Michelle Gayer of the Salty Tart: Chef Chat
When the James Beard Award semifinalists were announced this week, it was no surprise that Michelle Gayer was listed among nods for Outstanding Pastry Chef. We've recognized her Salty Tart as our Best Bakery and the Beard Awards have nominated her in the past.
Her career began as a dishwasher before taking her to the hallowed Charlie Trotter's in Chicago. Gayer is at this moment down at the South Beach Food & Wine Festival preparing the dessert for the star-studded fete celebrating Trotter's career and lounging on the beach with Andrew Zimmern and a fleet of food trucks. Before she left, we sat down with Gayer to talk about the impending closing of the 25-year-old Trotter's and what it's like to attend the food industry's version of the Oscars.
Do you remember the first dish you ever attempted to cook as a child? Beef stroganoff.
Why do you think you chose that? It sounded fancy.
Did you grow up in a food-centric family? It was always there, but it was like it was effortless. There were always sweets and pastries. It was like all the kids always wanted to come over. "Let's go see what kind of bars Mom made today!" She always made dinner every night and never complained.
What was your first job in the industry? A dishwasher at the OK Café. Oh yeah, I worked at the OK Café. I worked my way up to salad girl, which meant I emptied out buckets of greens into pans. Oh, and I breaded the chicken for the broasted chicken.
When did you know that you wanted to cook professionally? In high school. They were like, "What are you going to do?" Well, I'm not going to Iowa State. I'm not going to go to college for four years. So I went to culinary school. I was really lucky. I knew I wanted to get out of Iowa, and Chicago was it.
When did you know that you wanted to focus on pastry? It wasn't in school. Not until I was doing my internship--externship--whatever the kids are calling it these days. When I was prepping and plating desserts I realized, I really dig this. It was so much better to leave work smelling like cinnamon and strawberries than fish and bones. Working the hot line didn't make me hot, know what I mean?
Where did you do your externship? At Gordon's [in Chicago]. I was like, "I love this city!"
Where did you go from there? Well, eventually the chef, who I loved working with, left. From there I went to St. Louis and worked there for a while. Then someone got shot or stabbed ... something in the parking lot, and business went down from there. So, of course, the first one they fire ....
The pastry chef. Of course. They just bought it all frozen, right? So, I went back to Chicago and--I'm so lucky. I just knocked on the back door at Trotter's. I mean, it took me some time to work up the courage, but I did. I just knocked on the back door and dropped off my resume. Charlie Trotter called and said, "You wanna come stage?" And I'm like, "Sh-shu-shu-sure!"
The pastry chef was leaving to get married and go on his honeymoon. I decided I was just going to bust ass and they'd want to hire me. He came back, packed up his knives, and I never saw him again.
How did you feel when you heard Charlie was closing Trotters? I'm happy for him. I mean, 25 years. I just have so much respect for him. I have 12 employees, and I think of my payroll taxes and everything--no wonder he was crabby all the time! [Laughs.] I'm sad and happy. It's not like he's even retiring--he's going back to finish his masters, which is so Charlie. He'll sit on a beach somewhere reading Russian novels--also, so very him.
Because why do anything that's too easy? Right? I'm very honored--they asked me to do the dessert for the tribute dinner (for Charlie) at the South Beach Food & Wine. It will probably be pineapple something, because he loves pineapple. And white pepper ... something. [Gayer cooked alongside Emeril Lagasse and Wylie Dufresne, among other food industry marquee names, for this dinner and served Chocolate Cremeux.]
How did you end up in Minnesota? I got head-hunted. I was working at Trotters to Go and someone representing Franklin Street Bakery approached me. I'd been wanting to open my own bakery, and I thought this was good practice, with someone else's money.
I was there two years. They wanted to focus on the frozen cheesecakes, and I was spending a lot of time in an office. It was the first job that I had where I had a desk. I was tracking P&Ls.
I realized I like to bake--I'm a line cook. I don't belong behind a desk. I kept talking about this dream of mine, to open my own bakery. Finally it was like, am I going to keep talking about this dream, or am I gonna do this?
I'd talked to Midtown Global Market a few times, and it was a way for me to open the business with very little debt.
How has the Salty Tart changed since opening? The wholesale business. I mean, who knew the milk buns would take off? Or the macaroons [the macaroons took off after a Food Network special, The Best Thing I Ever Ate, featured Andrew Zimmern singing their praises. Soon afterward, Gayer found herself shipping them all over the U.S.]
I always thought the breakfast pastries would be my thing! That's what I love. But ... [shrugs],
And the amount of employees we have, the amount of stuff we make. Now we've got the airport thing.
That's right, there's a way to take a flight with a Salty Tart treat for the trip. You know, I wanted to ask you about your sourdough. The depth of flavor in that bread is incredible. Where did the starter come from? Nancy Silverton at La Brea Bakery. That starter has been all over, from there to Las Vegas, it's been everywhere with me.
What was it like to be nominated for a James Beard award? I was thinking about that. Why do I have so much anxiety about this, why is it such a big deal to me? It's because it's my peers and it's doing what I love to do. The first time I was nominated I thought it was a joke. It's a pretty cool thing.
It was great to be in New York--it's an amazing honor.
Where do you see the Salty Tart going? A home in a neighborhood, some place we can serve breakfast and lunch. Somewhere we can serve champagne and wine, white banquettes.... This isn't forever.
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