50 Best Restaurants: Talking Food and Science with Salts Chef Gabriel Bremer
In this month’s The 50 Best Restaurants issue, we wrote a piece called “Culinary Genius,” in which we explored the increasing connection between science and cooking and its groundbreaking results. We also questioned whether or not the rise in modern cuisine would take hold in our own restaurants in Boston. Living proof that is has, at least in some regard, is Salts chef Gabriel Bremer, who whips up truffle juice “caviar” and sous-vide veggies when he’s not rolling gnocchi or glazing his legendary roast duck for two.
While attending the Harvard Science and Cooking lecture series, we routinely spied Bremer sitting in the front row, taking in the talks from toques like Jose Andres and Grant Achatz. We called up the chef to talk food and science, and Monday headed to his restaurant to watch him demonstrate eggless apple cider meringue, burrata “ravioli,” and powdered and gelled PB&J to a group of eager high school students who visited as part of a new food-based MIT course at its Nuvu studio. Check out our Q&A with Bremer, and take in highlights from his demo above.
We’ve been seeing you at the Harvard lectures. Are you just attending them for fun or are you involved with the course?
At the moment it’s just going to the lectures for interest. As we get closer to the time for their final projects and working on those, I will be doing some assistance in mentoring the students and then judging the final science fair projects.
You did that last year, right? What were some of the coolest things to come out of it?
There were a few things that were kind of interesting. There was one girl who did a form of clarification of a broth but she had an interesting technique, as well as a group that was working on Parmesan noodles that came out of a request from Wylie [Dufresne] at wd~50 to refine what they already had started. It was fun to see Harvard kids putting together dishes that will help us [in the kitchen].
Is there anything you are hoping they can solve for you this year?
I am trying to pick and choose to see what will work for final projects, but that is certainly on my mind. Last year I didn’t get the chance. There was one that I was going to, but I kept persisting and actually figured out the solution myself.
What was it ?
There’s a microwave sponge cake that’s becoming more and more popular that was created from Albert Adria at El Bulli, and it has a very cool organic form to it, and the fun thing is that you can make the sponge cakes to order because they cook in about 10 seconds. It requires a microwave and I personally don’t like microwaves, so my goal was to create something similar, sans microwave. And just when I was going to talk to the professor about it and make a true proposal with students, I figured it out. It involves a whipped cream canister and a very hot oven. I have it on the menu [now].
How much would you say that science factors into the food at Salts?
I would say a pretty good part — even if it’s not necessarily things that I would search out for in a scientific manner to begin with, I always like to ask ‘why?’ — and that is how cuisine has evolved into utilizing some of these more modern techniques. Science is always there, because I am always searching for how to make things a little bit better. And what Harvard is doing with this whole course is opening up a window into a much more direct [way of doing this]. It’s kind of a new, fun era.
What’s a modernist technique that you learned that was a game-changer for you?
It’s been a while now, but definitely a true game-changer was when I really started to employ a lot of sous-vide in the kitchen. It’s been an incredible tool. Everything is so consistent that you don’t have to worry about disappointing anybody. That’s the science — I know to a tenth of a degree that your steak is going to be medium. On labor it saves you a cost of lost product, and even people blanching vegetables — you leave them in the water for a minute too long, and they become mush and they don’t have that with sous-vide.
Any modernist techniques that you think are overused or overrated?
This is the other reason why these lectures are good, because they educate people on all of these modern techniques, and proper usage of the techniques, and not just doing it for the sake of doing it. That’s a trend I would like to see go away. In the process of interviewing [new chefs] now, there’s a lot of young kids that are starting to cook, and their first thing is asking, ‘When do we get to spherificate something? When do we get to do molecular cooking?’ I want to look at them and tell them to poach me an egg — let’s start from there. If you want to explore the science of something, you need to sit down with [food science guru] Harold McGee and he will tell you that there’s science in poaching the egg. And there’s chemistry in making a good hollandaise to go with it. People think that you can go to the shelf and pull out a bunch of powders and be a miraculous cook, but there still needs to be something to start from.