Food & Wine magazine has named Gerard Craft, executive chef and co-owner of the 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 has been awarded since 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 Bravo's Top Chef).
Food & Wine says the award "identifies up-and-coming chefs in America who are innovators with a distinct culinary style and vision creating exceptionally delicious food."
Craft learned the news a month ago. "I thought one of the other chefs was playing a joke on me," he tells me by phone from New York City, where Food & Wine honored this year's Best New Chefs with a celebrity-chef-studded 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. (She had the pappardelle with smoked pork shank.)
The exceptionally modest Craft says 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."
Craft and the other Best New Chefs will appear on the cover of Food & Wine's July 2008 issue, which will include a profile of and recipe from each chef. Coincidentally, Mathew Rice, pastry chef at Niche and the adjoining Veruca bakeshop, will have a recipe featured in the magazine's June issue.