Posted On: 12/01/2006
Two years ago, Gerard Ford Craft came to St. Louis from Salt Lake City for the express purpose of opening a restaurant with his wife, Susan, and pastry chef Mathew Rice. None had ties to St. Louis, except a stack of research notes that indicated St. Louis had an up-and-coming food scene.
As a newcomer, what do you think of St. Louis’ culinary scene?
For a city of this size and in the Midwest – which, unless you’re Chicago, gets a bad rap – it’s very, very impressive. There is so much talent here that even after all the research we did, we were still surprised and continue to be surprised by the talent and passion for food that exists here.
Does it help or hinder that you aren’t from the area?
I don’t think St. Louisans care. It’s a big-hearted city that seems to welcome newcomers with wide-open arms.
Has the move to St. Louis affected your creativity?
It would have been much harder if the area chefs had shut us out, but their welcoming has made it go so much smoother. The guys at Sidney Street Café and Tony’s have been extremely generous in their advice and willingness to help us learn the customer base. They are great people. They merely confirmed our research that St. Louis is a great place to thrive.
Why did you recently introduce a seven-course tasting menu?
We’re trying to push the envelope in food creativity. It gives us a chance to experiment and have fun, but more important, it gives our patrons a chance to experiment and be adventurous without committing to having something they may not be too sure about as their main course. So it’s a win-win for both sides of the kitchen.
How do you select what goes on the tasting menu?
It’s based off new things we want to try and things we are trying for the regular menu. New pairings, new flavors, that sort of thing.
How is the tasting menu different than the regular menu?
Well, the goal is to give our customers a multilayered experience. We want our customer to come here knowing that they are not going to get the same ol’, same ol’. They can try something new and different. It’s like having two restaurants in one: The regular menu for when they want something comfortable and simple and the tasting menu when they are feeling a little wild and want to experiment.
The kitchen is extremely small. How do you handle two separate menus?
Balance. It’s all about balance.
How does planning differ for the two?
I have to think more about the balance of flavors, the richness of the foods and the complexity of all of it. Portion size is also critical. There can’t be too much food in any course and there can’t be too little. A tasting size is two to three bites, depending on the customers’ definition of bite sizes, so it’s a tricky thing.
What was your biggest flop?
I know that’s a favorite reader question and I hate to air my dirty laundry, so let’s just say that it had something to do with liquid smoked salmon and sorbet. It never made it out of the kitchen, much less the pot.
What sparks your creativity?
I love food blogs. I keep a close eye on what’s happening in Spain because that country seems to have the most influence on the culinary scene right now. I also watch what’s going on in Chicago; what happens there usually happens here. I like to eat out, read, chat with my industry friends.
What food won’t we find in your kitchen?
Frozen fish. I have extremely strict standards. Unless I caught it myself, I can’t truly know how long a fish has been out of the water, but I judge it by the smell first. Does it smell like water or fish? And then I judge it by its looks. Over the years, … I’ve learned [to judge] it by feel, another acquired skill that goes hand in hand with the smell and look.
How has Niche been received?
Quite well. We are very happy. Everyone, from our chef friends to our purveyors to our customers, has been kind and helpful. Our fellow chefs – and competitors, I might add – have taken us under their wing instead of pushing us away.
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