Earlier this month, Gerard Craft became the first chef from St. Louis to win the James Beard Foundation’s award for “Best Chef: Midwest.” Craft is the executive chef and owner of Niche Food Group in St. Louis. The business includes Niche, Brasserie, Taste, and Pastaria.
Craft had received nominations in past years, but chefs in bigger cities, he said, are most often chosen for the award.
“I think it’s tougher in St. Louis [to win the award],” he explained. “St. Louis historically hasn’t gotten a ton of exposure, especially in the food world.”
Craft’s journey to becoming a chef began after his first job in the restaurant industry as a dishwasher and cook at Fats Grill in Salt Lake City.
“That [job] was the coolest thing in the world to me,” he said. “And, I fell in love with it.”
Next, Craft said he talked his way into a job at Bistro Toujours outside of Park City, Utah, where he was demoted shortly after being hired. He said the experience was a good lesson learned.
“I learned from the ground up under world-class chef Bryan Moscatello how to make sauces, how to butcher meat and how to cook great fish,” he said. “I didn’t understand that there was a huge difference between a line cook at Fats Grill and a line cook under Bryan Moscatello.”
Craft’s experience helped him to understand what makes a good chef. He said that the first rule of being a good chef is to have the best attitude possible. “It’s already a hard enough job, and with a bad attitude, you’re going nowhere,” he said.
Craft also said that wherever he worked, he was always the first person to take extra shifts in order to hone his skills. Along with that, having an overall great work ethic helped shape him into who he is today. Most importantly, if a patron is not satisfied and sends his or her food back to the kitchen, it is best to make it right.
“There are a lot of chefs out there who, when somebody sends something back and says they didn’t like it, they just write them off as being ignorant and not addressing the issue,” he said. “Being honest with yourself and your team is a huge trait to have.”
Soon, Craft hopes to change the meaning of fast food and compete with restaurants such as McDonald’s. His new fast casual restaurant, Porano Pasta and Gelato, will open this summer in downtown St. Louis.
“I want to compete with McDonald’s,” he said. “I have a problem with the way that fast food has gone over the years, and we want to be a part of changing that. Just because [food] is fast and cheap doesn’t mean it needs to be dishonest and horrible quality.”
“Profit has become more important than people’s lives,” he continued. “So we want to squash that and be very transparent about what we’re making, how we’re making it, and what you’re eating.”
St. Louis on the Air discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.