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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Chef's Choice: Leanna Russo of BitterSweet Bakery

Posted By on Wed, Mar 17, 2010 at 12:00 PM

This is part one of Robin Wheeler's Chef's Choice interview with Leanna Russo; to read part two, click here. To read part three, click here.

Leanna Russo, owner and executive chef of BitterSweet Bakery, would much rather eat a bag of potato chips than anything sweet.

"I was trained savory. I never studied anything pastry until I did my externship, and I hated it. No way will I do that. Ever. But I did. And here I am," she says while taking a coffee break at her still-new south-city bake shop.

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While her cakes with towering poufs of buttercream scent the shop and draw the attention, Russo makes sure to represent the savory with little quiches, soups, stratas, biscuits and gravy, and plenty of flaky pastries stuffed with meats, cheeses and vegetables.

Still, it's pastry and its fickleness that has lured her since culinary school. "I would do something and the pastry chef would come up, tell me it was wrong, scoop everything back in a bowl and I'd have to start all over again. 'Why didn't it work?'," she growls, then laughs. "Next thing you know I'm Harold McGee, and wow! It became this huge thing, and I realized that I don't have to like it; it just has to consume me. And that's what it did."

There's plenty to intrigue Russo these days. BitterSweet's barely a year old, but it's an old-timer in her life compared to Valentine, her five-week-old daughter. The infant, with a shock of jet black hair, snoozes in a swing in the office under the watchful eye of Kurt, Russo's husband.

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"She's the hardest person to work for. She's just a part of it. I can't wait until she starts making memories here. It's hectic, and it's hard finding time to stop doing what you're doing and keeping on a schedule with someone who doesn't want to be on a schedule, while still trying to maintain a position."

Valentine agrees, emitting a shriek.

"We're working on it. It'll take time. It was supposed to go baby, then bakery. But baby didn't come, so we did bakery. And then a week later we found out. It happens that way. Everyone told us it would happen at the worst possible time. Okay, you deal. Now I can't think of a better reason to start a business with your family than for your family. There isn't anyone I'd rather do this for, so it works out."

Russo's up for the challenge of being a new mom and running her new business. She's been preparing for this for a long time. "I always grew up working with chefs, and they were all male. They told me that if you want to be a mother, you can't be a chef. It was like giving me an ultimatum at a very early age. It never occurred to me that I couldn't."

She's determined that her kitchen will be different from the ones where she was so limited. "I remember being in the kitchen when I was a kid and being called every name in the book. You're not supposed to cry, so just shrug it off. It was so crazy back then. It was this whole brigade system. 'If you're an extern then you're going to scrub the screens and you're going to boil chicken feet.' You're the bottom of the totem pole and the dishwasher gets more respect than you do. Now, it's turned itself around. You can go into a kitchen and everyone respects everyone."

Russo, like many chefs of her generation, actively works to change that old system, not just for herself but for her staff. "Being in the restaurant business is so abusive. So abusive, in so many different ways, on so many different levels. I was so sick of working in restaurants that were abusive, and watching people abuse themselves and live so unhappy. Why can't people live good, have these dreams, and actually make money, have health care, and live healthy lives? A good life."

Did your family cook when you were a child? Yes, absolutely. I come from a very long line of farmers. When we were children, we were raised to believe that good food was one of the greatest gifts one could receive. Growing up in a farming community in Ohio, we hardly ever went to a grocery store. We ate straight out of the garden. It was wonderful. Not everyone had electricity, so baking and canning were huge in my family.

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