Things you never expect to hear the chef of a French restaurant say: "You should really see some of the snacks we make with American cheese in the kitchen." Nick Blue's been fortuitous through his career. He didn't go to culinary school. After nearly 7 years working as a busser and server in various restaurants, he made the switch to cooking, taken under the wing of Niche-alum Ray Carpenter.
His mom, somewhat of a celebrity in St. Louis restaurants today, pushed him to work at some place called "Niche" (which she pronounced as knee-chay) that had had been opened by some guy named Gerard Craft. After some hesitation, Blue decided "well, okay" and made his way down to Niche.
"I remember sitting at the corner of the bar, having my interview with him. He said I could come stage. Luckily, I'd heard of staging before, but I'd never done one. So I went. It was 3 days before Taste was opening and the guy they'd hired before, things fell through, and I jumped on board. I might not have had a clue what I was doing...but it worked out well!"
From Taste, he moved on to the award-studded kitchens of Niche (where he met his wife, Sarah Osborn, Executive Pastry Chef extraordinaire) and Chicago's Blackbird, and now is the Executive Chef of Brasserie, another Gerard Craft restaurant.
Even after working in kitchens of that caliber, he lacks pretension. When I asked him to take his career and summarize it in a dish, he said it would be a modern (Niche/Blackbird modern—not Alinea modern) cassoulet, but "it wouldn't be complete yet. There's still so much for me to learn, there's no way I can have a complete dish."
He has an enormous amount of respect for his mentors. Paul Kahan and his One Off Hospitality Group (owners of Blackbird) are "super inspiring."
"Gerard Craft definitely inspires me. If he sees someone not being inspired, he makes it a point to do so. He's very good about that. It's crazy seeing him take a different role than what he did before. He's kind of like a life coach to all of us now."
Blue and I are kindred spirits—we're both fat kids at heart. In my hour long conversation with him, BBQ, burgers, and pizza were the main topics.
"The last day we were in New York last time, we decided to do something we called Pizzapalooza. We tried to hit up as many pizza places as we could. We got to 5, then we met up with a few buddies at Robert's for #6. They hadn't eaten all day, so they order 5 pizzas and 3 appetizers. I just said, 'Oh god, we can't do this.' We had gotten side tracked at this little place called Maysville, which is a great bourbon bar. We were there almost 3 hours. We would have hit 9 or 10 pizza places that day if we hadn't gone there."
The only thing more impressive than his dedication to pizza is his dedication to whiskey. I've seen Blue's bar before. To say it's stocked with bourbon and whiskey would be an understatement of the greatest degree. "I don't even want to think of how many I have. It's bad. It's real bad," he says.
I have the controversial opinion that the better the whiskey, the better the mixed drink its used for will be. Blue agrees: "Pappy Van Winkle 15 should make a great Manhattan. A Manhattan is one of my favorite cocktails ever. Old Fashioneds, too. But there's a lot I'll drink with just one cube of ice. One day I want to take a bottle of Pappy and put it next to a Coke can, then fill a glass with just Coke. I'll take a pic, post it online, and say 'this made a great whiskey and Coke!' just to ruffle some feathers."
I ran into Blue at the recent Bolyard's Burger Throwdown (which Blue won—naturally), and he insisted I come to the restaurant and try their new-ish burger. Like most Brasserie diners, I tend to stick with their perfectly roasted chicken, but he promised it was worth it to change things up this time.
The original burger was, "an 8 oz patty topped with fourme d'ambert cheese, pickled red onions, and arugula. It was a good, solid burger, but a very serious burger," said Blue.
The new burger wowed me. Seriously. Right now, it's the best burger in St. Louis—or at least my favorite.
They use the same meat blend as before (50% brisket/50% chuck, ground in-house), but now it's two patties instead of one. The thinner patties get those delicious browned, crispy edges that everyone on earth loves. It's topped with a American cheese, dijonnaise, and dill pickles. It is great.
The inspiration? Blue and Craft wanted to create a more fun (but still delicious) burger that people would crave.
They have succeeded. In just over a week, I ate 3 Brasserie burgers.
I still want more.