Missouri’s Powerhouse Chef
If you don’t associate the city of St. Louis with culinary prowess, then you haven’t eaten at Gerard Craft’s restaurants. He’s leading a group of chefs who have put this “Gateway to the West” on the map with their creative cuisine, attention to detail and an unwavering commitment to quality local ingredients. The four-time James Beard award finalist is serving some of the best food in the Midwest, including contemporary American fare at Niche, classic French cuisine at Brasserie, casual plates at Taste and rustic Italian food at the newish, highly-anticipated Pastaria. Gerard talks about his culinary influences, the city’s burgeoning food scene and his top picks for St. Louis eats.
AndrewZimmern.com: St. Louis is under the radar in terms of its food scene. What makes it special?
Gerard Craft: St. Louis is special because everyone is pushing. Everyone wants to be taken seriously so no one is complacent. It makes for a rapidly evolving and incredibly interesting scene with lots of great restaurants and chefs who are deciding to put down roots here in the Midwest.
AZ.com: How has the restaurant scene changed since you opened Niche?
GC: The restaurant scene really began to develop around the time I arrived. With Larry Forgione and Kevin Nashan already going, a whole new group of people with all new ideas started opening their own spots. Now it is way more developed with incredibly high standards. Once the bar is raised here, people hold everyone to it and the bar keeps going higher and higher.
AZ.com: Why did you move to St. Louis initially?
GC: First, I saw that Larry Forgione opened a place here and that really intrigued me. I like the architecture here with the blend of modern, new construction and an incredible amount of historic spots. Some days, I just drive around to look at all of the cool neighborhoods. Also, the fact that people are really interested in food and independent restaurants makes it a great place for a young chef to take off.
AZ.com: You currently own four restaurants, Brasserie, Niche, Taste and Pastaria. How did you pick the concept of each? Anything that ties them all together?
GC: All four of my restaurants were opened because it is food that I love. French Brasserie, Italian Osteria, and a laid back place to go have cocktails without a bunch of frat kids spilling beer on everyone. I love cooking interesting food at Niche, but I rarely like to eat that kind of food when I go out. I am not a very fancy person.
AZ.com: Who (or what) is your biggest culinary influence?
GC: I am influenced by a lot, but one of my first high end meals was at L’Arpege in France and it changed the way I thought about vegetables forever. Mohammed Islam and Malika Ameen also changed the way my palate worked and taught me about acid and spice. They really helped refine me. Bryan Moscatello taught me how to think outside the box and my nanny Dia taught me how to cook with soul. I have learned a lot from so many people and life experiences that it is impossible to pick just one.
AZ.com: The Midwest has a reputation of being unadventurous, how well have your more creative tasting menus been received?
GC: The Midwest has moved beyond that. I’ve lived on both coasts, and people here in St. Louis appreciate having a dining experience. Here, guests are looking for that sense of Midwest hospitality, thought and care behind the food, and I think they recognize the work that goes into our tasting menus as such. At Niche, we make sure that we interact with our guests, explain the courses and wine pairings, and where ingredients come from, so people leave having a memorable experience. And as far as creativity, the people in St. Louis aren’t scared of much, so it’s allowed us to push the envelope of Modern Midwest cuisine.
AZ.com: Favorite restaurants in St. Louis?
AZ.com: What’s in your fridge?
GC: My wife made me spaghetti with olive oil, garlic,and chiles. I love that dish. Other than that, I like to have a lot of simple roasted vegetables. That’s what I crave when I get home late at night.
Check out Gerard’s recipe for Green Garlic Soup.
Chef Gerard Craft is the executive chef and owner of Craft Restaurants, Ltd. in St. Louis, Missouri. After opening Niche in 2005 at the age of 25, Chef Craft has extended his restaurant group to include Taste by Niche, a modern speakeasy, Brasserie by Niche, a classic French bistro, and his latest approachable Italian concept, Pastaria.
Chef Craft’s creative yet simple food has earned him recognition as a Food & Wine Best New Chef, Inc. magazine’s “Star Entrepreneurs under 30” as well as a four-time James Beard Foundation Finalist for Best Chef: Midwest.
A native of Washington, D.C., Chef Craft became addicted to the restaurant life while living in Salt Lake City as a snowboard photographer. Chef Craft went on to cook at Bistro Toujours in Park City, Utah, Ryland Inn in Whitehouse Station, New Jersey and Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles, California before making the leap to open a restaurant of his own.
Always a believer in following intuition, Chef Craft settled on the boarded-up building in the Benton Park neighborhood of St. Louis, a Midwestern city that he had never visited. Since opening Niche in 2005, Chef Craft has been highly acclaimed for his innovative interpretations of what he calls “humble” Midwest ingredients – the best available from numerous local area farmers. Craft Restaurants, Ltd. sources their menus through relationships with more than 100 area farmers.
Craft and his wife, Susan, live in the Parkview neighborhood of St. Louis with their two daughters.
Photograph by Tuan Lee.