"I had no desire to win a James Beard Award," says Gerard Craft, winner of the 2015 Best Chef: Midwest category. He might not have wanted it, but after six nominations and five losses, he needed it—if only to validate keeping his St. Louis restaurant Niche open for ten years. The restaurant was considered the jewel of St. Louis' culinary scene: The 60-seat spot that offered delicate plates of Missouri-grown ingredients earned Craft the title of Food & Wine Best New Chef, Inc. magazine Star Entrepreneur and, lastly, a James Beard Award. The limelight distracted from the restaurant's multiple identity crises and the fact that the chef was succumbing to the pressure of being a media darling.
So, with that silver medallion draped around his neck, Craft decided to close Niche. "It was this freeing moment," he says. "We're going to do whatever the fuck we want now."
The thing is, Niche was never supposed to be a hoity-toity, white tablecloth restaurant where voices don't raise above whisper. It was never supposed to be that place you only go to when you want to propose to your girlfriend or when the boss with the big expense account is in town. It was also supposed to close long before it finally did in June of this year. "Obligation" is the word Craft uses over and over again to describe its trajectory and the word he used in a letter to customers announcing the restaurant's closing. There was an obligation to provide an experience, not just food; an obligation to keep winning and keep pushing, sometimes at the expense of Craft's sanity.
"One year, I decided to shift things. I was going to make Niche a little 12-seat place within the space and the rest was going to be a casual Italian spot," Craft recalls. "For some reason, people really freaked out—not in a good way—I got knocked off the Beard list. At that point, I had never seen somebody get knocked off the list. You were under the impression that if you got nominated, you were going to get nominated until you won, unless you closed the restaurant. It was huge ego blow. You feel like you've disappointed a ton of people. You've achieved this mark that you should be great no matter what, but now it's becomes a weight on you. So, again, we pulled back those plans, because everyone thought we were making a mistake. You start to listen to that voice as opposed to your gut."
Craft's gut led him from Salt Lake City to St. Louis in 2005 to open Niche at the age of 25. At the time, it was an "American bistro"—a phrase Craft laughs at now, but made sense at the time. After all, Prune and The Tasting Room had recently opened in New York City under a similar label. The restaurant was also one of the pioneers of the farm-to-table movement, at a time when those words weren't just a well-worn catchphrase. Craft recalls his early struggles trying to find a local pork supplier, only to come across one in Columbia, Missouri—a two-hour drive to St. Louis was not one the farmer was willing to make. Prior to closing, Niche sourced 97 percent of its product locally—one of the few accomplishments Craft is willing to emulate at his next restaurant, Sardella.
In a lot of ways, Sardella will be the restaurant Craft wanted Niche to be. The restaurant Niche started out as, only to be pushed into the direction of tasting menus and massive wine lists by customers who knew nothing between high-end and hyper-casual dining. These days, the middle—where cocktails are "craft," service is pretty good, and it's OK for a taco to cost $3—has become the majority.
Named after an Old World fish sauce made with baby sardines, Sardella combines Craft's love of traditional Italian dishes with contemporary techniques and local ingredients. Beet tartare with cucumber, buttermilk, and Calabrian chili is plated with the same attention to detail as the four-star food of Niche. Ricotta ravioli is flavored with miso and dotted with pepitas. Compare these to rustic (yet no less elegant) dishes such as sweet potato pasta with spicy sardella sauce.
Also contrary to Niche, Sardella will be a place to sit with a glass of Sonoma Coast pinot and stay for a while. "None of us wanted to eat in that restaurant," Craft says of Niche. "It wasn't comfortable. Although the food was a lot of the food we wanted to eat, like a lot of the veg plates, it just wasn't a restaurant that anyone wanted to hang out in." Oak wood floors, white painted plank ceilings, and marigold banquette seating replace Niche's beige color palate. Craft's longtime designer Sasha Aleksandr Malinich is also adding other colorful elements, such as a marble bar surrounded by blue and white tiled walls and a sardine-can mosaic. The new restaurant opens in the former Niche space this month.
"There's a certain level of pride in not wanting to go out on the bottom, which is why we closed when we did. It was like a breath and then, 'Let's fucking get out of this thing—we've plugged this ship for now, but let's run while we can,'" Craft says. Run he did, like Michael Jordan after his 1998 NBA Finals, marking what might be the end of an era in St. Louis's upscale dining scene and, hopefully, a new one for Craft. "I just want a full restaurant. I just want a place where people are happy and excited to go. I think you have to get a certain amount of burnt-out to get to this point."