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Mathew Rice has carved a Niche in the world of gourmet desserts
By Julie Failla Earhart - Photo by Jonathan Swegle
Posted On: 02/01/2006   

Interactive will take on a whole new meaning this Valentineís Day at Niche in the Benton Park neighborhood. ďThink finger foods,Ē said chef/owner Gerard Craft. ďThe entire menu will be fun, romantic, sexy.Ē

Because Valentineís Day is for sweeties, pastry chef Mathew Rice will have a special dessert menu planned. Although he hasnít worked out all the details yet, he said that in 2005, when he and Craft were working in Salt Lake City, the entire menu contained foods with ďshades of pink. That was so much fun.Ē

What will be different about Nicheís dessert menu on Valentineís Day?
While I donít have the fine details worked out yet, you can expect lots and lots of dark chocolate. I like nostalgia and to be reminded of childhood. Remember the conversation hearts? One year I chopped some up and used it as a base for the items on the plate. And they kept the ice creams and sorbets from sliding around. Last Christmas I chopped up candy canes to put in a sorbet. So right now, Iím thinking something to bring back great memories, yet be hip, fun, sexy and romantic all at the same time.

What makes your desserts stand out?
A lot of restaurants outsource desserts. Iím lucky in that Gerard insisted on an on-site pastry chef. Everything that comes from my little piece of the kitchen is made fresh that day. That includes all the ice creams, gelatos and sorbets. I have a little machine back there that stirs the milk, cream, sugar, eggs and whatever else I might throw in there.

Where do you get new ideas for the menu?
Fall and winter are my favorite times of the year. Citrusy time. Apples, pears. I make a killer apple crisp thatís one of our most popular desserts. Iím intrigued with citrus right now, so Iíll be playing with a variety of flavors. I make a pineapple sorbet that is really, really, really good. I read a lot. I love to experiment.

I tried a candied kumquat, but it didnít go over very well. I also look at what the New York restaurants are doing to try and spot trends, watch what they are doing with flavor combinations. I like to eat at Starbucks, and I get a lot of inspiration from their flavored cookies. And I love chatting with other pastry chefs. Thatís the best place to learn outside my kitchen.

How did you get from Salt Lake City to St. Louis?
Gerard. I just came along for the ride. Heís the one with the vision. Gerard and his wife did all the research and found that St. Louis has an up-and-coming food scene. Their first impression was that St. Louis is going places yet maintaining that hometown feel, especially with all the sports teams. Lots going on here. I knew that whatever Gerard would be involved with would be something really, really, really special, so here I am.

What was your biggest flop?
How much room do you have? I have lots, but I think the worst was based on an item from a New York restaurant, a
chocolate-spiced soup infused with juniper. I made a juniper chocolate truffle that tasted like gin and tonic with chocolate. It was bad. Bad, I tell you. I still canít drink gin to this day. I went through this Asian phase, which didnít turn out so well. And never try aloe. Itís very bitter.

How did you get started in the culinary industry?
I started cooking with my mom. I went to culinary school at Johnson and Wales University. I spent three years in North Carolina. Went back to Salt Lake City, met Gerard and here I am.

Do you have a sweet tooth?
Oh, God, yes! I guess thatís why Iím good at what I do; I love sweets so much. I even like my coffee really, really, really sweet.

Whatís your favorite dessert?
Simple things that are plain good. I love Toll House Pie. I may experiment a lot, but actually I adore the simple foods.

A pastry chef sounds like a glamorous career. Is it?
Well, the glamorous part is when somebody loves the dessert, and I get to come out and meet them and talk with them. The not-so-glamorous part is sweating it out in the kitchen all day with the boys.

What ingredient wonít we find in your kitchen?
A premade ice cream base. Itís a powder that you mix with milk to make ice cream. Nasty, nasty, nasty stuff.

What is your favorite ingredient to work with?
Ice creams and sorbets. Thatís what I get the most praise for.

What is the outlook for a career as a pastry chef?
Actually, itís becoming a bigger and bigger profession. Restaurants want to lure in customers, and fabulous desserts is one way to do it. So Iíd say yes, itís good.

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