It may lack the culinary notoriety of San Francisco, New Orleans or the Big Apple, but St. Louis has quietly been developing a serious food scene. In addition to benefitting from a large Italian-American community and a geographic flirtation with the South, talented young chefs from around the country are arriving. Largely responsible for St. Louis’ dining renaissance is chef and prolific restaurateur Gerard Craft.
Craft, who grew up in Washington, D.C., opened his first restaurant in St. Louis knowing very little about the city except that it offered affordable space for a struggling 25-year-old chef. That restaurant, Niche, ignited the local dining scene and his Niche Food Group now operates five restaurants in the Gateway City.
“I still wasn’t that interested in food, but fell in love with the kitchen’s energy, comradery and instant gratification. “I loved the idea that you could produce something, serve it and see the impact it has on people, then clean up and move on to the next day,” recalls the young cook. After spending some time in France, even enrolling in a work-study program at the Ritz in Paris, Craft was feeling confident enough to talk his way into a line cook position at Park City’s well-respected Bistro Toujours.
“It was a disaster,” reports Craft, explaining, “The chef sat me down and told me I had no skills and that I could either leave or work as a prep cook in the basement.” Now recognizing this as a turning point in his career, Craft says, “Being demoted was the best thing that ever happened to me. After I got some hands-on experience down in the basement, I was able to work my way through every station on the line.” After an apprenticeship at the upscale Ryland Inn in New Jersey, Craft earned a sous chef position at Chateau Marmont, a celebrity haunt on Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip.
Hearing that prominent chef Larry Forgione and some other talented chefs had opened restaurants in St. Louis, Craft flew there to look at an old wine bar for a potential restaurant of his own. “It had boarded-up windows, a dirt floor and no electricity,” recalls Craft, who took possession of the space in February 2005 and reopened it as Niche later that year.
Craft had little interest in cooking as a young boy, recalling, “My family was really into food, but I was probably the pickiest eater in the world.” Despite that self-characterization, Craft’s most meaningful food memories revolved around the cooking of his Brazilian nanny. “She was like a second mom to me, and I grew up eating simple, rustic Brazilian food like black beans and feijoada,” says Craft, who adds, “She had such a touch with food and was able to make anything taste great.” He honored that influential nanny by offering contemporary versions of pão de queijo (Brazilian cheese bread) and brigadeiro (confection) at Niche. “Having her visit the restaurant before she died was a big moment for me,” says Craft.
As a kid, Craft’s heroes were not Wolfgang Puck or Emeril Lagasse but Russell Simmons and Richard Branson, as the fledgling entrepreneur sold paintballs to classmates in fifth grade, a clothing line in high school. He attended Westminster College in Salt Lake City, a choice driven by his passion for snowboarding, but dropped out after two years. To supplement his income as a snowboard photographer, Craft began washing dishes and cooking at a local diner.
Niche was originally conceived as an unpretentious contemporary American restaurant, but an older clientele with fine dining expectations forced Craft to reinvent it as more of a special occasion restaurant. The servers, originally wearing tee-shirts, switched to collared shirts and pressed aprons, while the china was upgraded, explains Craft, who admits, “That slippery slope into fine dining pushed me to become a more creative and ambitious chef.”
Craft subsequently opened Brasserie by Niche, an authentic French bistro that reflects his love of Paris, Porano for quick-service Italian cooking, Pastaria for organic pastas, and mixology-driven Taste. While he acknowledges St. Louis lacks the wealth of dining found in its rival Midwestern city of Chicago, he contends, “There may not be a chic modern restaurant on every block, but the ones that succeed here are special.” In the pipeline for Craft is Pastaria Nashville, his first venture in neighboring Tennessee.
The James Beard Award-winning chef is perhaps the greatest single ambassador for Missouri-sourced ingredients. At the height of Craft’s commitment to local foods, 97 percent of the ingredients on Niche’s menu were produced in the Show Me State, including the onions going into stock for sauces, caviar from local rivers and even wine from Missouri vineyards. “It definitely generated a sense of pride in home-raised Missouri products,” says Craft. Insisting Missouri remains an unpretentious, approachable place, he suggests, “The hot summers and cold winters produce real people, and the vegetables are the same way, more humble and less precious.” Because of the movement that Craft spearheaded, there are now farmers and ranchers offering to grow vegetables or raise animals specifically for the needs of local chefs.
Craft shuttered Niche last year after a decade-long run, citing the intensity of maintaining standards at the city’s top-rated restaurant. “The competition begins to wear on you, and you begin to forget why you decided to cook in the first place,” says the chef, who converted the space into Sardella, a less expensive restaurant that celebrates his passion for Italian cooking.
A signature dish at Sardella is charred butternut squash with roasted garlic custard, Calabrian chile vinaigrette and basil that Craft describes as having bright flavors and a spicy, almost Thai-like quality even though all of the ingredients are Italian. “It’s an Italian dish that you’d never find in Italy,” quips the chef.
Gerard Craft and St. Louis have been good for one another, with the 37-year-old chef offering a diversity of local restaurants that may be the product of global influences but are true to their Missouri heritage.
Photos courtesy of Greg Rannells