What happens to bakers after Bon Appétit bestows a “Best a Pastry Chef” award on them? Well, if you’re Michelle Gayer, you pack up your dolls and dishes and head for Minnesota. Five years ago, the pastry chef boldly left Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago to help the Franklin Street Bakery develop its dessert line, coming to Minneapolis sight unseen.
It turned out to be a good move for her: Last month, she celebrated the anniversary of her first solo effort, The Salty Tart, a small but mighty bakery located in the Midtown Global Market. The bakery has already garnered a well-deserved four-star review from the Star Tribune for its pastries and breads.
In a brief interview, Gayer talked to the Heavy Table about baking in Minnesota, how to buy butter, and her deep and abiding love of Rustica Bakery.
When I talked about coming here, people wanted to know if you have a favorite pastry in the case — does The Salty Tart have a specialty?
No, because I love making them all. I think we excel at cooking with integrity, so I believe they all have that same love, care for method, and technique.
It’s more about whatever is in season — that’s my favorite thing to eat at the time. So, right now it’s rhubarb: rhubarb bars, rhubarb brown butter tarts, rhubarb cream cheese hand pies. I like to think that we have a nice repertoire of pastries and that whatever we have that’s in season, that’s kind of our shining star.
But you know, everyone loves that macaroon!
What if you had to choose — what if it was your last meal?
So, if it was the last… it would have to be more than one thing, because it’s all about temperatures and textures with me. So I would want a hot rhubarb-apple rustic tart, you know what I mean? It’s got the edges crimped, it’s got sugar and egg wash around the side and it’s bubbling in the center. And then, really cold ice cream, like a vanilla bean or mascarpone ice cream, something creamy. So, the crunchiness of the crust, with the fruitiness of the inside, with the creaminess of the ice cream — you know?
Or peaches! Man, peaches are going to be good.
Now, with all that creaminess, would you have tea or coffee?
Yeah. I’d love a glass of red wine with that.
For my next question, I was going ask about your favorite ingredients, but clearly it’s pretty much whatever is in season.
Yeah, it’s just whatever is fresh and delicious. And that’s one of the best parts of being at the Global Market: I face the produce exchange. They get fresh, beautiful stuff — season, organic, local — and I just go over, buy as much as I need, and say: “Let’s go make something.”
You’re obviously very creative in the way you use ingredients and combine flavors, but there’s also something very classic about your pastries.
I really love the classic style of pastry and I do pay homage to the method and technique and the history behind it. Working at Charlie Trotter’s for 10 years exposed me to a lot of the amazing ingredients and flavor profiles. I had to build dishes and desserts all the time, and the experience of coming up with all those different flavor combinations was great. Well, looking back at it now, of course — you know, when you are having to come up with 10 new dessert items by Friday night, it’s not so great, but that training has come in so handy.
In terms of creativity, who else has influenced your baking?
Definitely Nancy Silverton. She is the founder of La Brea Bakery in Los Angeles, and I love her rustic style and her approach to motherhood as a pastry chef and a business owner. I thought man, if she can do it, I am all over it.
She just has this real rustic quality and sense about her breads and pastries that I adore — and she’s good people.
And I love that Pierre Herme. You know, he’s got a bunch of shops now, but when he was at Fauchon, Charlie and I ran into him in Singapore — we were there for a world gourmet conference or something — and he said he was on his way to Japan to find the best green tea powder to make green tea ice cream. I mean, man, that’s what I’m talking about, right? And he’s this dear man that is just so dedicated to everything about pastry.
Charlie used to invite Pierre in to do a course at the different dinners that we’d have, and he’d let me ride in the limo with Pierre to and from the airport, so I could spend as much time as possible just pickin’ his brain, you know: “I know this is going to be annoying, but I’m in the limo now!”
How would you describe “a real rustic sense”?
I would say, something that isn’t pristine; how it comes out of the oven is how it is — we don’t fuss with it and there’s no glaze or fanned-out strawberry.
And is that what you’re going for at the Salty Tart?
Absolutely. I don’t have much patience for all that fussiness; that’s why I’m not your wedding cake kind of a gal. I’m instant gratification: when it comes out of the oven, I want to eat it, I don’t want to have to glaze it and sauce it…
How did you choose the Global Market for your first bakery?
I kinda think they chose me. After I left Franklin Street Bakery, I taught at Le Cordon Bleu for two years and was always looking for a space, but I didn’t have any money — I’m a single mother and I don’t have wealthy parents or in-laws. I didn’t want a lot of investors because I didn’t want to pay them back and I didn’t want anyone telling me what to do because they had money invested in my business.
Then an opportunity came to do a turnkey operation here. The space was available, and the woman wanted to get out of baking, so I was able to buy the equipment, too. I got a small business loan through the Neighborhood Development Center and I was able to get up and running.
I thought the Global Market was great because they had an existing clientele and crowd, so I didn’t have to wait for that. And, everyone else in this building is a small business owner trying to make it happen, just like me.
It’s a great name, but why “The Salty Tart”?
‘Cause I’m a little bitter and angry on the inside — I’m a little fire-y, a little salty. My friend Brenda Langton said, “Well, what about the salty cupcake?” Mmmm, too trendy — but how perfect: the salty tart. I like to get dressed up and go out, you know, I can feel a little tarty. I just thought it was funny and it made me giggle every time I said it, but I was up nights thinking, “Oh, is Minnesota ready for this? Are people gonna get it?”
It stuck and I’m so glad I followed my gut.
Has Minneapolis changed your baking?
Totally. I’m a lot more connected to what’s going on in the city. Chicago is so big, and there’s so much going on, it’s hard to get a piece of that. Not that Minneapolis is small town, but I have a lot more community. And it’s all accessible — if a new restaurant opens, I know I can get to it, I can keep track of what’s going on…
It could be because I work here, at the Global Market, or because I live, shop, and work in this neighborhood. In Chicago, to afford any kind of house, you live out in the outskirts. Or because I’m the boss, not just an employee, so I’m involved at a different level.
But I’ve always said that Minneapolis is the size of a Triscuit — you turn around and you know somebody.
Is there anything, pastry wise, you’d like to see happen in Minneapolis?
It would be great if there were more bakeries, right? More bakeries just builds consumer knowledge of baking, you know, what is a baguette. And the more people know, the better the choices they make, and that’s good for all of us.
Any particular kind of bakery?
No, just something tasty.
What’s your favorite bakery in town?
I love Rustica. My kids go to school in that neighborhood and I secretly stop there — oh, I better stop and get one of those buns, the Kouign Amann. It’s danish or croissant dough, I’m not sure, but I love it. It’s caramelized, golden, and flakey on the outside and tender on the inside. It drives me nuts just thinking about it.
Oh, and their chocolate cookies I hide from my children.
I’ve noticed that, over the last few years, there are more and more butters on the grocer’s shelves — French, Irish, goat — it’s kind of overwhelming. Any advice for the home baker?
Just use something with a high fat percentage and stick with it. Here’s the deal: the fat content equals the water content, and that’s gonna totally change your pastries dramatically if you use a different butter. So find one that you think is delicious and has a high fat content and use it consistently — otherwise, you’ll have to change your recipes.
Hope Creamery is an amazing butter; I would stick with that one. But, all those different kinds of butter to try — man, that sounds like a good time!
Any cookbooks you recommend for home bakers?
Anything that Rose Levy Beranbaum does. I love The Bread Bible, The Pie and Pastry Bible — anything she does is amazing. She is meticulous in her recipes, so they all turn out perfect. I think that’s because she takes five years to write the books, so she can do tons of research. I always pick up her books first, if I don’t know how to make something or I want to compare recipes.
Any other advice?
Practice, practice, practice. Just keep baking, because you don’t get good at something by doing it once. You don’t get on your bike the first time and say: “Oh well, that didn’t work out.”
And take lots of great notes on the recipes. You should see our recipes; it’s ridiculous.
Oh, and please: eggs, butter, and milk at room temperature. We keep 50 pounds of butter out at room temperature, at all times. And everything is pasteurized, so no one has to freak out — just relax, no one is going to die.