He is, moreover, on the leading edge of something even bigger than his own career – a food renaissance across St. Louis that has featured an explosion of fine new restaurants, the sprouting of farmers’ markets and food trucks across the entire metropolitan area, and the publication of two separate newspapers to follow it all.
So if he admits to a certain amount of disbelief, it’s to be understood. As he will tell you himself, no one ever mistook him for the boy most likely to succeed.
As recently as 2005, Gerard Craft had never been to St. Louis, nor had he ever owned a restaurant. He had spent his high school years in exile at a boarding school for troubled boys in northern Idaho, and when, later, he’d entered a culinary program at a community college, it led to the same denouement as all his other school experiences – an abrupt departure. In this case, he dropped out.
Still, he had a love for the restaurant business, a love he’d begun to develop when he asked for a job as a dishwasher but got asked to cook too – no matter that he didn’t know how – at a pool hall-grill in Salt Lake City. To his complete surprise, Gerard found that he loved being in the kitchen with his co-workers.
“The camaraderie of getting through a busy service,” he found, “was a high. There’s no better feeling in the world.”
So he got into cooking – not for the food, but the atmosphere.
He followed his interest from one restaurant to another, learning skills from the bottom up in places that included Salt Lake City, Los Angeles, France, and New Jersey. By 2004 he was back in Utah and convinced that he was ready to try his luck on his own. Searching the Internet late at night, he started reading about the emerging restaurant scene in St. Louis, and decided he would find that more exciting than the mature scene of places like his native Washington, D.C.
So he flew to St. Louis with his girlfriend – now his wife – and inspected a site down the street from the Sidney Street Café, one of the superb new restaurants he had read about. At the very least, he thought, he might be able to catch some of the spillover.
There were, he had to allow, a few defects: a floor made of dirt, for example; an absence of electricity; a dearth of plumbing. But why let a few details like that stand in the way? his 25 year old brain reasoned. Gerard, not even represented by a lawyer, signed on the dotted line.
He and his future wife moved in upstairs and worked nonstop for nine months to open the place – a 1,500 square foot, 42-seat mini-restaurant they called “Niche” – in September, 2005. Then they waited for the customers to arrive. And waited. “There were countless times when we thought we were going to go out of business,” he says.
But after three years, “Food & Wine” Magazine showed up, and fell in love. The magazine named Gerard to its “Best New Chef” list, and the restaurant was suddenly full every night.
Now Gerard has four area restaurants and is a four-time nominee as well for one of the most prestigious awards in his industry, the James Beard Best Chef/Midwest award. He’s a leader in a group of new chefs who are developing a regional cuisine, based on locally grown and raised ingredients whose richness and uniqueness has not been fully appreciated in the past. “We’re trying,” he says, “to explore what it means to be in this region.”
Since he’s moved here, Gerard says, the local restaurant scene has already undergone a dramatic alteration. St. Louis long had terrific restaurants on the high end, he said. But now it also has them in the middle range.
“There’s just a much broader mix, and it’s only getting better,” he says.
It’s exactly what he had hoped for when he moved here, he says – the opportunity to help build an exciting restaurant scene in a great American city. And so strong has the local restaurant scene become, he says, that in several recent cases the area has actually reversed the flow of talent out of the community and attracted it here instead from places like Chicago and New York.
What makes it all more fun is the collegial spirit of the chefs and restaurateurs here. “It’s been a community effort,” Gerard says. “People are just very supportive of one another. In a lot of other places, I don’t think you’d find that.”