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: Is there a kitchen lesson you learned the hard way?
Gerard Craft: Don’t try and catch falling knives. At my first kitchen job (Fat’s Bar and Grill in Salt Lake City), for some reason, they kept the knives on a chef in a bain marie and one day it was knocked over and I tried to catch it and cut my hand. Fortunately, I didn’t cut myself too badly, but I learned a valuable lesson. I also made them store the knives somewhere else.
FE&S: What was your most embarrassing moment during work?
Gerard Craft: Being demoted from line cook to prep cook at Bistro Toujours in Deer Valley, Utah, working under chef Bryan Moscatello. But it was also the turning point in my career. I had talked my way into a line cook position, which I was clearly not ready for. Being a prep cook gave me the chance to learn fundamentals from the beginning. I learned how to peel vegetables quicker, the basics of building a sauce, butchering meat and fish, and quickly learning to prep everything that ended up on the line. It gave me the basics I needed to begin my career as a chef.
FE&S: How did you earn your business knowledge when it came time to open your own place?
Gerard Craft: I think business school would have been a great base but I did not go that route. I had to learn a lot of things the hard way by making mistakes. I don’t necessarily think I took the best approach. Some night classes in business could have even helped. Common sense helps, but it doesn’t necessarily teach you everything you need to know about P&Ls or balance sheets.
FE&S: What do you look for in a business partner?
Gerard Craft: Restaurant partnerships are difficult any way you play it. I have had one failed partnership and I now have two partners and things are going very well. It is always difficult when there are strong opinions at play. You have to be able to have major arguments with people about an issue and then turn around and feel comfortable having lunch with that person.
FE&S: Looking back on your career, was there anything you would have done differently?
Gerard Craft: I closed a small bakery named Veruca and it was definitely a little sad but we knew it had to happen. I learned a lot from this experience, but the major one is this: you need to know your employees’ strengths and weaknesses. In my case I had a very talented chef, but he was not a great manager or a great salesman. If I had hired someone else to take care of that end of things and just let my chef cook we may still be open now.
FE&S: What experience has been the biggest influence in you deciding to enter the foodservice industry?
Gerard Craft: Dining out. When I went to France for a summer to work, my parents took me to two restaurants. Arpege and Le Bomboche. At Arpege, I didn’t really understand it at first. It was deceptively simple. But till this day, I can’t eat a green bean without thinking of my meal there and how a green bean is supposed to be cooked. At Le Bomboche, it showed me that cooking has no boundaries. You can use savory ingredients in desserts and sweet ingredients in savory.
FE&S: Do you have a favorite cooking tool or appliance you’d like to see used more?
Gerard Craft: Belgian Waffle makers seem to have gone away but that was one of my favorite things growing up. We continue the tradition with our kids.
Click here to read part one of the interview with Gerard Craft.