New York Magazine held its own Top Chef-esque cookoff for its latest issue, which focuses on cheap eats. Dubbed the Great Cheapavore Challenge, the contest required that three cheftestants—Bill Telepan of Telepan, Amanda Freitag of Gusto, and Colin Alevras of the Tasting Room—each create a three-course dinner for two from strictly local ingredients, expending as few food miles as possible and shelling out no more than $25 for the whole meal. If the chefs turned to “remotely sourced pantry items” they gained penalty points, thus discouraging the use of staples like olive oil, lemons, and even salt. The chef with the fewest points would be crowned the winner.
It’s probably no surprise that the salt was the one thing the chefs seemed unable to do without. Alevras came clean right away about his saline indiscretion:
‘I used Maldon sea salt,’ he said sheepishly, taking a big fat penalty point rather than sacrificing flavor or putting money into the coffers of the eco-unfriendly upstate salt mine he found on Google.
The others didn’t do much better: Freitag bought salty ingredients like locally made pretzels and cheese to try to avoid adding salt, but she ended up shaking on some anyway; and Telepan (the ultimate winner of the contest) just went ahead and salted, with only a breezy “I always use salt” to explain his flouting of the rules.
Salt is definitely the scourge of anyone trying to eat a totally local diet—just ask Michael Pollan, who explains in The Omnivore’s Dilemma his failed attempt to gather his own salt near his home. After evaporating seawater in a pan on the stovetop, Pollan is left with a few unsavory tablespoons:
Unfortunately this salt, which was a bit greasy to the touch, tasted so metallic and so much like chemicals that it actually made me gag, and required a chaser of mouthwash to clear from my tongue. I expect this was a case where the human disgust reflex probably saved lives. No doubt professional salt gatherers have sophisticated purification techniques, but I had no clue what these might be. So I abandoned plans to cook with and serve my own salt, and counted myself lucky not to have contracted hepatitis.
If anyone out there is in search of a culinary business plan, why not look into those purification techniques and start producing some salt from a salt flat near you? With so much interest in local eating these days, it’s probably just a matter of time before someone figures out how to do it.