Niche's 10th Anniversary Dinner
I find myself in Niche’s kitchen, perched between the pastry station and the pass, surrounded by some of St. Louis’ greatest culinary talent. I wasn’t expecting this, mind you, so I’m not dressed for the occasion—I’m wearing a wool sweater in a very hot kitchen. Even as I slowly roast, I can feel the excitement in the air, the electric buzz of old friends getting to work together again, the nervous energy of putting on what will be one of the year’s best dinners. This evening, Niche is celebrating their 10th anniversary.
You can view the photos here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/spencerp/albums/72157660494148410
The dinner, a small affair attended by a who’s who of St. Louis chefs, bon vivants, and family, is a celebration of Niche, past and present. Ten years ago, a 25-year old Gerard Craft opened Niche in a small Benton Park space (which has since been remodeled and expanded, home to Peacemaker), a restaurant that gave way to some of St. Louis’ best restaurants in Brasserie, Pastaria (now expanding to Nashville), Taste, and Porano Pasta.
The dinner is a mostly hands off affair for Craft himself. After passing on Niche’s executive chef title to Nate Hereford last year, he’s taken on a Yoda-type role somewhere between a life coach and mentor for the chefs.
The always impeccably dressed Chris Kelling, Niche’s general manager, beckons the chefs and servers to the restaurant floor for a pre-service meeting. Each of the Niche Food Group’s executive chefs will be in charge of one course this evening (that’s 7 courses, plus one from Craft himself), and they describe it in great detail for the servers. Questions are asked, notes are taken. Craft steps up and gives a speech, praising the greater Niche family for all their hard work and giving thanks to his childhood nanny, Dia, for helping to inspire his love for food. I too thank Dia, for without her, there'd be no cheese bread.
With diners set to arrive soon, the evening’s starters make their way out front. Cacio e pepe popcorn to one side, an upsized version of the Dia’s Cheese Bread dish—charcuterie, pickled vegetables, and, of course, Dia’s cheese bread—cover the bar. I manage to grab a couple of the cheese bread balls that were leftover. God, it's good.
As the first course begins to go out, I take my seat at the end of the long table, right next to Sarah Osborn’s hilarious parents. The meal kicks off with Craft’s signature dish, The Egg. Like Dia’s cheese bread, I’ll never tire of it. An eggshell, top removed, is placed on a bed of moss and filled with a maple custard, crisp roasted shiitakes, then topped with Missouri trout dashi ‘caviar’.
I return to the kitchen just as Brasserie’s Nick Blue begins plating his course, a roasted winter vegetable salad. I’m surprised that the chef responsible for some of the richest and heaviest food in St. Louis has chosen a salad in lieu of something with bacon and/or cream, but as he plates up the first salad, I see my doubts are unwarranted. It’s a beautiful mix of whipped goat cheese, roasted butternut squash, carrots, and beets, watermelon radish, pickled radish gel, chestnut chips, and a lemon vin.
Pastaria’s Ashley Shelton follows with her cannellini bean and tuscan kale fagottini, a delicately made pasta with a parmesan brodo. The whole kitchen takes turns trying the brodo, everyone oohing and ahhing as they sip, so I join in too. My eyes roll into my head.
Having already tasted the broth, I rush to my seat at the table and let Sarah’s parents know that we’re in for a treat. Our plates arrive sans-brodo, which is then poured in slowly, its smell permeating the air. The dish hammers home the notion that simple food can be absolutely sublime. As I make my way back to the kitchen, I consider asking for a cup of brodo and some more bread. I decide against it—I still have 5 courses to go, after all.
Michael Petres, a chef with pirate tattoos who I may or may not be intimidated by, begins his dish. Every plate is given a swoop of sauce gribiche, which is like a chunkier, more flavorful mayo, and a bit of herbs, fresh radish, and pickled radish. I ask Matt McGuire, director of service, what the main component of the dish is, to which he replies with a grin, “a crispy pig’s head rillette.” I scurry back to my seat and patiently wait.
Things go dark as I cut open the crunchy rillette and get hit with the smell of pork. I devour the dish in seconds and think to myself, this is one of the best things I’ve eaten this year.
Without asking, I can tell Taste’s Heather Stone is up next because Josh Poletti just brought her a mountain of duck kielbasa. The kitchen temperature seems to rise as Stone gets a massive pot of spaetzle going, Poletti sears off kielbasa, and all of us around them are narrowly avoiding streams of duck jus exploding from said sausages. In rapid succession, the kielbasas come off the heat and are sliced, their juices and emmentaler cheese go in with the spaetzle, and plating begins.
This dish is why I love Taste. All the comforts you look for in food—it’s cheesy, smoky, fatty—taken to another level.
Nate Hereford, the man running the show for the evening, pulls his lamb out of the oven and the kitchen fills with the sweet, sweet smell of roasted meat. I’m shocked at the sheer quantity of lamb, but Nate’s clearly going big on this dish. The cooks begin pulling the shoulders and legs apart, then stacking the meat high on serving platters. For the first time in my life, I’ll be eating communal-style at Niche. I’m excited. I’m scared.
The pass is quickly covered in plates. Lamb, sourdough crepes, and little platters with yogurt, herbs, peppers, and hot sauces begin to head to the tables. Build your own epic lamb tacos! I’ve always dreamed of having an all-you-can eat feast at Niche and it’s finally happening. Sarah’s dad tries to keep the lamb from me, but I manage to get my hands on it. It is everything I thought it would be. I tell Nate’s wife that I love her husband.
I disgust myself at the amount of lamb I consume, knowing full well that I still have treats from Anne Croy, Elise Mensing, and Sarah Osborn left. As the meal starts to dwindle down, I go and sit with Mai Lee’s Qui Tran for a few minutes, during which I realize that I’ve missed Anne’s popsicle course! I dart back to the kitchen where she has dozens more, luckily. It tastes exactly like prosecco and pears. I don’t know how Anne extracts flavors so adeptly, but I tip my hat off to her.
As everything’s coming to a close, I get swept up in kitchen conversations, only to realize that Sarah’s caramel lava cake has already been served. Fearful that her dad has eaten my dessert, I quickly head back to the table. I scarf down the wonderful cake, complete with hubbard squash, honey, apples, and buckwheat, only to realize I’ve forgotten to take a picture of the plated dish. I go back to the kitchen to see if there are any extras, but get caught up along the way by everyone wanting pictures of Gerard and the crew.
People start leaving and I notice that Qui’s eating a macaron. During the chef photoshoot, I missed Elise Mensing’s mignardises, but manage to grab some in the kitchen before Poletti eats them all. The cornmeal macaroon with beet and lemon buttercream feels like an ode to summer, the brown butter sage marshmallows with pecan brittle a perfect expression of fall.
When you think of eating a 10 year anniversary dinner at what is arguably St. Louis' best restaurant, it's easy to imagine a group of pretentious chefs serving an even more pretentious group of diners. No truffles were shaved, no foie gras was seared, no foams were foamed. The meal was as much a reflection of Craft as it was an homage to him. Every one of his chefs rose to the occasion, creating Niche-level French brasserie, casual Italian, bar friendly, Modern American dishes, all of which highlighted simple ingredients being made into something special.
Craft would be the first to tell you it wasn't about him, it was about the team, the Niche Food Group family, and he's not bullshitting. I've never met a business owner who so clearly understands that the better the team, the better the organization. Yet, at the same time, it was very much about him. For us diners, the dinner was a way to celebrate not just the restaurant, but the man himself. He was a major catalyst in the St. Louis food scene not just moving forward, but leaping forward. Without him, we wouldn't have Niche, Brasserie, Taste, and Pastaria and all the great chefs that have worked in those kitchens. Without him, all the great experiences we've all had at his restaurants wouldn't have taken place. He's our first James Beard winning chef, and he certainly won't be our last.
Here's to another 10 years of not just Niche the restaurant, but the whole Niche Food Group, setting the bar for what St. Louis restaurants can and should be.