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.
You likely know her name because of the countless number of accolades she’s earned for her top-notch pastries. But what you may not know about Michelle Gayer is that she’s kind of a badass.
Consider the evidence — when she found out she was nominated for Best Chef: Midwest from the oh-so-prestigious James Beard Foundation, she popped open a bottle of Dom Pérignon.
“Bring on the bottles,” she said. “It was bubbles all-day long.”
Total rock star move.
She once landed a job that wasn’t even open at one of the best restaurants in Chicago — her employer fired the previous assistant pastry chef in order to give her the job.
“So the big joke in the kitchen was, ‘Oh he’s going to slash your tires, be careful going to your car tonight,'” she said.
She’s lived in Las Vegas and Los Angeles before falling in love with Minneapolis. And her pastry shop — which is basically the size of a large closet — has gained national attention for the incredible “crack-a-roons” and desserts it produces — including some that are made with beer.
I rest my case.
Don’t get me wrong, though, Gayer went through plenty of hard work to get to this baller status and it certainly didn’t happen overnight.
Before becoming one of Minnesota’s most notable pastry goddesses, Gayer grew up in the cornfields of northwest Iowa and said she started cooking out of, well, boredom.
“There’s nothing to do in Iowa. I mean, what am I going to do?” she said. “So I just started making some stuff, from magazines and things like that.”
After taking on petit four’s (with poured fondant, I should add) and beef stroganoff (“I thought that sounded fancy when I was 14,” she says), she headed to Chicago to try her hand in culinary school.
“It was two years and I was like, ‘Oh, if I can rock this out in two years, that’d be awesome,'” she said. “I wasn’t trying to go to school for four more years. It wasn’t my jam. And I got lucky that it was a good match for me.”
After culinary school, she took a job as pastry chef in St. Louis.
“Because I thought it was important that I had a title and they were going to give me the title of pastry chef so I was like, ‘I’m in! Yeah, b****es, I’m a pastry chef already,'” she said.
The kitchen was tiny, with no room for baking, so she worked the overnight shift – coming in at 11 p.m. to get into the ovens as they were wrapping up service.
“The restaurant was still rocking and everyone was like, kicking it, partying, and I was like, ‘Can I get into the ovens, guys?’ Everyone was cleaning and breaking down and I was just waking up,” she said.
And then, someone was stabbed in the restaurant’s parking lot. And business took a big hit.
The first one to go? The pastry chef, of course.
“They were like, ‘We have to lay you off because there’s no business and we can buy all the desserts frozen,'” she said.
With that door closed, she did the next best thing – and then some. She sought a job at one of the finest restaurants in Chicago at Charlie Trotter’s.
They put her through a grueling try out after their assistant pastry chef went on his honeymoon – working a full day in the kitchen and testing her limits.
“I remember it being, it was almost a 14-hour day. It was pure madness,” she said. “And I remember waking up the next morning and feeling like a train had just run me over because I’d never stood on my feet for 12 hours a day on cement floor. It was crazy but I couldn’t get enough. I drank the juice. Drank it. I’m in. Love it.”
And we all know how that ended — Gayer replaced the existing chef and soon enough, she had worked her way to the top pastry position.
She left Charlie’s to work alongside the great Nancy Silverton before reconnecting with her former employer to open Charlie Trotter’s in Vegas and help pen a cookbook of their best desserts.
It’s been a wild ride for the critically acclaimed pastry chef. Beyond her recent James Beard nom, she’s earned two previous nominations for Outstanding Pastry Chef from the Foundation, was named Best Pastry Chef by Bon Appetit and has yet to receive anything but a glowing review from customers and media elite alike.
And somehow, she manages all this praise and honor with complete humility and a hilarious sense of humor.
A few more tidbits from our recent chat …
In your family, who cooked?
I mean, my mother cooked all the time. She always had bars and cookies around but no one cooked professionally. Everyone just cooked for love, you know what I mean. She just made it look really easy. Like, dinner was always made. There was always cookies and bars. She just made it look so easy and effortless.
What brought you to Minnesota?
Franklin Street Bakery. A headhunter called and said I have this company in Minneapolis that’s looking to end its wholesale line and open a new retail space and I was like, ‘Right on.’ I knew I wanted to open a bakery someday but I didn’t know how I was going to do that and I knew I wasn’t going to work anywhere else at a restaurant or in Chicago, because I already worked for the best. So I’m going to open my own place. And I thought, what a better opportunity to open up a bakery with someone else’s money before I do it on my own.
I love an adventure. I’ve lived in St. Louis, I lived in Las Vegas, I lived in Los Angeles, I’m a mover. I like change. Change doesn’t faze me. I’ll uproot everyone and move. I like the adventure. And I liked them and I liked Minnesota. I liked what they were doing. I thought it was a great opportunity. We did it. And then I liked it enough that I was like, ‘We’re staying.’ Then I went to teach culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu and then this opportunity came (Salty Tart). This turn-key operation came up.
When you opened Salty Tart, what were your hopes and intentions?
My intentions were that people would show up. And buy stuff and like it and then keep coming back. It was just getting from day to day. I was still teaching culinary school part time and then doing this, because I still needed a paycheck. I’m not a single mom anymore but I was then and I needed to support my family. I would teach in the mornings and then come here at noon and work the rest of the night. It was crazy. We had like three employees or something madness, but now we have 12. So our intentions were just to get people to like it.
And obviously they did in a huge way.
Yeah, and it’s grown ever since.
Now that it’s been named one of the best bakeries in Minnesota and beyond, been given four stars by critics, how does that make you feel?
I feel super honored that people show up and that people will find somewhere to park here. Because it’s hard to get people to come to Chicago and Lake. It’s hard for people to be like, ‘I don’t know where to park.’ It’s a big deterrent for people if they don’t know where to park or they have to walk more than 20 feet or it’s raining or snowing. It takes great effort to come here.
So, that’s so nice and so generous. It’s crazy. It’s crazy that we’re like 400-square-feet and our office is like (holds out hands) this big and some days I sit on the floor when I’m trying to plan marketing meetings or trying to answer emails. It’s insane. I never planned it. I just love to bake. I’m super blessed. And like, Travel + Leisure magazine calls. That’s amazing, you know.
Plus, the James Beard Foundation.
What is it like to be nominated by them?
Well, first, I was nominated when I was with Charlie. That was in 2002. Then I was nominated again in … I have no idea. Four years ago? Two years ago? But that was for the Salty Tart for pastry chef, in that category. And then last year? I jumped categories and was for Midwest: Best Chef. Which is madness. I don’t even know how that happens.
People would be like, ‘How did you do that?’ and I was like, ‘I didn’t do anything.’ I didn’t call anyone. I don’t have, like, the James Beard hotline where I can go, ‘I’d like to be in the Midwest Chef.’ No one called me to be like, ‘How do you feel about being in this category?’ Nope. No one. So when I heard the announcement, I was like, ‘OK, I didn’t make the Best Pastry Chef category. OK. There’s a lot of really talented pastry chefs out there. Everyone has their time.’ It’s all about how much media you’ve gotten the year before and how much people recognize your name, how many people recognize that Salty Tart is a bakery, in Minneapolis and know it. All those type of things. So yeah, I was shocked. Shocked.
Where were you when you found out about your most recent nomination?
I was at my friend Zoe’s house and we were doing a video of Pastry Chef Olympics for Minnesota Monthly Magazine. (Laughs) It was really funny. We were already drinking. We knew we should be drinking champagne for the Pastry Chef Olympics. It was between Zoe and I and it was like, who can frost a cake the fastest? Caramelize a marshmallow the fastest? Who can toss a pizza the thinnest? There were all these games so we knew we should be drinking champagne, because a.) it’s delicious and b.) we love a good time. So when we found out, it was pure madness.