One Chef And Two Thriving Midwestern Restaurants Over Fourteen Years

Kevin Nashan, head chef and owner of Sidney Street and Peacemaker Lobster & Crab Co in St. Louis, has more than a few of things on his mind this spring. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll limit it to two, beginning with fresh white asparagus from a family farm in Red Bud, Illinois. The other is the James Beard Awards Gala on May 1 in Chicago, where the three-time finalist is up against five other nominees to bring home top honors in the “Best Chef: Midwest” category. However, it’s the vegetables that really have him talking.

“I’m super excited about asparagus—especially white asparagus,” says Nashan. “Our local stuff is coming from the Ross family. They’re one of the last families in the Midwest that grow white asparagus. A good chef friend of mine, Josh Galliano [of Companion] connected me to them a long time ago. Now, after several years, I think of that as the beginning of spring, when I go see them and get the white asparagus. It’s very near and dear to me.”

He calls the James Beard award nomination “good and crazy all at the same time,” but acknowledges the team effort behind him. “I’m grateful that our team gets that recognition. It’s not just me—I have a lot of people who have been working for me for a long time. But it’s a mixed-emotion thing. You’re happy, but it’s nerve-wracking too, because you don’t know the outcome.” Besides, busy restaurants don’t run themselves. “You try not to think about it—just keep your head down and keep working.”

Kevin Nashan at Peacermaker Lobster Co. in St. Louis, MO.

Kevin Nashan at Peacemaker Lobster Co. in St. Louis, MO. Photo by Johnathan Gayman

Nashan, who grew up in New Mexico, has worked around the world, from Spain to New York City. It’s been three years since he opened the Peacemaker, and 14 years since he assumed ownership of Sidney Street Café, where he works alongside his wife, Mina, and brother, Chris. They motivate him, too—sometimes in ways that aren’t exactly comfortable. “I’m kind of a shy person,” Nashan admits. “At the restaurant, it takes a lot for me to get out of the kitchen. I love talking to people, but for some weird reason, when I’m cooking at the restaurant, going out and saying ‘hi’ to people is like pulling teeth.”

Nashan continually draws inspiration from the multitude of other things on his mind, as well. Things like reading cookbooks, going to restaurants, working out, bike riding and spending time with his children. “I love watching them eat, and seeing what their approach is,” he says. “If we go to a farmers’ market and they see something they’ve never seen before, they’re inquisitive.” He also loves to do what chefs call “staging,” or working briefly in other kitchens to learn new culinary techniques. “It’s super important. You can always learn more.”

Peacemaker_STL_GRP2428

photo by Greg Rannells

It is experiences like these that have helped Nashan stay inspired, which transforms into culinary creativity. “You have to be engaged to be creative,” he explains. For example, take strawberries. “You can have a variety of techniques using strawberries,” Nashan says. “You can have green strawberries, and you can pickle those green strawberries so you have this really early flavor of what a strawberry is, on a more savory note. You have it preserved where you can incorporate it into a dish. It’s really fun, and it gives a variant to the consumer, all in one bite. There’s so many things you can do.”

But ultimately, Nashan feels that the business isn’t really about him at all. “Trying to make people happy seems so easy to do, whether you’re a doctor or lawyer, a cook or food writer. Your end goal is to shed light on what interests you. And in turn, you’re giving people glimpses of what you like to do. Sometimes it’s subjective. And because people are paying you for it, they have a right to critique you. Food is very humbling.”

If you catch Nashan between now and May 1, you may want to steer the conversation away from the James Beard awards and toward the ingredients coming up next on the menu. Things like morels and peas and strawberries, and especially that lovely white asparagus. “The never-ending pursuit of trying to make somebody happy is the frustration—and the beauty—of the whole thing.”

Cover image courtesy of Sydney Street Cafe

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