Chef Geoff Gardner of Sel de la Terre - Boston Rising Star on

Photo Credit: Becca Bousquet

Geoff Gardner
Sel de la Terre
255 State Street
Boston, MA 02109
(617) 720 1300

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Amy Tarr: Why did you start cooking? What or who inspired you to become a chef?
Geoff Gardner: To be honest, I fell into it by accident. I always loved to eat! I think it has to start with that. I credit my grandfather– he loved to cook at home and he always cooked different types of things. He had traveled all through Europe and would cook cuisine in that style – French, Italian, etc. As a young teenager, I started looking for a job, and I just sort of fell into it. Right from the get-go I loved the energy of the kitchen and working with my hands. When all your senses are going at the same time – sound, smell, taste, touch and sight – all your senses have to be on high alert. It’s completely engaging and captivating.

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Geoff Gardner

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 own restaurant.

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 of
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

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.

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Interview Cont'd
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 from them?
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 the food.

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 cookbooks?
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 ends.

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   Published: March 2006