Justin Grecco of Grecco’s on the Saint Croix

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

This feature article is sponsored by Grecco’s on the Saint Croix.

In St. Croix Falls, WI, an hour’s drive from Minneapolis, there lives an improbable chef who is accomplishing some improbable things. On the menu of Chef Justin Grecco’s little riverside restaurant are dishes such as fennel seasoned walleye with rainbow Swiss chard and wild rice pilaf with roasted tomato butter sauce; garam masala-crusted quail breasts, lentil, bacon and fava bean ragout, sauteed spinach, and mango lime puree; and blackened venison NY strip steak, potato puree, broiled blue cheese, and black cherry sauce with farmers’ vegetables.

The blunt and irrepressible Grecco is not a guy who does things simply, easily or quietly. His restaurant mixes a no holds barred selection of local produce, meat, and game with world travelers such as kangaroo and lobster, and appeals to a restless, cosmopolitan palate.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

It’s therefore a little surprising to know that twelve years ago, Grecco wasn’t a chef. “I couldn’t boil water,” he says. A trip to Italy — and a visit to one particular restaurant in Florence — changed things radically.

“I’m having dinner, and this gal who’s with me — well, I’d started breaking down, crying,” he recalls. “And she said: ‘Oh, what’s wrong with you? You’ve had too much wine!’ And I said: ‘Yeah, I’ve had too much wine, but I know what I want to do. I’ve found my calling.’ It’s this completely emotional, crazy thing. All of a sudden, something clicked.”

Grecco returned to the states, quit his job and enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu College in Minneapolis, where he discovered that his impulsive leap toward a career in cooking had a great deal of substance behind it.

“I got Cs and Ds and high school — [at LCB] I got a 4.0,” he says. “And I was like… ‘Uh-oh, I figured it out.’ It just completely engulfed my world. I progressed really fast and graduated at the top of my class.”

Grecco’s passion for cooking has led him from restaurant to restaurant in search of the opportunity to break out and do his own thing; he’s worked as a sous chef for OddFellow’s, an intern at the Ritz Carlton San Francisco, the executive chef at Mississippi Dunes, and also at the Afton House Inn, Bellanotte, McCormick & Schmick’s, and Visos.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

As of October 2008, he’s the chef/owner of Grecco’s on the Saint Croix in St. Croix Falls, WI, a town that’s nestled amid the lakes, national parks, and dramatic river gorges that give the area its scenic character.

Grecco’s ambition and imagination have breathed life into a restaurant concept unique to the area, and arguably the region as a whole.

“The concept — well, this is ‘farm to fork’ taken to the next level,” Grecco says. “Three months ago, I sat down with Ken and Judith Keppers — they have a farm in Turtle Lake. We took a catalog and went through and picked out the seeds for the food they’re going to grow for me.”

Grecco is also working with the Keppers to crossbreed and develop some new varieties of produce that will, he says, push the envelope of local fare.

In addition to seeking food out, Grecco says that he welcomes good local eats that come walking through the door. Grecco tells the story of “The Mushroom Princess,” his generic name for the local gatherer who appears, unexpected, bearing a bounty for his restaurant.

“They’ll just show up with baskets of chanterelles, morels, puffers and shiitakes that are picked here locally,” he says. “It’s just so awesome. For me, it’s so cool as a chef to have people show up with mushrooms, or these cool herbs, and they all come here because they know I love the weird, crazy stuff. The crazier the flavors, the better. And customers love it. They say: ‘I’ve never had this before.'”

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

The food that Grecco obtains from local purveyors — including butter and dairy from Crystal Ball Farms, bison from Eichten’s, goat cheese from Stickney Hill Dairy, and trout from Star Prairie — gets turned into the restaurant’s menu, which is written weekly. Nightly tasting menus — four, six, and nine courses — are available for the particularly adventurous eater.

From local food, Grecco produces global cuisine. His menus range wildly in style, incorporating Continental, Asian, and American influences.

“We did a maple-glazed foie gras,” he says, recalling a recent favorite dish. “We seared the foie gras and took maple syrup and honey and reduced it, and glazed the foie with that. And we took a wine called Zibibbo Porta Nord, which is a fortified wine, and is super sweet — and it paired with it hand in hand.”

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

All of this, of course, is plenty ambitious for a chef operating his first restaurant. But Grecco also teaches Sunday classes, is adding a deck overlooking the Saint Croix River onto the restaurant, and is working on launching an ambitious “Grecco’s Chef in Box” project that involves shipping pre-prepped food accompanied by instructional DVDs to visually teach customers how to make the dish.

Grecco got the idea for “Chef in a Box” from his class; he says a student told him: “If I didn’t watch you do this… it wouldn’t turn out.”

There’s no doubt that launching a project like “Grecco’s Chef in a Box” is an ambitious goal, but that’s the common thread that seems to run though all of what Grecco is up to: an almost unchecked imagination, running wild.

“The thought behind the concept, and the way we’re butchering our meats, and purveying our food is taken from the big boys,” says Grecco, who counts Charlie Trotter and Thomas Keller among his inspirations. “I’ve taken that theology of food and brought it here to St. Croix Falls.”

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