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Top Chefs: Geoff Gardner

Bringing the tastes of southern France to Boston

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Geoff Gardner is inspired by the sights and smells of Champagne, Alsace, and Provence, in France. Photo by Kathleen Dooher

What are the essential elements of a great chef? As this week’s snapshots of five great chefs illustrate, the answers run from soup to nuts, or when it comes to fields of study, from education to graphic arts. The common ingredient: Boston University, which has been cooking up culinary talent for decades, sometimes in unexpected corners. The culinary arts program, started with help from America’s first top chef, Julia Child (Hon.’76), has delivered many successes, and the School of Hospitality Administration has prepared many more for rewarding careers in the big leagues of the restaurant business.

How does it work? Every day this week, one of BU’s best-known chefs tells us about getting from here to there.

Even before he graduated from Boston University, Geoff Gardner had a knack for being in the right place at the right time. As an undergrad, he worked five nights a week on cooking and prep lines in the legendary Boston kitchens of L’Espalier and Icarus. After graduation, he set out to expand his palate, most significantly, he says, by eating his way through France. The sights and smells in Champagne, Alsace, and Provence were as magnificent as the cuisine. Fields of lavender and gardens of rosemary and thyme made an indelible sensuous impression.

After working as sous-chef at L’Espalier for eight years, Gardner (SHA’93) and the restaurant’s chef-owner, Frank McClelland, opened Sel de la Terre on Boston’s Long Wharf in 2000. Gardner became part owner and executive chef, and he built a menu that he hoped would celebrate the flavors he had encountered in the south of France.

The restaurant serves rustic country French food, heavy on vegetables and herbs. Gardner relies on simple preparations with creative flavors, such as pan-roasted salmon with vegetable puree and a port blood orange reduction. “There’s a magical way nature provides things that work well together,” he says.

If there’s a little hocus-pocus involved in restaurant partnerships, Gardner’s mastered that, too: he and McClelland have opened two more Sel de la Terres in Massachusetts — one in Boston’s Mandarin Oriental hotel, where it shares top billing with Gardner’s recently relocated L’Espalier, and one in Natick. Still, Gardner gives a lot of credit to a principle he learned at SHA: hospitality.

“I think people get caught up in the minutiae of their businesses and don’t see the big picture: everything we do is about making guests happy,” he says. “Know how to make your customers happy. I learned that at BU.”

Geoff Gardner’s Truffled Mushroom Soup
1 onion, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 teaspoon garlic, chopped
1 pound portabella mushrooms, cleaned and chopped
1 cup dry sherry, with the alcohol burned off
1 quart court bouillon or vegetable stock
1 cup heavy cream
thyme to taste
salt and pepper to taste
truffle oil, optional

Sweat onions, celery, garlic, thyme, and portabellas. Add sherry and reduce until all alcohol is evaporated or burned off. Add court bouillon. Simmer until vegetables are soft and the soup is flavorful and aromatic (about one hour).

Using an immersion blender or standing blender, roughly puree soup until almost smooth. Strain through chinois or other fine mesh sieve. In a separate pot, finish with heavy cream and season with salt and pepper. Garnish with a truffle oil, if desired.

This article originally appeared in the summer 2009
Bostonia.

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