Chef Gerard Craft On Modern Midwestern Food (Which He'll Be Making at Sepia Tomorrow)

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Photo: courtesy Niche

Culinarily, Chicago is a bright enough light that it can't always see what's around it. Yet many of our chefs and the chefs in places like St. Louis, Madison, and Cleveland are well aware of each other's work, have staff who've gone back and forth, and see a common approach to the food of the midwest region. And savvy Chicago diners would be wise to pick up on this and pay more attention to what's going on around, not merely in, Chicago. Such as Gerard Craft's restaurants in St. Louis, Niche, Taste, Brasserie and Pastaria, which have enjoyed national acclaim for his (pun unavoidable) craftsmanship and commitment to the great flavors of our region. You'll have your chance to see what we mean tomorrow night, as Craft teams up with Andrew Zimmerman for a midwestern dinner at Sepia. We spoke with Craft by phone last week; find out more about the dinner, for which seats are still available, here.

Where’d the idea for doing this dinner come from?

I guess I met Andrew at that Cochon Heritage event in St. Helena, and he’s obviously an amazing cook. Then we met again at the Beard Awards in New York, and started talking about the idea of doing a midwestern dinner. I’m trying my best to connect the midwest— I think Chicago stands on its own, nationally, but I think we’re all a little bit disconnected and we’re not all that far from each other.

Do you really think there’s a midwestern movement in food, or some kind of common spirit there?

Movement’s a strong word. But I think there is a lot of camaraderie between chefs, and it’s nice to share that with your neighbors. You know, for the last ten years everybody’s been cooking local, in a more regional style. I say midwest, but also, there’s my friend Kelly English who’s only a few hours away in the other direction in Memphis [at Restaurant Iris]. And I think everybody should kind of look around and see that circle around them.

What’s distinctive about the midwest take on local cooking, versus, say, Portland or wherever?

You know, I was just in Italy last year, and we drove around a huge chunk of the country. You go to some of the smaller restaurants and you really get a taste of the regions and they’re all different. I mean, maybe the noodles are the same, but the sauces are vastly different, and even in the same region, you’re going to have a different style of food if you’re in the hills than if you’re down by the sea.

And I think it’s really cool to start seeing that in America. Because I think if you go to a lot of fine dining, everybody’s kind of cooking the same stuff, because we can all access it. I remember I asked somebody in Italy, where’d you get this lamb, and they’d say “New Zealand.” Which is very bizarre to me. But now that people are starting to cook more regionally, you’re beginning to see a difference when you travel again. What you eat in New York is going to be different from what you eat in San Francisco. And it’s going to be different when you eat in the middle of winter in Missouri. When it’s all root vegetables, maybe that’s a little sense of the struggle of the area, it’s a hardy place.

Right, actually acknowledging that the whole country isn’t Florida. So being more attached to the South— being on the Mississippi— do you feel St. Louis food is more Southern than Chicago food?

I think there’s definitely very similar influences— I mean, you guys have the Great Lakes up there. We may pick up a little more Southern influence, there’s definitely a huge Louisiana influence.

Now, you opened an Italian restaurant a few months ago, Pastaria. How’s that going?

We opened in September, and we’ve been very fortunate to have an incredible response. The funnest thing about Pastaria is looking out at any given time and seeing a couple dressed up, four kids and their mom and dad trying to keep it all together, two college kids on a double date... it’s kind of like a little town hall in that regard. To be honest, it’s great to do something that isn’t fine dining.

So is there anywhere that you plan to eat here when you’re in town, or are you pretty much just working and then you go right back?

We always eat! We’re machines. We’ll probably head over to Avec, like right around 4:00 one day and have a couple bites there— if I could eat at all of Paul Kahan’s restaurants, I’d be happy. I haven’t been to Schwa in a long time, you never know if a spot will open up there. Not this trip, but I’m dying to check out, what’s the new restaurant... Elizabeth? God, there’s so many places that we end up. We’ll probably hit The Aviary for a couple of cocktails.

It’s hard to get out of Avec, though, because once you sit down it’s so comfortable, and it smells so good.