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Meet the St. Louis chefs named semi-finalists in prestigious James Beard awards

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 6, 2009 - The St. Louis food scene got a little more delicious, in notoriety at least, when three local chefs were named as Midwest semi-finalists for the James Beard Foundation awards last month.

Finalists for the awards, often called the Oscars of the food world, won't be named until March 23 at www.jbfawards.com . Winners will be announced May 3 and 4.

In the meantime, meet Best Chef Midwest semifinalists Kevin Nashan of Sidney Street Cafe, his neighbor chef, Gerard Craft of Niche, and their buddy, Josh Galliano of Monarch.

The three friends share more than a love of food -- all have young children, wives who work with them and support them, and an instant-gratification satisfaction that comes from working the back house while pleasing the front.

The semi-finalist nomination is pretty cool, says Craft, who was nominated last year as a Rising Star Chef.

"I was kind of flummoxed," says Galliano, who started as executive chef at Monarch in last year. "I didn't expect to be on there."

"I think the cool thing is it's great for the restaurant," Nashan says. "And it's great for the city, most importantly."

The Beard Foundation divides the country into 10 regions and selects 20 semi-finalists in each region. According to the foundation, anyone can enter and finalists are voted on by 400 volunteer judges in the food industry from around the country. The winning chefs won't get a golden toque (that puff-pastry of a white hat) or a wad of money. Instead, they'll get a medal, a certificate and the satisfaction of being the best.

You can check out profiles on each of three chefs, who sat down to talk with the Beacon about their lives, their craft and what's next.

A Study in Food

Chef Josh Galliano takes a smart, sustainable approach to his kitchen

Nose in book, nose in garden, nose in kitchen.

Josh Galliano never stops studying food, says his wife, Audra Galliano.

"The guy's an encyclopedia," agrees Gerard Craft, chef and owner of Niche. "You ask the guy any question about food ... I mean, I have the memory of a fish."

Galliano, the executive chef at Monarch, began working at the Maplewood restaurant less than a year ago. Before that, he spent time as chef de cuisine with Larry Forgione at An American Place, and years before that, he worked at prestigious restaurants in New York and his home in New Orleans and studied at Le Cordon Bleu London.

Before that - wait, we're not finished -- Galliano got his master's in political science at Louisiana State University.

Now, he puts all that smart into the food he creates at Monarch.

"It's all the time. It never stops," Audra Galliano says. "I mean, he's constantly reading something or doing something with food."

The Big Not-so-easy

Galliano's favorite dish possibly says more about him than any pretty descriptions of the restaurant, or his earnest, studied nature.

It's oysters Rockefeller, first cooked up in his hometown of New Orleans, where he returned a few years ago after working in Manhattan. Two weeks after getting home, he and his wife were evacuated because of Hurricane Katrina.

Galliano came to his wife's hometown in Okawville, Ill. They planned to return to New Orleans, but days turned to weeks. After awhile, the thought of beginning again was overwhelming, so the two stayed in the area and got jobs at An American Place.

Now, they live in Okawville with their 5-month-old, Emil. (Kevin Nashan, chef and owner of Sidney Street Cafe, is the godfather.) And as he did with the oysters Rockefeller, Galliano's made something of his own here.

"It's not comfort food by any means, but it's basically saying I took a lot from New Orleans," he says. "I don't belong there really anymore in a lot of senses ... it's different now for me."

But the city that's his home is still his home, his wife thinks.

"I think his heart is always in New Orleans," she says. "I mean, we go back there all the time."

Got Pecans?

If you happen to live in Okawville and notice a young guy foraging your pecan or persimmon trees, it's probably just Galliano, executive chef, semifinalist nominee for Best Chef Midwest in the James Beard Foundation Awards.

No worries.

"I have a ton of persimmons in my freezer right now," he says.

And the pecans from his yard and his neighbors regularly show up on the restaurant's rib eye.

Galliano wants to make the most of foraged foods in his restaurant's dishes, including morels and chanterelles. Though diners might not know just how close to home they're eating, it makes the food better, the chef thinks.

"It doesn't make it that special if anybody can buy it," he says. "Who cares."

Instead, he wants to create a memorable dish that's also doing something good to make up for all the waste restaurants use and all the energy they consume.

He takes the same approach with meat, using each part of the animal until there's nothing left.

"It's more responsible," he says.

And usually, like the local pecans, which are smaller, more robust and less oily, the taste is rewarding, too.

Just Josh

Despite all his studies and achievements, Galliano doesn't think he deserves the respectful title of chef. It feels too formal. Just call him Josh.

So far, his work at Monarch has been successful, though business rises and falls from time to time with the economy. But he's happy there, says Audra Galliano. Someday, he might own his own restaurant, she thinks. He might write a book.

Regardless of where he goes, though, his love for knowledge and food shows, she says.

"You can taste it."

The Extreme Chef

Honesty and a good staff drive Kevin Nashan of Sidney Street Cafe

Mina Nashan steps into Sidney Street Cafe on a sunny Wednesday afternoon, tables empty, lights low, the night's hustle yet to begin. "We just had lunch at a place called Osage."

"How was it," asks her husband, chef Kevin Nashan.

"Excellent." There's a rooftop garden, she continues, and some of the food comes fresh from that spot.

"I need to check it out," the chef and tri-athlete says. "Is it open on Sundays?"

Lucky for the get-up-early -to-train-then- play-with-baby- Max-then-head- to-the-restaurant- and-work-like-mad-chef, it is.

Not that he ever rests much. The alarm usually goes off at 5.

"He's up early and at it," says Mina Nashan. "He's like a windup toy."

The chef doesn't want to talk much about those triathlons (he thinks it seems like he's patting himself on the back), but like all the crazy swimming, riding and running, owning a restaurant forces Nashan to push himself to extremes every day.

The Gathering

Nashan grew up around food and the food business, beginning in his parents' Santa Fe restaurant, La Tertulia, Spanish for "the gathering."

He studied marketing at St. Louis University, but eventually returned to the world of food he'd always known. It seemed inevitable. Nashan studied at the Culinary Institute of America in New York.

"And I fell in love with it, fortunately."

Then, he and his wife returned to St. Louis and he took over the already established Sidney Street Cafe in 2003.

Since then, Nashan has managed to make the restaurant his own and keep regulars happy.

"It's almost like 'Cheers'," he says. "You feel like you're family."

That's the sentiment in the kitchen, too, where Nashan says, "It's all about the staff." In fact, when he learned of his spot as a semi-finalist for Best Chef Midwest in the James Beard Foundation Awards, he didn't congratulate himself. Instead, he told the kitchen at the end of the day that they should be proud.

"Those cooks have stayed with him for years," says Josh Galliano, executive chef at Monarch, a fellow JBF nominee and a good friend of Nashan's. "You don't see that kind of stuff every day in St. Louis or any other town for that matter."

The Early Bird

When the day's done, Nashan wants to look himself in the mirror and know he's done his best, been honest with himself about the food and worked hard.

It's not about the ego stuff for him, he says. Despite fame that can come with the job, when people get into the business to become famous, he thinks, they never really achieve success.

"I think it's obviously becoming more and more cool," Nashan says. "But it will never really be cool."

Instead, it's a lot of peeling, burning and cutting yourself. It's a lot of hard work.

"He's incredibly hard working," says Gerard Craft, chef and owner of Niche and another JFB nominee from St. Louis. "He's almost always there, yet at the same time, he's one of the smartest businessmen I've met."

Nashan does feel the pinch of the economy, but "I think we're fortunate," he says. "We have a lot of people in this city who are behind us. For whatever reason, we have customers coming through that door."

Maybe they feel at home in the old space filled with brick and candlelight. Maybe it's the integrity and reliability of the food, which Nashan describes as American with a contemporary influence.

"I try to never ever use my customers as a guinea pig," he says.

Or maybe it's the intense man behind it all.

From his life in the food world to his daily physical training, Nashan's learned that there are no shortcuts.

You get up early, you work late, and you enjoy each challenge that comes in between.

An Unexpected Fit

Chef Gerard Craft has found his place in Benton Park

OK, let's just go ahead and get this out of the way. Gerard Craft has lots of tattoos. And a nicely shaved head, which comes off as a little menacing. And an image, you might say, as a bad boy.

He's not.

Craft's favorite tattoo is one he did for his wife, Susie. It's of salt water taffy and daisies -- her favorites. The couple has two little girls, Ellie, 3, and Olive, 7 months.

"Ellie's quite picky," Craft says. "So, the best thing I can do is make a different version of mac'n'cheese."

Olive eats everything.

But thanks to the tough-guy look, many expect a tough guy in Craft, like the people who balked when he showed up for a photo shoot wearing Lacoste.

"He really is a warm person," says Susie Craft. "He's very personable. I would not have married him if he was the bad boy stereotype."

Instead, at Niche, his successful Benton Park restaurant, and in person, he defies stereotypes and expectations.

No Caviar, Please

Food wasn't predestined for Craft, though perhaps it seemed to be for his older brother, who was the real gourmet and got his family to eat at Michelin three-star restaurants.

"They wanted me to try caviar once when I was 8 years old," Craft remembers.

Eventually, the picky Washington native ended up at boarding school, where he learned to eat anything. He plunked around for awhile from job to job and place to place until landing in the kitchen washing dishes at a Salt Lake City grill.

"I've never been good on long-term projects," Craft says. But in that kitchen, where he eventually started cooking, he found camaraderie and an instant gratification that satisfied like nothing else he'd found.

(His brother, by the way, is an investment banker.)

Not Just Another Hole In The Wall

Soon, Craft moved on to fancier places, working with and learning from distinguished chefs, including some time at the starlet-filled Chateau Marmont in LA.

"When I met him, he was definitely into food. I was not into food," Susie Craft says. "I mean, I had no clue. I went to, like, Olive Garden."

Eventually, the couple moved to St. Louis and opened their contemporary American restaurant in 2005, where they found a community of chefs and restaurant owners ready to welcome them.

"It's not competitive," Craft says. "It's about building up our skills and our community. I loved that."

Craft and his wife had about 100 names for the new restaurant, including one of his favorites - Hart. But another name won out.

"I kind of wanted a word that meant a hole in the wall," he says.

Niche described the food, the place and the spot the tattooed chef has found where he sticks, even if it's sometimes hard to stick around.

Movement

Niche isn't a hole in the wall, no matter what Craft says. It's a simple, narrow space with rows of tables covered in white table cloths and squares of brown butcher's paper.

The food here, like the chef, is constantly in motion.

"I think that's one thing that makes us stand out," Craft says. "We don't stop changing."

And he's been rewarded for that, already. In 2008, Food and Wine magazine named Craft as one of America's Best New Chefs. Also in 2008, the James Beard Foundation nominated Craft as a Rising Star Chef. This year, he's a semifinalist in the JFB Awards for Best Chef Midwest.

But struggles have come, too. Recently, Craft closed the bakeshop and cafe next door, Veruca. Wrong neighborhood, he thinks. Now, he's trying out a tasting room and is cutting service down to five days a week.

"Despite the economy going the way it is, he's probably got the best opportunity," says Josh Galliano, executive chef at Monarch and a fellow JBF nominee. And, he thinks, that's thanks the local support Craft draws from people who can't wait to see what he's doing.

At the end of their time in Niche, Craft wants his diners to feel happy - whatever that means for them.

For him, it's the action, movement and adrenaline of his kitchen.

"I definitely had a very wild youth," he says. "And now I have two children and I run a restaurant, which takes all of our time ... I don't go out to bars every night and party."

Instead, the tough-looking, not-so-bad-bad-boy-chef can usually be found at his own little hole in the wall, where he's carved out a spot for himself that, like him, is unexpectedly nice.

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