Today Food & Wine magazine named Gerard Craft, executive chef and co-owner of Benton Park restaurant Niche, one of its ten "Best New Chefs" for 2008. Craft is the first St. Louis-based chef to receive the honor, which began in 1988. Previous winners include such noted chefs as Daniel Boulud (Daniel), Thomas Keller (The French Laundry and Per Se) and Tom Colicchio (the restaurant Craft and co-host of Top Chef).
Craft learned the news a month ago. "I thought one of the other chefs was playing a joke on me," he told me this afternoon on the phone from New York City, where tonight he and the other winners will attend a party in their honor.
The magazine swore Craft to secrecy, which he admits was difficult: "I have a big mouth."
While the news did remain a secret, obsessive observers of the St. Louis dining scene might have suspected that the stars were aligning for Craft. Food & Wine editor-in-chief Dana Cowin dined at Niche a few months ago and mentioned the restaurant in the "Where I'm Coming From" sidebar to her editor's letter in the magazine's February 2008 issue.
On the eve of the announcement, Food & Wine's Web site offered clues to the identities of this year's "Best New Chefs." One of the clues set alarm bells ringing in anyone familiar with Craft's career before he moved to St. Louis:
Two of this year's BNCs have cooked—and might still be cooking—in an unexpected city on the west coast (okay, Salt Lake City).
(Craft worked at the Salt Lake City restaurants Bistro Toujours and the Metropolitan.)
When I spoke with Craft this afternoon, he was exceptionally modest, saying that his staff at Niche "were the ones who got [the award] for me."
"I consider myself to be extremely lucky," he says. "There are so many [chefs] better than me. They all deserve to be recognized. Hopefully, this will give a boost to the St. Louis dining scene."
Josh Galliano, chef de cuisine at An American Place, agrees: "It's awesome for St. Louis."
Galliano believes the award will let Craft and Niche represent St. Louis' contemporary dining scene to the rest of the nation. "People can look beyond the St. Louis specialties," he says. "There’s nothing bad about that heritage, but we're in a new [restaurant] industry."
Among Craft's fellow winners are several chefs who have already received national attention. New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni recently ranked Tim Cushman's Boston restaurant O Ya and Jeremy Fox's Napa Valley restaurant (and yoga studio) Ubuntu #1 and #2 in a countdown of the 10 best new restaurants in America outside of New York City.
The other winners are Jim Burke of James in Philadephia, Koren Grieveson of Avec in Chicago, Ethan Stowell of Union in Seattle, Giuseppe Tentori of Boka in Chicago, Eric Warnstedt of Hen of the Wood in Waterbury (Vermont) and Sue Zemanick of Gautreau’s in New Orleans.
Craft and the other chefs will appear on the cover of Food & Wine's July 2008 issue. If tradition holds, there will be a profile of and a recipe from each chef in the issue. Coincidentally, Mathew Rice, pastry chef at Niche and the adjoining Veruca bakeshop, will have a recipe featured in the magazine's June issue.
Correction: The original post incorrectly identified Mathew Rice as the owner of Veruca. Our apologies.