A Conversation with Gerard Craft

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Gerard Craft is undeniably one of the most influential chefs in the Midwest, and has been for nearly a decade. His progressive thinking and leadership has given St. Louis Niche, Taste, Brasserie, Pastaria, Porano, and now Sardella.  I sat down with him to talk about the evolution and closing of the James Beard winning Niche, the thought process behind Sardella, and more.


Let’s start with a brief history of Niche. From what I understand, there were 3 distinct phases of the restaurant.

I think there’s been about 10 phases of Niche.

When you opened the restaurant, it was more casual, right?

Yeah, it was actually called Niche, an American bistro. The original inspiration was to have a sleek, modern space—kind of inspired by a lot of the restaurants at that time in places like Spain and New York. One of my favorite restaurants in NYC was called the Tasting Room. It was awesome, casual and upscale food. Completely unpretentious.

Back then, there weren’t a lot of restaurants doing both those things. You had the bistro, which I love, and then you had fine dining. There wasn’t a lot in between that. We wanted to jump in there...about 11 years before our time. It’s just become a thing over the last couple years.

And somewhere in there, it evolved into a pretty modern restaurant.

That was a slow, gradual process. Year 2, I’d say. 2006 or 2007. My mom got really sick, and I went into this weird funk. I went into the corner of the kitchen and started cooking on my own. I just detached. It was just how I was dealing with things, and that’s the moment when Niche got really modern. We had two menus: a casual menu and a 5-course tasting menu. We’d played around before that, but it was our first time doing something drastic.

That’s when we started to get known for being a modern restaurant. It went in waves. There were times it got really modern—too modern. At one point, we switched to a 7 or 12-course tasting, and that was crazy modern.

Some of the plates I’ve seen were beautiful.

I’ve always been more artistically focused. Food started for me as a craft, but started becoming an art outlet for me, as well. There were some artistic expressions in what I did early on. One of the things that I’ve been more known for and good at is pairing unlikely flavors. I feel like that’s a mix of science and art.

I’m not a very good home cook—I try, but my wife is better. When I think about food, I’m always thinking outside of the box, but when you want to eat at home, you want food that’s in the box.

Was the evolution of the restaurant driven by a need for more diners, or because that’s just what the kitchen wanted to do?

It was just because we said, “This is cool.” We didn’t make any money. Literally. We just were pushing, trying to keep people interested. That’s always been more important to me than the money, to a fault (laughs). I want people to dig what we’re doing and have fun with it.

I imagine winning the James Beard award in 2015 was a big weight off your shoulders.

It was definitely a little bit of a weight, because for me, that was more just embarrassing than anything. I don’t know. I flog myself daily. I don’t like losing. I never had any intention of getting a Beard award. It’s one of those crazy things—the first year we were open, I got a voicemail from the Beard awards wanting to confirm my age and name because I was a semi-finalist for Rising Star. This was our first year!

It was a voicemail. My partner at the time was like, “You have to come listen to this message.” My reaction was basically, “What the fuck?!” It was totally outside what we were thinking. But I was fine with it, you know? I got nominated under the radar for 3 years because they didn’t announce the semi-finalists back then. I was cool with it. I wasn’t embarrassed by losing, because no one knew!

Then all of a sudden, there’s this big public knowledge when I’m a finalist. Cover of the newspaper. Then I lose, and the first couple times, I thought, “It’s cool, I’m just happy to be here.” Most people don’t win on their first time. Then after the 3rd time, you’re like...shit.

And then I got knocked off one year, which was the most depressing year of my life. I went into a hiding funk for 6 months. We had announced that we were turning Niche into a 12-seat, avant garde restaurant/tasting room and the rest of the space was going to be a place called Porano. It’s a big part of why we got knocked off. Porano was going to be like an osteria, which later kinda morphed into Pastaria. I’ve wanted to get out of Niche in its original sense for a long, long time. God, I have menus dating back 4 years ago. Even longer than that, really.

But you finally won! You’re like the food world’s Leonardo DiCaprio.

That’s about the only thing we have in common!

It’s part of why I’m happy the Michelin guide isn’t here. It’s the same thing, but every year! If it was here, I think we would have pushed harder. But, with that being said, it’s one of those things that would have killed me. I would not handle that well — at all. It would shut me down. I think it’s great for business, but it messes with people’s heads. I think that’s why a lot of chefs have issues with depression and suicide. The life of a chef these days is all about your highs. It can be tough to go from a big high to a big low.

I remember a lady—she haunts me. After winning Food & Wine’s Best New Chef in 2008, she goes, “So there’s no where else to go but down now, huh?” And she was dead serious. I was just like, “that’s a really mean thing to say! Why would you say that?!” But it’s true, to some degree.

You kept moving up, though. More successful restaurants, Niche moving to Clayton...

Even when we moved to Clayton, we knew our future didn’t really lie in Niche. But! Then it came to opening and we were like, we need 4 stars! The only acceptable review will be a 4-star review. Period. All of a sudden, we decided there was no other option than to be the best.

And that was brutal. It was an intense time.

Did you feel pressure being St. Louis’ cooking wunderkind?

I did. If anybody knew the level of stress I put myself under, and what the team at Niche put themselves under, they would get [why we closed Niche]. It’s tough to do that for a long time.

I recently re-watched For Grace [about Curtis Duffy opening Grace in Chicago] and Noma’s My Perfect Storm. They stressed me out. I can’t imagine trying to cook at that level.

That’s the reality. It’s why it looks awful. Nobody wants to see what’s really behind that.

There’s that one scene where Rene snaps at his sous about using lemon thyme instead of thyme…

He does it because somebody will care. A critic is going to come in and be like, “This is fucking bullshit! You’re a hack! You don’t deserve any of this!” because of those tiny details. Like what happened at Per Se. And I’m not saying blowing up at your staff is the right way to go about it, I’ve learned a lot of other tools over time, but god, that stress of trying to be #1...nobody wants to see what it’s really like. Everyone thinks it’s just a pretty Instagram photo.

People talk about being present. Being present with your family. I feel like when you’re in the midst of that life, you can never be present with anybody except your restaurant. I didn’t feel present until we closed Niche.

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I’m trying to live a normal life now.

Even to this day, it’s very hard to keep it all up. It’s not just about opening a new restaurant. It’s about opening a new restaurant and making sure all the staff is happy, making sure your bottom line’s okay, your business is healthy, looking forward towards economic recessions. Rises in salary, minimum wage, overtime, all that. And on top of all that, if that’s not hard enough—to run a profitable restaurant—which is almost an oxymoron.

I was sitting at the pass at Niche once and you jokingly said, “Welcome to my non-profit.”

Exactly. There’s a dark side to the realities of running a restaurant. Even though Rene might have sounded petty, he wanted people to see what it’s really like. It’s not easy to be Rene Redzepi. It’s not easy to be David Chang. They put that pressure on themselves, and that’s what makes them great.

That review of Per Se—Thomas Keller is one of the greatest chefs in the history of the world. People have a hard time these days taking that into account. Ferran Adria [of El Bulli] picked a great time to pull out. What if he had gotten a review like that? Literally one of the greatest chefs in the world! There’s only a few. Escoffier, Adria, Fernan Point, Thomas Keller. That you can get shit on that badly. There’s no safety net anymore.

So where’s the, “Why”? That’s what’s going to change fine dining. You’re going to need enough people willing to just do it for themselves. Because of “rewards” like that.

Would you consider doing fine dining or modern cuisine again? A lot of chefs have left that world and are now opening taco shops and burger joints.

Who knows? I’m not going to say no. Obviously cooking still interests me. I love cooking, I love being creative, I love thinking outside the box. If you’re any one of our chefs, you know you get pictures, thoughts, ideas flying at you at 3, 4, 5 in the morning. Because that’s what I love to do.

I’m not a harsh critic of fine dining. Everyone likes to hate what they’ve left behind, for whatever reason. Fine dining will always have its place in cooking. Where? I don’t know. Does it have its place here in St. Louis? Who knows. Maybe. I’m not going to say yay or nay. I love it, though I love doing it more than I like eating it. I don’t think fine dining’s done, but I think it’s changing.

Was the timing with Niche closing caused by Nate [Hereford, executive chef of Niche] moving to San Francisco?

No, it was sort of weird. When we first decided, it was still going to be called Niche. We were just going to change the concept. More casual. Keep the 100% local, and expand it into breakfast and lunch—we wanted to expand the reach of the all Missouri concept. The more we got into it, the more we realized that people weren’t that into the all Missouri part of the concept, and it had tied our hands in a lot of ways. The types of flowers you use, things like that—it wasn’t necessarily the best choice for us anymore. And the extreme cost associated with doing it wasn’t adding enough value to the guest’s meal, which we’d have to charge more for because of the product.

At the end of the day, the only reason we’re allowed to do all this, is if we make a profit. Doesn’t have to be a huge one! But you’ve gotta be in the black. So we made the choice to morph the ideas. We started blending the ideas of new Niche with an Italian wine bar, which was another idea. Sardella is a strange love child between the two concepts.

The pop-ups so far remind me of what’s going on in D.C.’s dining world, with places like Tail Up Goat and Rose’s Luxury. Food that’s appealing to both chef’s and your normal, everyday diners.

Right. Creative, but comforting. You don’t feel the obligation you do at other restaurants, where you know you’re going to have to eat all night. You just want to go in and have a small plate and a glass of wine, cool. There are nights where you want to go out and have a snack here and a snack there. I feel like we’re all on the move so much more. But, if you want to snuggle up into that cozy banquette in the corner and drink wine all night while eating the braised lamb neck— which is super rich and comforting—Sardella’s a place you can do that, but you can be excited about it too. It’s not just dinner. There’s always a little twist, always something more. Something that’s going to stimulate your artistic sense.

One of my favorite dishes we’ve been working on is the barramundi. Super simple. Roasted piece of fish, saute some mussels with garlic and white wine, and mount that sauce with sorrel butter. It’s tart, rich, buttery. We top it with simple but great salad greens. It’s simple, but different. A unique flavor profile you’re not seeing in a cookbook. In that regard, it’s always been the kind of food Niche has done, whether it’s casual or fine dining. It’s always been our own. That’s what we’re striving for in a big way.

Being in Sardella and tasting the food so far, it reminds me of Brasserie. A place you can have a casual meal, or a place you go to celebrate.

Suzie [my wife] and I ate there the night before our wedding, when it was Chez Leon. We went the night we found out that Suzie was pregnant. To us, the space has always had that special occasion feel. You can go and get a burger or croque madame...or do something nicer.

With Sardella, the idea is to create something that’s unique yet at the same time comforting. That’s our idea with breakfast and with lunch. We’re not trying to do anything that’s going to challenge you so far that you won’t want to eat it, but we don’t want to be lame. Like the burgers. The Umami Bomb burger will be on Sunday and Monday nights. We’ll have the whole menu those nights, just the addition of the burger. Burger nights were always the most fun nights at Niche Monday Suppers.

Lunch will all be quick stuff. Bowls and sandwiches. If we do prime rib the night before, you’ll probably find yourself a prime rib french dip sandwich.

If you think about it, it’s a modern cafe. Cafes had breakfast, lunch and dinner, and it was all simpler food. For breakfast, people want to pop in and have a pastry, some coffee, and work on their computer. We want to be that place. No reservations needed. People want to be in and out for breakfast and lunch. We look at it like a change of concept: it’s a cafe for breakfast and lunch, then a restaurant for dinner.

We are going to have a family-style tasting option. So if it’s two people, the dish would be served on one plate, and you share it that way. A lot of that celebratory feeling, though, is about ambiance. And we’ve got a lot of that now. I think the idea of where you go to celebrate these days, at least for my family, has changed. No longer do I feel like I have to go to the fine dining restaurant to celebrate. I want a cool environment that’s comfortable and nice...and has delicious food.

I want Sardella to be that place.