
W. A. Frost’s cuisine is New American, with a French flair traceable to Klein’s work as a chef in Southern France. Housed in a historic building that 120 years ago was the W. A. Frost drugstore, the restaurant can seat 400+ people in an endless series of connected rooms and an outdoor patio. Size here is a challenge and Klein admits that it’s a lot easier to buy from small producers when you only have an 80-seat restaurant.
W. A. Frost’s focus on local produce began under Klein’s predecessor, Chef Lenny Russo. Three and a half years after succeeding Russo as executive chef, Klein is continuing the effort to make Frost part of the larger community of local food producers. “For me as a chef, it’s important to know the people growing the food,” he says. To this end, Klein tries to spend more time in the field visiting the farmers from whom he buys. “If nothing else, to see their farms, to see how they grow things and to get a better picture in my head of what goes on there.”
This commitment to fresh, local ingredients is not without some cost. Not so much the cost of the products, rather it’s the labor needed to get these products onto a dinner plate. “Salad is a good example,” says Klein. “I can buy a commercially available box of mesclun mix, eight bucks for five pounds. Open a bag, dress it, put it on a plate and it’s ready go. Zero labor.” The local greens Klein buys for Frost have to be washed, spun and sorted – jobs not required for commodity products. Klein says he’s lucky that Frost’s ownership shares the philosophy he has: that from a flavor standpoint it’s important to be part of this wider food community, to support small businesses, to make an investment in this idea. “It’s not free to do it and it’s easier not to do it.”
Getting to know the farmers and producers allows Klein to better forecast when local produce will be available, which translates into the menu consistency that Frost’s patrons expect. Klein keeps his menu options open to accommodate the arrival of local products. “With Minnesota’s short and unpredictable growing season you can’t lock yourself into rigid menu planning,” Klein says. This is especially true of fresh produce. I always try to have something on the menu that allows me to take whatever walks in on a given day and use it on that dish.”
Over the Fourth of July holiday weekend when most Americans, even chefs, were taking a little time off, Klein went for an extended visit to Wild Acres Farm, where he buys all the duck and some of the other poultry items he prepares. Here Klein saw first hand how these ducks are raised. Doing this is part of Klein’s philosophy and his commitment to local producers. “It’s important for a chef to take something from the field to the plate.” That’s a commitment you can taste for yourself at W. A. Frost.
DETAILS: W. A. Frost and Company 374 Selby Avenue o St. Paul, MN Tel. (651) 224-5715
Located in the historic Dacotah building in the Cathedral Hill neighborhood, W. A. Frost serves dinner seven days a week. Lunch is served Monday through Saturday and brunch on Sundays.
W. A. Frost also hosts a “Friends of the Farmer” dinner series, which highlights the connection with local farmers. To be notified of upcoming dinners, go to www.wafrost.com and join their mailing list.