Reporting Sara Pelissero
The Twin Cities are blessed when it comes to talent in the kitchen. The culinary minds at the helm of our favorite restaurants receive critical acclaim and top honors from food enthusiasts and reviewers, alike. But who are the people behind the chef’s coat? Our Chef’s Profile aims to find out.
As we learned in Part 1 of our Chef’s Profile, Michelle Gayer, of Salty Tart, is a total rock star in the kitchen.
She makes some of the best pastries in town, is on the receiving end of critics’ highest praise and has spent plenty of time rubbing elbows with culinary legends and celebrity chefs, alike.
In fact, during a recent visit to the South Beach Food & Wine Festival, she found herself cooking alongside Andrew Zimmern and Michael White — and had a moment of introspection.
“I was like, don’t tell anyone that I have a tiny little bakery,” she joked. “Don’t let the word get out that all I have is a tiny, little bakery. I’ll be found out.”
While we love her for her humility, yes, the bakery may be small but the flavors coming out of it are anything but.
In Part 2 of our profile of the chef, she dropped a few hints about her next venture, shared some of her favorite places to dine and explained why she thinks people can be intimidated by baking.
You were up for the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Midwest. What was that experience like?
I mean, it’s such an honor. To be at that is insane. All you do is this, ‘Oh my god, it’s Jacque Pepin, oh my god, it’s Mario Batali.’ Everyone is there. It’s crazy. And the energy, they announce everyone’s name, everyone’s clapping, it’s amazing. So much fun. And to be in New York for four days, just eating and drinking and kicking it? Yeah, it’s so much fun. A great honor.
You’ve had a number of opportunities to rub elbows with the culinary elite — like when Charlie Trotters announced they were closing and asked you to do the dessert for the tribute dinner in South Beach.
That was fun. It was an honor. Charlie asked me to come and do the desserts and all his friends – he’s good friends with Emeril, so it was Emeril on stage and Norman Van Aken and then it was me and then it was Anthony Bourdain. And I was like, ‘What’s up homies?’ It was really fun, a lot of fun.
And South Beach Food & Wine fest?
South Beach Food & Wine Fest is a fun event because Andrew Zimmern is always there and we get trucks on the beach with him that day. Because I said, ‘Well we’re going to be in South Beach, do you need help with anything?’ And he said, ‘Oh my god, you gotta do trucks on the beach with us.’ So we did Meyer lemon shaker pies in snow cones with whip cream for everyone at trucks on the beach. Me, Andrew and Michael White from Altamarea. Yeah, that was a fun event. That was good.
Beyond your bakery, do you have any plans to expand or anything you’re planning down the road?
I’d really love to do a breakfast place. I’ve thought about opening a bakery here or opening a bakery there, but I already have a bakery. I actually don’t need to buy another, I already have one. I don’t need another bakery – let’s do something else.
Do you have any plans in the works?
They’re always in the works, girl. I could tell you how many deals have fallen through. I looked at the Glam Donuts space but it wasn’t right for me. I looked next to Sameh (Wadi, of World Street Kitchen), at 28th and Lyndale but the layout was all wrong. I think I’ve had business plans and drawn out spaces for four different spaces in the cities but it’s gotta be the right one. It’s a big marriage. It’s a big commitment. And it’s about being vulnerable. For me to put myself out there on another level and to be doing a different kind of food, is a big step. So yeah, we’ll see.
It seems like a lot of people can be intimidated by baking, even major chefs. Why do you think that is?
I think it has to do with freedom of creativity. I think savory chefs are very spontaneous when they cook and their ingredients are very flexible and that’s easy to do, but with baking you don’t have that flexibility as you do with savory cooking, do you know what I mean? Sugar is a liquefier, it does a certain thing in the batter and is there for sweetness and as a liquefier and moisture and it has a purpose. You don’t just, if you don’t want a cake as sweet, you just take out the sugar. It doesn’t work that way. You’re going to f— the cake up. Like, I think this one needs peanut butter – you can’t just do that.
Certain things have certain rules and pastries do certain things. I think they’re scared of the chemistry behind it, if you don’t understand the chemistry or what certain things do and if you can’t slow down to scale something out, you’re not going to have a good product. You know, there’s a certain energy and a certain pace that certain chefs have when they’re doing stuff but making a cake, making croissants, making a tart is very specific. You have to scale everything out accurately. Actually, the cookie dough needs to rest. Baking’s very methodical, it’s very particular, it’s very scientific. If they don’t know what’s going on or they’re not passionate about it, you’re not going to want to do anything you’re not passionate about.
Where do you pull inspiration from when adding new things to your menu?
Inspiring can be as easy as walking over to the produce exchange and seeing peaches. It can be as inspiring as looking at a magazine. It can be as inspiring as following someone on Instagram. It can be as inspiring as eating something savory that I think would work well in something sweet. It can be as inspiring as something gets screwed up that turns into something else.
Right now, there seems to be a lot of interest in bakeries.
Everyone has one. Every time I click on Heavy Table, it’s like another bakery that’s popping. And I’m just like, ‘Dang, everyone’s got a bakery these days.’ That’s why I’m interested in going into like, a breakfast place. We’re saturated with bakeries – great ones, I mean, this city has crazy great bakeries. I’m going to Chicago on Friday and there are two bakeries that I want to go to, that’s it.
Where do you think the recent fascination about desserts and bakeries came from?
Well it’s super glamorous and romantic. Let’s not get twisted, it’s all the romanticism behind baking and cooking and being a celebrity chef and making something delicious and pretty – that’s super romantic. F— yeah, I want to do that too, you know what I mean? And there’s this like, fantasy portion of it. On these reality shows, you don’t see the 12-hour days and you don’t get to make like three beautiful cupcakes, I need 300. And I need six different kinds of 300 cupcakes. And it’s super fun and very romantic to blog and bake about it and make like three things. Of course that’s fun – and delicious, who doesn’t love baked goods?
What is your biggest guilty pleasure food?
Ahh, guilty pleasure? I love thin crust pizza – well I love pizza.
Any particular kind?
I can’t share that. (Laughs) No way. You’ll present that to a culinary council and then I’ll be judged and they’ll take away any James Beard nomination away from me. They’ll be like, ‘Nope, not for you.’
Beyond being in a kitchen, what’s your favorite pastime?
Tennis. It’s been my goal this year to get really good at tennis. So I have a tennis coach and I take tennis lessons every Tuesday and it’s amazing and I love it. And I’d love to be an amazing seamstress someday. I’d love to be like, a designer. All I want is a form and patterns and fabrics – I would love to sit around and do that all day.
Do you do that now?
So I have lots of good intentions. There’s two patterns in my inbox in my office right now because I thought it’d be really fun idea to make everyone aprons and I wanted to make them out of the canvas we put the baguettes on, but that’s been in my inbox for about six months now? And I haven’t done anything with it. I had a sewing machine but my ex-husband took it. So yeah, I’ve been wanting a sewing machine. But yeah, I have lots of other interests.
If you had to choose a “last meal,” what would it be?
I had this dish at April Bloomfield’s place in New York, The Spotted Pig, and it was some kind of crazy fried duck egg and it was served with pickled ramps and something and this piece of toast and I just remember it was amazing. So maybe that would be one? I dunno. I was really drunk that night so everything was so delicious. It was like, 1 a.m. and you’re just like, ‘Oh my god, I love duck eggs.’
Last New Year’s Eve, I went to my friend Sari’s house in Chicago – we worked together at Trotter’s together – and everyone, my friend Mark was there, he worked at Trotter’s, too, and it was one of my most incredible meals. There were fresh truffles and lobster terrine and it just went on and on because everyone was cooking with so much love and it was just this incredible experience. So I’d probably say New Year’s Eve dinner with Sari and Scott in Chicago. Fresh truffle risotto? Insane.
What are some of your favorite places to dine in the Twin Cities?
Oh, let’s see. So tonight’s my daughter’s birthday so we’re going to Midori’s Floating World sushi place because we eat sushi all the time. We go to the Craftsman a lot in my neighborhood because it’s solid, traditional and we love the fries with béarnaise – heaven. Yesterday for lunch we ate at Sen Yai Sen Yek, very delicious. I love everywhere.
What do you hope to be known for in the culinary world?
Cooking with integrity and staying true to seasons and just making delicious – I just want to be known for making delicious things. Nothing too crazy. I don’t need to be the inventor of the cronut.