Gerard Craft is the executive chef and owner of Niche and the Niche family of restaurants (Brasserie, Taste, Pastaria) in St. Louis. Host to many fundraisers and charity events throughout the year, including a number that draw in chefs from other parts of the country, Niche has been a mainstay in St. Louis since 2005, offering a menu of innovative, seasonal American cuisine. Named a Best New Chef in 2008 by Food & Wine magazine, Craft has earned a number of other awards and accolades throughout his tenure. Industry peers have pointed to Niche as being one of the first farm-to-table restaurants in the city, existing before the term did.
FE&S: Did you go to culinary school?
Gerard Craft: I ended up at a community college and eventually dropping out. The school was a great place to learn some of the basics but I wish I could have attended the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). Everybody I meet who has come from that school had a blast and learned so much. It seems like they create an amazing environment and the sky is the limit to what you can learn there if that’s what you want. All that being said I am pretty happy with how my career is progressing and wouldn’t trade that.
FE&S: What was your first job in foodservice?
Gerard Craft: After attending college for a brief time in Salt Lake City, I started washing dishes at Fats Grill & Pool there, and they let me cook.
FE&S: What do you think about TV shows and chefs in general? Would you ever go on a show?
Gerard Craft: I have always loved “Iron Chef” and hope that one day I will be lucky enough to compete on the show. It is a great show that has let us see some of my idols in action. I saw Pierre Gagnaire on there once — how crazy is that? “Top Chef” has also sparked a lot of amazing careers from the very beginning. Look at Harold Dieterle and Lee Anne Wong — two amazing chefs and the list goes on and on. It’s great entertainment, although some late nights it gives me anxiety thinking about their situations. I never want to have to make a dish from a vending machine. Sorry.
FE&S: Nowadays it seems like everyone’s a critic thanks to the Internet (more specifically, Yelp). Do you love it or hate it and why?
Gerard Craft: I used to hate it and there are definitely times that I still do. Maybe those times I just hate myself for letting that diner down. I think that is what a lot of people are really feeling. There are times that people use it for nonsense or their own personal agenda, but a lot of the time it is a place where I can see inside the diners’ heads when they are eating at my place. I often get a lot of valuable information that people used to pay for. So I guess it’s bittersweet.
FE&S: Speaking of the Internet, we’re seeing more chefs and other food professionals with blogs. Do you have one?
Gerard Craft: I have just started blogging at nicherestaurantgroup.tumblr.com. I love the outlet it gives me to connect with my customers. A lot of times I have felt like my customers don’t understand who I am at all. They have dined in my restaurants and have seen my picture but don’t know me in the slightest. I feel like this is my opportunity to let them know what is in my head. Whether I’m coming up with a new dish or reacting to certain life situations, it’s nice to know they are there with me and are understanding the process.
FE&S: Openings are always hardest — which restaurants can you say you’ve accomplished this challenge?
Gerard Craft: Niche, Brasserie, and Taste Bar — all three of my restaurants. I was never involved in the opening of a restaurant before opening my own. Each restaurant was unique and just as hard as the other in its own way. At Niche, nobody knew who we were so getting the word out was very slow, whereas at Brasserie, everyone was anticipating it and it had incredibly high expectations. In that case, it was all about execution right out of the gate.
FE&S: What’s your “teaching” or coaching philosophy in your restaurant?
Gerard Craft: I ask everyone their opinions on different topics. I am constantly communicating with my chefs, managers, operation manager and business partner. We have employees that come from all different places in the restaurant world, from corporate dining to small fine dining. Each of these people provides a new perspective to our business, and we take everyone’s opinions and decisions very seriously. We also have email chains in which everyone can openly discuss new ideas for the restaurants.