Chef Thomas Russo has spent nearly two decades in top kitchens around South Florida, bringing his own take on “comfort food” – more on that in a bit – to the people. Before that though, he spent another 20 years in an organization that’s not necessarily the first one you think of when you think “obvious place for chef training.”
For 20 years, Russo – today the executive chef at the Sonesta Fort Lauderdale Beach hotel and its restaurant, Bistro – was a member of the United States Marines.
His plan going in was to become a chef, and that plan served him well. In his two-decade career with the Marines, he twice won the opportunity to take a Johnson and Wales culinary course. He was named best chef in the Marines, and then in the entire Armed Forces. Equally important was food-inspector school – an Army-run program that teaches the exacting science of checking and monitoring what comes into your kitchen. By the end of his military career, Russo was a private chef for four-star generals. When he returned to civilian life and took a job in Miami running the kitchen in Marriott’s then-new Brickell location, he was already a seasoned practitioner of high-end cooking.
But, he’s quick to say, he didn’t simply learn culinary skills in the Marines.
“If you don’t have a great leadership philosophy, you’ll have chaos,” he says. “I’m a really good cook, but I’m an even better leader. That comes from the Marines.”
A key part of being a Marine, he says, is that you’re not simply above the people you outrank, you have responsibility for them. It’s that nobody-left-behind mentality that Russo tries to bring into the kitchen – he looks out for his team, and that shows in the way his team responds. On this day, there was a big catering event the night before. Russo made sure to thank the staffers who put in the work; now he gets out his phone to read some of their texted replies.
“You’re the best chef I ever worked for,” one says. “Thanks for all you do for me, I just want to do my best.”
Another puts it into pop culture terms: “Have you ever seen the movie 300? That’s the way we are going.”
Then there’s all the food that teamwork and his Marines ethos goes into building. Russo, the well-traveled former military man, describes the menu as global cuisine. “I choose things I love in other countries,” he says. “In life, it’s all about feelings.”
One term he feels gets a bad rap is “comfort food.”
“People have wrongly defined comfort food as foods that are fatty and rich,” he says. “Comfort foods are foods that make you feel happy.”
He can name his own favorite comfort food – the eggplant parmesan his Italian grandmother made when he was a boy. But there are others, some of which are perfect for a restaurant that faces the Atlantic. He lived for three years in Key West; he lived on the water and from his house, could be in his boat fishing the reef in minutes. Yellowtail snapper? That’s Florida comfort food, and the sort of dish you’ll always find on one of Russo’s menus.
One of Russo’s favorite responsibilities is helping the people who have their weddings or receptions at the hotel.
“I get to help these brides and grooms create the memories of a lifetime,” he says. “When couples come in, the first thing I say to them is ‘Let me tell the story of your life through food.’”
His own story has had a few interesting turns, and took him to the Sonesta in October. The hotel sits at the corner of A1A and Sunrise Boulevard, across Sunrise from Hugh Taylor Birch State Park and just a street away from the Bonnet House. Russo knows this stretch of road well; as a teenager, the South Florida native remembers weekend nights spent on what was then a vastly different beachfront strip. Today, the establishments facing the Atlantic are much more likely to be able to grill you a quality steak or that yellowtail snapper. Russo’s will soon get even busier; the hotel’s opening a second restaurant, on the south side of the building directly facing the ocean. To open later this year, it will offer a South Florida/Caribbean vibe.
That will mean more work, but the former Marine is happy with the team he’s building to do that work.
“I judge the success of the [kitchen] team and the restaurant as a daily thing,” he says. “It’s all about self-honesty, integrity … and bringing it to work and believing in yourself. It starts rubbing off on the people that work for you too.”
Butcher’s Cut Rack of Lamb with Red Onion Confit and Celeriac-Potato Puree
• 14-16 ounces lamb
• 1 ounce red pepper jelly
• 1 teaspoon chef’s lamb spice
• 1.5 ounces red onion confit
• 7 ounces potato/celeriac mash
• 4 pieces asparagus, sautéed with lemon and butter
• 6 pounds red onions, julienned
• 6 ounces blended oil
• 6 ounces balsamic syrup
• 4 cups red wine
• 5 ounces granulated sugar
• 3.5 pounds celeriac, peeled and diced ½ inch
• 3 ounces softened butter
• 2 cups whole milk
• 1 teaspoon kosher salt
• 1 pinch white pepper
• 8 ounces chutney
• 1 peach, grilled
• 1 tablespoon candied, minced ginger
• 1 teaspoon
Brush the meat and bones with red pepper jelly and season with chef’s spice. Grill and finish in oven. Plate. Sweat the red onions with the oil until they begin to wilt. Add the wine, sugar and balsamic. Cook until the onions are tender and the liquid is reduced to a glaze. To make the celeriac-potato puree, cook the celeriac in milk, being careful not to burn the milk. Cook until fork-tender. Drain, and save the milk. Mash the potatoes by hand with a masher while adding a little of the milk until desired consistence is achieved. Add the butter and season to taste with salt and a little white pepper. Finely dice the peach, and add everything together.