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Gerard Craft on New(ish) Restaurants Niche, Pastaria and the Midwest's Thriving Restaurant Scene

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Gerard Craft, one of St. Louis' best known chefs, is making moves. At the end of August, he'll be opening Pastaria, a highly anticipated, accessible Italian restaurant. And at some point in November, he'll reopen Niche, the restaurant that earned him his bona fides, in a new location in Clayton, Missouri. Yesterday, while driving through the country with his wife and children, he got on the phone to talk about the new projects, how he's fallen in love with his adopted city, and the exciting things that are happening in the Midwest.

What did you have in mind when you first opened Niche?
When we first opened Niche seven years ago, we just wanted to serve really good food in an unpretentious environment. We wanted the food to be fancy, but we didn't want the environment or the attitude to be too fancy. As a young, completely tattooed chef, as much as I liked going out to all of the nice restaurants, it would make me feel slightly uncomfortable. I wanted to open up a place where I'd like to go.

What was the scene like then?
I came in right when it was starting to change. Larry Forgione came in just a bit before us, which was one of the reasons we decided to jump in. Kevin Nashan had just bought Sidney Street Café, and he had come to the city from Martín Berasategui and Daniel. There was a lot of young talent coming into the city.

Now it's really starting to explode. People are doing things their own way and having fun with it.

Before we get back to your story, point out some of the most vital players, if you can.
So there's Kevin, who's been there at Sidney Street for about nine years. You have Mike Randolph, who came from Moto but decided to open a great Neapolitan pizza joint and a breakfast and lunch spot called Half and Half and a place called Media Noche. You have the new era of barbecue, with Mike Emerson at Pappy's and the off-the-cuff Bogart's, where they blowtorch their ribs. Josh Galliano is currently in the process of opening his own place, and he came out of New Orleans and is probably going to do something more modernist.

Where'd you come from?
I'm from D.C. originally, but I'm sort of a mutt, really. I started cooking in Deer Valley, Utah originally, with a guy named Bryan Moscatello. I traveled around in France for a bit and then worked at the Chateau Marmont. Then I came back to Salt Lake City to a place called The Metropolitan, which had been opened by a couple of Charlie Trotter's alums. Then I moved to St. Louis.

And why'd you pick St. Louis?
It's a really tough question to answer. My whole family is from D.C. and New York. I know the scenes and I know the grind, and I wanted to be part of something new and watch something grow. I really think that's been happening here in the Midwest, especially if you look at St. Louis and Kansas City. After seven or so years of growth, I think we're just starting to grow.

Do you think it's "there" yet?
It depends on what you think "there" is. I think it's really finding itself right now, which is probably the most exciting thing about it. People are really pushing and striving for something.

Back to Niche. Why are you moving the space?
For a number of reasons: it's a fresh start. In the past seven years, we've evolved and our style has changed. We've grown up quite a bit. When we first opened Niche, it took time to really figure things out. Now the kitchen is going to be exactly how we wanted. We're going to have a counter at the kitchen, where people can watch us work. We're going to be able to use a lot more Missourri product in the building of this restaurant, as well. Not to mention we'll get a brand new heating and cooling system, which should be great!

[We lose communication after several episodes of poor cell reception. After a few minutes, it gets back to normal]

We're out in the country. I wish I could send you pictures of this, because it's one of the reasons why we love Missouri. It's insane out here, with rolling hills that make you feel like you're in Umbria. It's one of the things that I hope people will start talking about: no one really knows what to picture when you talk about Missouri. You drive through these lush green hills and river valleys, and it's stunning.

You mentioned that the restaurant had evolved. What does that mean in your case?
The food has gotten more progressive, modern, and focused, but the whole push to keep the restaurant unpretentious remains just as strong.

And do you have any specific goals, whether in terms of recognition or something else, for the new Niche?
We want to get more and more people into the tasting menus. The only reason I say that is because I think people get to have a lot more fun and try more things that way. We're trying to get way more interactive.

Is it a challenge getting people to put themselves in your hands?
We sell an enormous amount of tasting menus already, so I think the St. Louis public is really receptive to new things and creativity. People are coming here for a fun experience more than to get a steak.

And finally, to Pastaria. When did that idea come up?
We've been wanting to open an Italian restaurant for the past four years. We opened Brasserie first only because we found that space first and it reminded us of all the places we love in Paris.

Pastaria is based on our love of pasta, which ranges from experiences in Italy to eating Spaghetti-Os at home. We wanted to highlight all of that in a family-friendly way. Our goal is to talk to an entirely new audience.

What do you mean by "new audience"? And who are the chefs or regions or experiences in Italy that most inspire you?
To this point, we've really been talking to a foodie population. This is a lot more accessible, I think. As for Italy, the experiences that are the most inspiring are the ones we've had in people's home all over the country. I'm a huge fan of the restaurants in Umbria, but I'm most inspired by the experiences at people's homes in Tuscany, Piedmont, and Umbria. That's the biggest experience to have in Italy.

Any last words?
The big thing for me is to get people talking about Missouri and what an amazing place it is. We want people to come out here and check it out. It's a lot of fun.

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7734 Forsyth Boulevard, Clayton, Missouri 63105