SEL DE LA TERRE | Boston
Prior to opening Sel de la Terre in the spring of
2000, Chef Geoff Gardner spent eight years as the sous chef at Boston’s
acclaimed L’Espalier restaurant, where he immersed
himself in the teachings of his mentor, chef and proprietor Frank
McClelland, who later became his business partner when opening his
A native New Englander whose ancestors originated from Europe,
Gardner developed a love for cooking from his grandfather, who was
an avid gardener and instilled in him a fascination with the variety
and magnificence of food. After earning his bachelor’s degree
from Boston University’s School of Restaurant Management,
Gardner traveled extensively throughout France where he developed
a passion for freshness and the highest quality of ingredients that
are evident in his menus today. While he truly enjoyed the diversity
of cuisine in each region of France, he always held the cuisine
Provence in high regard.
Additionally, the breads that Gardner sampled in France fueled
an interest in the science of breadmaking, and while at L’Espalier,
Gardner taught himself how to develop breads using organic grapes
as a starter for natural yeast. The breads at L’Espalier
became so popular with guests, that when creating the concept of
Sel de la Terre, Gardner included a boulangerie and display
areas to market his specialty breads, which are baked fresh daily
and used throughout the restaurant. Sel de la Terre’s
breads have since gained several accolades, including “Best
Bakery, Bread” in Boston Magazine’s 2005 “Best
of Boston” awards. Sel de la Terre has also been
named one of the “Top 100 New Restaurants in the World”
by Conde Nast Traveler and one of the "Top 22 New
Restaurants in the Nation" by Esquire Magazine, while
more recently, Gardner has been awarded with the prestigious “Rising
Star” Award from StarChefs.com.
Gardner is equally devoted to his home garden, and provides the
restaurant with fresh herbs from his extensive garden, to ensure
that each and every ingredient being served to the customer is of
the utmost freshness and purity. Gardners’s homegrown angelica,
chocolate mint, lemon balm and other herbs, many varieties of vegetables
and edible flowers lend themselves to a multitude of creative uses
on the Provencal-inspired Sel de la Terre menu.
AT: Did you attend culinary
school? Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring chefs today?
Do you only hire chefs with culinary school backgrounds?
GG: No, I’m kind of unusual
these days. I did go to restaurant management school at BU, but
there were only two culinary classes. Culinary school is great,
but it’s certainly not a requirement for my staff. How could
I make it a requirement? It would be hypocritical if I were to go
that far. I’ve had other people in my kitchen who, like me,
didn’t go. It’s not essential, but it can help to catapult
a young professional’s career and expose them to the fundamentals.
Of course, you don’t really know things until you’ve
been in the field.
AT: Who are your mentors?
What are some of the most important things you’ve learned
GG: Frank McClelland’s
been my greatest mentor. He taught me many things, but I would say
the most important things are flavor, taste, and really knowing
my palate. That’s what’s most important about food.
How does it taste? I think that sounds silly and obvious, but it’s
forgotten a lot. People are more distracted by what it looks like
or combining ingredients that have never been combined before, or
they are overly focused on the method. People will go to cook something
with all the “right” things but they’ll never
stop to taste it.
AT: What is your philosophy
on food and dining?
GG: I think that the name of
the restaurant- Sel de la Terre - is somewhat meant to suggest simplicity
and earthiness. I like to cook cuisine which is interesting yet
fundamentally sound. I try to pair ingredients to create a dish
that’s interesting, yet at the same time I try to use restraint
and not feel the need to do too much, or to combine too many ingredients
or manipulate too much. But at the same time, I combine ingredients
in such a way as to let the individual components shine through.
Cooking is from the heart, and that’s how I cook. It’s
not so mechanical and black and white, or memorized. You cook from
the heart and by feeling.
AT: Are there any secret ingredients
that you especially like? Why?
GG: When I talk about seasoning
food, it means more than just salt and pepper. It’s that,
but it’s also garlic or acidity. A little acidity strikes
your palate right in the center and wakes up your mouth. I also
think of a fat as a seasoning - you can have something that has
very nice flavors, but often times it needs to have some type of
fat incorporated into it (butter, cream cheese, olive oil –
there are lots of different forms that fat can come in). It’s
an element of taste that can round out flavors in a dish and make
things taste more satisfying. I don’t mean to suggest heavy.
It’s taken decades for French cuisine to shake the reputation
of being super heavy and rich – I don’t cook like that.
But fat makes food taste good. It adds balance. Sometimes, you just
need a dash of cream at the end, and it brings it all together.
Or you could use a little bit of cheese sprinkled on something or
a little bit of olive oil drizzled on top.
AT: What is your most indispensable
kitchen tool? Why?
GG: Fire! How do you define
cooking—it’s manipulating food. One of the primary ways
we manipulate food is by temperature and controlling the fire. I
like to think about different kinds of heat and how heat affects
AT: Is there a culinary technique
that you have either created or use in an unusual way? Please describe.
GG: I hesitate to say that
I invented anything, but there’s an approach to sauce-making
that I’ve made my own. Instead of the classical French technique
of using a thickening roux or demi-glace as the basis of a sauce,
I’ll use a less common method of taking stock and fortifying
it with caramelized meat. I fortify the stock and give it a more
intense flavor and color and then some additional viscosity through
reducing it. It’s very time consuming and labor intensive
(and more expensive), but less common.
AT: What is your favorite
question to ask during an interview for a potential new line cook?
GG: I’m more interested
in listening, so I’ll ask them to tell me about themselves.
I’ll ask them if they just went to culinary school. If they’re
working in another restaurant, I’ll ask how they enjoy it.
If they respond positively, I like that. If they respond negatively
about the restaurant or the cooking school, then I’ll end
the interview. To me, attitude is more important than anything else.
People who have a positive attitude are the people I want in my
kitchen. If they have some good cooking experience to go along with
it, terrific. If they have less experience but really want to learn,
then I can teach them how to cook. But I can’t teach them
how to have a positive attitude.
AT: What tips would you offer
young chefs just getting started?
GG: Be open-minded and be a
mental sponge. A lot of people think of things in black and white,
right and wrong. They go to culinary school and are taught a specific
way of doing things. They go to a restaurant and don’t want
to be taught a different way. Cooking is not that black and white.
That’s one of the most exciting things about cooking- there’s
more than one way to do most things. Be open to all the different
ideas out there. If there are half a dozen ways to make a hollandaise
sauce, then learn them all and don’t rush to judge things
so early in your career. Eventually, somewhere further on in your
career, you can pick and choose from all the different things you’ve
learned, and it will somehow evolve into your own style.
AT: What are your favorite
GG: I look for a lot of cookbooks
that are out of print. A great, easy way to find them is to go on
Amazon or other websites and buy second-hand books that are out
of print. I have one that’s called “Potager –
fresh garden cooking in the French style” that might be out
of print. I gave it to my staff for Christmas one year! Sometimes
if I’m at home I just go in a corner somewhere when my kids
are not in the house and spread out my cookbooks all over the floor
around me. I feel like I’m surrounded by ideas and images
about food, and it helps me to focus and think.
AT: What cities do you like
for culinary travel?
GG: The restaurant is focused
on the cuisine of the South of France, and that’s what I have
always been particularly drawn toward: rustic, country, southern
French style cuisine. I’ve traveled in the South of France
and eaten my way through it and been inspired by being there, by
being immersed in the beauty, the culture, and the food. Just to
stand anywhere in the countryside in the South of France the whole
place stinks of thyme, rosemary, and lavender. The bounty of the
ocean right there is all very inspiring. The markets, the olive
groves, the grape vineyards. It’s such a beautiful part of
the world and food is such an important part of France.
AT: What are your favorite
restaurants –off the beaten path – in your city?
GG: Tu Y Yo – it’s
a Mexican restaurant in Arlington, and it’s just a hole in
the wall place, a family-place. I think the name “You and
Me” is symbolic of the family-style in which they cook. It’s
not fancy or pretentious but rustic, as if you were in somebody’s
home in Mexico. People talk about comfort food but comfort food
can take on many forms depending on where you are in the world.
This is real, authentic Mexican comfort food.
AT: Where do you see yourself
in 5 years? In 10 years?
GG: I’m really focused
on this restaurant – this is my baby. I’m focused on
constantly trying to improve. The restaurant is six years old now.
There’s an initial maturity process that happens when you
open a new restaurant that’s a real journey and a struggle.
I feel like the restaurant has matured tremendously, but I don’t
think it can ever be put on autopilot. My job is to be as immersed
in it as possible and to keep striving to make each day at the restaurant
a little better than the previous day – professionally speaking.
To me, it’s a constant evolution but not one that ever really