Pioneer portrait: Sel Saint-Laurent
When art and science meet
Pioneer portrait: Manuel Bujold Richard, founder of Sel Saint Laurent
Text and photos by Nancy Guignard
It was at the charming Chez Mathilde where I met Manuel Bujold, the entrepreneur behind Sel Saint Laurent.
This restaurant is a special place for Manuel; its chef, Jean-Sébastien Sicard, is his friend. It’s also one of the first establishments to have supported his adventure to source sea salt from Québec.
Jean-Sébastien does an exceptional job of promoting local ingredients and producers. He was very enthusiastic about a local salt operation establishing itself in the region.
It takes connections, great ideas and people with oddball projects to energize a territory and these men are good examples for how to create vivacious synergie.
In talking to Manuel, I quickly understood that I was not simply in the presence of a businessman but had a veritable artist by my side – someone passionate, looking to think and do things differently.
Constantly questioning (and occasionally provoking) himself while eating a plate of Stimpson’s Surf Clams, Manuel initiated discussions on social issues like the culinary identity of Québec, the art of living, the fragility of our ecosystems and the richness of our territory.
The idea for Québec-sourced sea salt came to him while he was sitting around a table with friends…
Having several close contacts in the restaurant world, Manuel was aware of the effort required to create a menu that proudly features local products. The thought of finishing a plate of home-grown food with salt from France or elsewhere was nonsense.
Local producers go to a lot of trouble and face many challenges to create quality products so that local chefs have the power to create masterpieces — and the finishing touch travels thousands of miles to land?
When art and science come together
A global pandemic changed everyone’s plans and Manuel was no exception. An established contemporary artist, he was involved in public art for various municipalities over many years.
With all his artistic projects on hold, Manuel decided to invest himself, somewhat naively, into Québec sea salt.
He attributes the inspiration for this idea to his artistic instincts.
In contemporary art, you must be constantly motivated to find a project that will make you stand out from the crowd. You are the driver of a message [and] concept that needs attention. You have no choice but to go off the beaten track in order to do what has never been done before.
One of Manuel’s career-defining art projects, which caused a lot of controversy, was polluting French Impressionist Claude Monet’s Water Lilies.
Was it the best idea? Maybe not because I had to take a lot of criticism.
The reflex to look for what had never been done was eventually applied to salt. Why doesn’t Québec produce its own salt, when so many chefs have raised the issue?
He automatically set off to understand why. And after some research, he found a simple answer: it was not profitable due to the energy cost.*
What likely discouraged his predecessors turned into an interesting challenge for the artist.
*To evaporate 1L water requires 1kW (10¢) of energy. 1L of water produces approximately 33 g of salt. Supplying Québec with sea salt would take roughly 40 million litres of water and several million dollars in energy, which is not viable.
Born in the Gaspé Peninsula, nature has always been an integral part of Manuel’s life. Valuing and protecting it is part of his artistic and personal approach.
He questioned the possibility of using our northern territory to solve the environmental problem: how could he evaporate water without having to use hydroelectricity?
One day it hit him: the cold.
This was the moment that Sel Saint Laurent concretely formed in Manuel’s mind, and his research and development work began.
One of the first steps was to read nautical charts, a skill he had already mastered thanks to a passion for sailing.
Traveling around Québec, Manuel came across an ocean floor near Cap-de-Bon-Désir that has a unique tank shape, accessible depth and a superior water quality due to the Labrador current.
* For example, the same water quality is found near the Bas Saint-Laurent at a depth of several kilometers. In Bergeronnes, it’s approximately 500 meters. In terms of equipment, this depth makes the work more realistic.
With this discovery, he packed his bags and left Montreal towards the Côte-Nord, to settle in Grandes-Bergeronnes.
Fishing, foraging and long walks on the beach are now part of Manuel’s daily routine. To his great surprise, he’s integrating quite well, anchoring more and more into the community, although it’s a notable change for any newcomer.
ECOLOGICAL FOOTPRINT AND BIODIVERSITY PROTECTION
The real challenge to producing Québec-sourced salt lies in how to extract it with a small ecological footprint.
To be sure, there are other salt producers in Québec, notably in the Gaspé Peninsula, but they often use propane and a boat to draw water since it’s less expensive than using hydroelectricity for the evaporation process.
For me, there was no question of producing salt at any cost. I am inhabited by this desire to make salt differently, with the help of our climate and solar energy. Living on the riverfront, I constantly see cargo ships going by and think to myself, if I can [reduce] two or three [inbound ships] per year, I will have succeeded.
How might we use our northern climate to our advantage? This was a question Manuel obsessed about over the past year.
By pumping sea water and freezing it in the shallow tank on the ocean floor near Cap-de-Bon-Désir, nature does some of the work. Energetically, it’s seven times easier to freeze water than evaporate it.
It’s cryoconcentration.* With extreme cold, the salt molecule separates. [Water] freezes and [salt] settles at the bottom.
* Cryoconcentration is a set of techniques that consist in forming crystallized fractions of a solvent, separated afterwards by lowering the temperature. Cryoconcentration is, therefore, the concatenation of two techniques inspired by crystallization (molecular separation) and separation in phases (decantation, centrifugation…)
We can use Québec’s degree of northernness as an advantage. Unlike salt makers in France, who use the sun’s heat for the evaporation process, the northern winter cold is constant, day and night, and therefore not limited by the number of hours of sunlight per day.
We are less at the mercy of the weather, notably rain. In warmer climates, it takes two years of harvesting and one year of drying to produce salt.
We just had to think about using winter as transformative energy. By insulating the ice, I’m saving more than four million dollars in energy per production.
Manuel found a way to make salt sustainably, without the climate of France.
Using solar tubes in greenhouses is another technique he wishes to develop. With several thousand solar tubes, he believes he can save several thousands of hours of sunlight annually.
Since the seawater used by Sel Saint Laurent is drawn from the protected Saguenay-Saint-Laurent marine park, the operation works with a team of engineers and biologists to ensure it does not damage the habitat or harm aquatic life.
Harvesting at a depth of 200 meters would be the least damaging for marine biodiversity, since the light cannot penetrate any further. There is no plancton left. The base of the food chain starts there, so we can avoid [disrupting food for] the whales indirectly,
, explained Manuel.
Today the artist/entrepreneur is still waiting on permits, notably one from Fisheries and Oceans Canada that will allow him to pump 200 meters deep in the crystal clear waters of the Labrador current.
My background in public art has taught me that temporary setbacks often allow you to move forward and buy time and space to build your project. It’s always easier to convince people with tangible actions and concrete results.
Bringing together technology and new ways of operating is Manuel’s challenge for the coming year. Progressively linking his reflections and actions, the sea salt artist will soon be able to produce an interesting volume with a viable economic model.
De fil en aiguille avec cet enchaînement de réflexions et d’actions, l’artiste du sel sera en mesure de produire un volume intéressant et un modèle économique viable.
Manuel’s objective is to produce 250 tonnes of salt per year over the next two years, resulting in $20M worth of annual revenues. This is a number that pleases the bankers.
But one of the major challenges for Manuel is convincing investors to finance the project, since he has no scientific training or experience with food processing.
After soliciting several engineers for this project, Manuel received unfavourable reports. This did not discourage him. On the contrary, it fuelled his perseverance.
There are programs and grants, notably from Québec’s Ministry of Economy and Innovation, that will help Manuel access the funds required to find the best way of producing sea salt with little-to-no hydropower.
Support from Investment Québec and Desjardins also allowed the entrepreneur to advance on the first steps of his large-scale project and to produce a reasonable quantity of salt in an economically viable way.
Sel Saint Laurent is still an artisanal operation at the moment, working to generate the revenues required to instill confidence in its current and potential investors, but Manuel is already planning for its second phase.
Phase two will see the acquisition of land (a terrain with a rather interesting surface) in order to develop the aforementioned technologies and build a production plant.
DISTRIBUTION AND MARKETING
Today, you can find Sel Saint Laurent flakes in a few dozen restaurants like Chez Boulay, Kebec Club Privé and Le Groupe Tanière, to name a few. It’s also available at approximately 80 points of sale across Québec.
Demand is currently greater than supply. Obviously, a considerable increase in production is being planned for the coming months. The team hopes to see its salt flakes on supermarket shelves within the next year. There is also a physical limit of supply and demand in Québec, which is why the company is thinking of expanding its offer to Ontario, the United States and Europe – ecologically, of course, via electric cars and maybe even sailboats.
The belief in a small environmental footprint will always remain at the top of Manuel’s priorities, without sacrificing development and growth for his company.
There are several aspects that make Sel Saint Laurent a unique product, notably the human behind this project, the source of sea water and the exceptional quality of the pyramid-shaped salt flakes themselves.
Is Manuel putting his career as a contemporary artist on hold? He would tell you yes, but he has the impression that this is just the beginning of his greatest work yet.
About the author
Rédactrice et photographe indépendante, Nancy Guignard use de sa sensibilité pour raconter des histoires en mots et en images. La connexion avec la nature est primordiale pour sa créativité.