Chef Jeremy Conner of Louisiana has given Gulf of Mexico sea salt a seat at the table. Learn how he uses chemistry to make pure culinary magic.
Chef Jeremy Conner was born in Alabama, but he’s Louisiana to the bone. With a reputation for inspired dishes that blend reverence for Southern tradition with the unique flavors of the Gulf Coast, Conner has turned his passion into a business: Cellar Salt Co.
Based in Lafayette, La., Cellar Salt Co. specializes in premium sea salt from the Gulf of Mexico. When Connor and his wife, Alexis, created the company in 2015, their mission was “to craft a premium sea salt of distinct flavor and quality while exemplifying the bounty of the source, the magical Gulf of Mexico.” Today, Cellar Salt Co. is known primarily for its pure flake finishing salt. But the company also crafts small batches of flavored salts and limited-edition salts from micro-habitats with their own merroir, such as specific oyster beds.
We asked Jeremy a few questions about Cellar Salt Co.
Q: What inspired you to create a premium sea salt inspired by the Gulf of Mexico?
J: I used salts from all over the world as a chef and came to realize I’d never come across a Gulf salt. I think people are drawn in by how familiar Gulf salt tastes. With the increased priority on local sourcing of produce and seafood, it only makes sense that salt, that most empirical and ubiquitous ingredient in anyone’s pantry, should be local, too.
Q: What makes an area’s salt unique?
J: Lots of factors determine the flavor of salt made from a particular body of water. Predominantly, it’s the mineral content matrix that you’ll taste in addition to just “salt.” I grew up on the Gulf Coast and, from swimming in the surf with the waves crashing overhead, there is a particular flavor to the Gulf. I wanted to finish my dishes with that flavor. Oysters filter the water. It’s what they do. When we make salt with the oyster bed water, we get to start with exceptionally clean water. This will taste different from water collected in the surf, for instance, because the wave action literally breaks apart the sand and dissolves more minerals.
Q: How do you harvest and process your crop?
J: It all starts with the source. Along with oyster beds, we also collect water from different areas on the Gulf Coast where there are plenty of waves and minimal fresh-water dilution or runoff. The geographic coordinates on our label are from our first source, Avenida 13 on Pensacola Beach. We pump the water into a tank that we truck back to Lafayette for processing. Historically, salt makers have relied on sun and wind to evaporate the water and create salt crystals. We speed up the process by boiling the water until it reaches about 30% salt by weight. Then, we allow the warm water to slowly evaporate, forming flake-shaped salt crystals that eventually sink to the bottom of the tank. These are scooped out and drained. We then dry them in pans in a dehydrator before packaging them for sale. My goal is always to create a salt crystal that is both beautiful and has a pleasing, crunchy texture.
Q: You also offer small-batch, limited-edition salts – how do you create those?
J: The process is largely the same, except we add a concentrated liquid flavoring to infuse the salt flakes as they dry. We make our Meyer Lemon salt from lemon juice and zest, and our coffee salt from Rêve Coffee Roasters expresso. For our smoked salt, we roast the crystals over pecan wood, just like with meat.
Flavored salts are really fun to make. Many people don’t think to put salt on their cookies or ice cream or whatever, but salt is a flavor enhancer first and foremost, and so great salt really makes any dish — desserts included.
Q: What inspired you to start your own business?
J: The timing was right in my chef career, and I knew it was a product lots of people would find interesting. I was honestly inspired by other businesses in Lafayette, especially those operated by makers and crafters: Red Arrow Workshop, Parish Ink, Rêve Coffee Roasters, etc. I thought I worked hard as a chef, but the most demanding job is being an entrepreneur.
Q: What has the response to Cellar Salt Co. been like?
J: I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how eager everyone is to try the product and how interested everyone is in it. There are lots of people who like different salts, and they are ecstatic to have a Gulf salt.
Q: What’s been your biggest surprise?
J: What surprised me was how much chemistry and physics I would need to brush up on. I definitely wish I’d paid more attention in school.
Jeremy Conner, Cellar Salt Co.
@cellarsaltco / www.cellarsalt.co