The Inimitable Gerard Craft: St. Louis Chef & Restaurateur
Sitting down with James Beard Award-winning chef Gerard Craft at Sardella—his most recent outpost in the Clayton neighborhood of St. Louis—his demeanor is reserved, but engaged. One part surgeon introvert, two parts philosophy professor, complete with conspicuous ink and goatee. “We are more in awe of a carrot or potato grown by one of our trusted farmers than we are by a white truffle flown in from Italy,” reads the mission statement from Niche, his inaugural restaurant that opened its doors in 2005.
Craft has since opened four more restaurants in the St. Louis metro area, dishing out everything from cocktail-friendly small plates to inventive takes on pasta. The term “awe” is no overstatement when speaking of Craft’s dual veneration of Midwestern turf (as in literal, food-growing soil goodness) and the talents of others around the region. When speaking of his own accomplishments in conversation, he tends to say “We” far more frequently than “I.”
We caught up with Craft soon after he returned from Nashville—the future home to the second installment of the restaurant Pastaria, his first business venture outside of St. Louis.
My first introduction to your restaurants was Taste, back when it was a tiny spot in Benton Park. When you’re expanding from a small setting, like Taste or Sardella, to a larger space like Pastaria, how do you maintain that sense of intimacy?
Taste was small, intimate—only twelve seats. The new space is maybe thirty seats, and splitting the two spaces up helps create that intimate vibe. The wood ceilings and curtains make the whole space really dark, even if it’s just 5:30. You can go unwind, sink away, disappear for a while over a cocktail. You can get in a lot more trouble when it’s dark [laughs].
Why did you choose Pastaria for your first out-of-town venture?
When Pastaria opened in St. Louis, we always had the attitude that we would do another one. It was the first time we stepped outside our foodie audience—we wanted to bridge the gap between foodies and non-foodies, the people who just go out to dinner and have good food. Pastaria was almost heading toward the Maggiano track, trying to reinvent what the mid-tier restaurant was doing in America. As somebody with kids, we end up in places like Maggiano’s all the time. It felt comfortable taking our family there, but we wanted a restaurant that stepped it up in terms of food, wine list and so on.
Something that felt more welcoming and casual?
Yeah. With this food, it’s more traditional and accessible. Of course, we have a few things with a twist. That’s my broken-down version. But overall, it’s very approachable. The new Pastaria in Nashville is in the West End neighborhood, a few blocks from Vanderbilt Stadium.
Nashville has really taken off as a hub for creative people, chefs included. How do you see making food as a creative act?
Food is a craft first. A misconception some people have is that food is just art. So, it’s a craft first, but there’s so much creativity that goes into the whole restaurant experience. If you think about food and the arts, seeing some curated exhibit or some new composer put on a great show, it’s very similar. Going out to a restaurant, there are so many details involved. It’s a production. Everything from the lights you choose, the mirrors, to what the staff is wearing and what kind of music is playing, how people answer the phone—all of that stuff is part of the personality of a restaurant. While food is super important and the drinks have to be creative, it’s really the whole package. They all have to fit to put on a great show.
You made the distinction between craft and art—is that based on skill versus intuition? Can you say more about that?
Food is made up of building blocks. I think a lot of visual artists think in this way, too—they went to school, they know the basics, the techniques needed to achieve the goals that they want. It’s not something based solely on creativity. The creative side is maybe more at stake at restaurants like Sardella, where we’re stepping outside the box, trying to rethink what certain classics really were.
Can you give an example of a time when you were learning a new technique and then became creatively inspired? Or of a time you were struck with inspiration and then had to learn a new skill as a result?
When Niche was starting out—when we were starting to get very modern, almost avant-garde at times—new techniques were really being discovered. It wasn’t just your sautéeing, braising—things like that. We would come across a creative problem—like how to make an eggless custard or a gelee that doesn’t melt when it goes over something hot—and we worked with our friends to get the techniques in order to do it. We still have a lot of friends in food science who teach us those building blocks.
With certain classics—like the Niche egg, for example—we had a classic custard base in the egg, based on chawanmushi from Japanese cuisine, but we made it with maple vinegar to give it some acidity and sweetness, with shiitakes on top. We went from a very classic technique to making little pearls, or faux caviar, out of agur agur, a Japanese gelling agent. We mixed modern and classic, and I think we cook that way still to this day. We’re constantly going back in time looking up old-world techniques.
What are you most excited about in terms of the new Pastaria? Or nervous about?
All I do is worry. I am that person [laughs]. I’m terrified. But I think it’s important for our process. We’ve never put ourselves up on a pedestal, and we know the bottom can fall out at any time. And, honestly, we’ve seen it happen before in our careers—not paying attention, feeling burnt out, not fresh. That’s right there in front of us as we open in Nashville. We’re not an unknown entity—the James Beard Award helped us get some attention—but we’re not the local favorite we are in St. Louis. That’s always scary, but it’s important to address.
Which restaurant has been the most rewarding for you in terms of its success?
Success is such an interesting word for me. I still can’t figure out for myself what it means to be successful. I think all of our restaurants have achieved success, through different avenues. Creatively, as a chef, Niche was the most gut-wrenching experience of my life, but also the most successful for me personally. But for an investor, you’d say that was my least successful restaurant, and that Pastaria or Brasserie are our most successful. Those are the big restaurants that can do a ton of covers and do them well. Then you got Taste, that when it opened was in Bon Appetit’s ten best new bars in the country. So defining success has always been a challenging thing for me to do.
In St. Louis, your food has arguably raised the bar in terms of challenging expectations and owning a unique identity. Over the years, do you think people here have opened up to more inventive food?
Now you’re seeing so many inventive restaurants pop up over the last three or four years, especially in the mid-tier. When we opened Niche, it was either high-end or not at all. We were trying to be a mid-tier restaurant—we didn’t want to be as expensive. But people couldn’t figure out what that meant. It didn’t make sense to them. We had trouble fitting in because we were in the middle, and that’s what pushed us into the high-end land of food. But now, at any price point, you’re starting to be able to get great food. It’s probably the death of fine dining to some degree. The super high-end, with the tasting menus, struggles in all cities now because of the great options in the middle. But there are definitely a lot more people now that have adventurous palates, that are excited about new ideas.
What’s your favorite restaurant in St. Louis that isn’t one of your own?
Probably Vista Ramen off of Cherokee, or Fork and Stix over on the Delmar Loop.
What’s the most mind-blowing food experience that shaped your path as a chef?
Oh, there are a lot. There was a weird one a long, long time ago that shaped my love for vegetables. I was in France when I was around 20 years old, and I went to this place called L’Arpège in Paris. My parents took me and said, “Pay attention. This is your Harvard education right here.” And I wasn’t super blown away by the meal when I left. But years later that meal came back to me—it was pretty much all vegetables. I had been there in Paris cooking right around the outbreak of mad cow disease, and L’Arpège pretty much went all veggie and fish. The texture of all the vegetables haunted me forever. It’s very hard for me to eat a green bean or a turnip now without thinking of the vegetables at L’Arpège. They cooked all of their vegetables to order, to a perfect texture. They treated their vegetables like they were cooking meat, to a specific done-ness. And that, to me, is the mark of a mind-blowing meal. And I didn’t even know as a snotty young kid, that it would haunt me that way.
Photos courtesy of Niche Food Group