It should be a triumphant time for salt in New York. The biggest restaurant opening of the year has been that of Nusr-Et, better known as Salt Bae. It’s named for chef Nusret Gökçe, who accumulated 13 million Instagram followers—and the nickname Salt Bae—for his theatrical method of seasoning steaks.
Meanwhile, sugar has replaced salt to reign again as the most polarising item in your pantry. (See: New York State Senate Bill S162, which proposes safety warnings for sugar-sweetened drinks.)
Salt even features in the décor at Chefs Club NYC, where a 1,300-pound chunk of pink Himalayan salt hangs above the dining room, encased in a glass box.
Yet there’s none on the tables below the display. A recent visit to the SoHo spot made me realise it’s been a long time since I’ve seen salt on a restaurant table in New York.
Salt shakers, once ubiquitous at fancy restaurants, have vanished. That’s deliberate, say top chefs, and there are a few explanations why.
Shakers mostly held cheap salt
The No. 1 reason salt shakers are gone is the quality of the product they held: fine, iodized salt that costs about $1 a pound at supermarkets and delivers a harsh blast of saline that can blemish the food it’s supposed to accent. In this era of elite seasonings, when a restaurant like Estiatorio Milos boasts of hand-harvested sea salt from the Greek islands, an old-school salt shaker isn’t retro—it’s shameful.
Chefs don’t like ceding control
Another reason salt isn’t immediately available to customers: As chefs have gained in fame, they want to be the ones adding it. “If you go to good restaurants, chefs like to be in charge of the seasoning,” says Capon.
The lack of salt within reach has become more striking as French restaurants have come back into vogue. If salt is missing, it’s more noticeable in an omelet or a roast chicken than in Mission Chinese Food’s spicy Chongqing chicken wings.
“I call it the big Dorito effect,” says chef Andrew Carmellini, whose restaurants include Locanda Verde, Little Park, and Brooklyn’s Leuca. “There’s been so much umami in foods, so much acid and heat, there’s no room for salt.”
Tables are too crowded
There’s no salt on the tables at Carmellini’s restaurants. He says all the waiter stations have it ready, on request. “At a restaurant like Locanda, where a lot of dishes like pasta and main courses are shared, and there’s so many plates and platters, it takes clutter off the table,” he says.
I keenly felt the absence of salt at Chefs Club NYC. The new chef-in-residence, Sota Atsumi, who made a name for himself at Paris’s Clown Bar, offers dishes such as “lobster with couscous and 40 spices.” In spite of the name, it needed seasoning. A modest amount of salt arrived in a small bowl; I almost had to ask for more. “What the chef-in-residence wants, the chef-in-residence gets,” says Aaron Arizpe, the culinary curator at Chefs Club. “That holds true down to every detail, including whether or not salt is on the table.” He adds that he personally appreciates salt on the table. “I go out to eat for pleasure, not moderation, and not an education. If I find it pleasurable to add salt to a dish, it should be my prerogative to do so.”
It’s not a good look
There’s also the style quotient. No one has created an all-purpose replacement for those little shakers. Some chefs favour salt grinders, but that utilitarian aesthetic doesn’t work for every dining room. Others offer photogenic little bowls with flakes of pricey salt, such as Maldon. Those get expensive, since the salt has to be replaced for each new set of guests. They also get stolen. “Little dishes of salt tend to disappear,” says Capon. “It’s almost as if they have legs. People like small things.”
Chef David Burke concurs. “At a previous restaurant, we had beautiful salt and pepper shakers worth about $50 each at the tables,” he says. “They were almost all stolen within a few months. We earned our lesson.”
One of the few places in New York where salt was waiting when I sat down is the new Simon & the Whale, at the Freehand Hotel. Owner Gabriel Stulman offers it at all his restaurants, including Joseph Leonard and Fairfax.
“If I had to guess why you don’t see salt more often, I would say chef ego: ‘My food is seasoned; you don’t need to season it,’” says Stulman. He also notes how prohibitively expensive it is to throw out salt. “But you’re not going to keep salt on the table that someone you don’t know touched. That’s gross.”
There’s salt on the table at Eleven Madison Park, currently the world’s No. 1 restaurant. Chef Daniel Humm was so taken with the product he found years ago at the Amagansett Sea Salt Co., he now has a standing weekly order.
Note, however, that this lovely salt is served with EMP’s bread course. And then it’s whisked away.