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Chef Gerard Craft has forged his place in St. Louis cuisine, one successful restaurant at a time. He made headlines earlier this month when he announced the close of Niche, one of his most highly-rated restaurants, with plans to replace it with a new concept. The recent, first-time James Beard award winner took a moment to reflect on knowing when to pivot a business, where the St. Louis dining scene is headed and the most important component to building a business in the restaurant industry.
Congrats on the winning the James Beard award last year! Do you feel like you earned it at the right time, that it was a long time coming?
You know I think it’s a blessing if it happens. It’s crazy when you’re up against so many awesome people, when you really think you deserve it and and have worked hard for it.
And now Niche is closed soon to be reopened as Sardella, which will feature modern Italian fare in an upbeat setting. What went into the business decision to change gears?
Niche is almost 11 years old. We’ve accomplished a ton and I think we wanted to take it—not in an entirely different direction, a lot of the style cooking we do at Niche will continue—but I think it was time for a fresh identity. Niche has evolved over these different phases. I’m a little more grown up now and I have a clearer direction of what we want to be cooking. We could have tweaked the name but at the end of the day, it kind of deserved a new face and I didn’t feel like we need to hold on to it any longer. We opened the other restaurants with a clear identity of what we wanted to be.
How important is the role of identity in developing a successful restaurant and business?
It’s very important and for me, I learned that from the time I spent in Italy. It was just the style of food there—it’s the food I’ve come to love, which is modern veggie-focused food with this link towards simplicity. Spending a lot of time there, I noticed the simplicity of the food when it comes to veggies and salads, where it’s really ingredient-driven and we don’t see a lot of modern pasta around here and it’s really what we like cooking. Niche [was] focused on a creative path, so we’re taking a lot of historical roots and looking at it through a different lens. I think that’s what we’ll be doing here with Sardella.
How did you know the time was right for a change?
It’s something we’ve wanted to do for years and we’ve never felt ready to let go and it just comes from the gut. We were ready to go through a remodel and about to gut the space and it was no better time than now than to give it a shot.
You have several successful restaurants in your portfolio and now you’re expanding Pastaria to Nashville; are there any creative challenges that you face with so many different restaurants in play?
I think the biggest thing for us is having a big team of creative people, having those conversations, and not building it all on my own back—we have so many people working on so many different things. There are people in this industry who want to control the entire process, but it just doesn’t work very well.
What’s your take on the current St. Louis dining scene? Is there room for growth and creativity?
It’s hard to say. The fast-casual is great for different markets, from everything that we’ve done, and it’s a huge learning curve so I’m curious to see how that plays out for a lot of people. But I think there’s definitely a lot of room for growth and affordable and creative concepts.
What kind of advice could you offer to restaurateurs just starting out?
Build a great team. One that you trust and allow them to do what they’re good at it.