After all the waiting — six nominations in seven years — Gerard Craft’s moment arrived suddenly Monday evening, as some were still settling into their seats at the Lyric Opera in Chicago for the annual James Beard Awards. Craft’s victory as “Best Chef: Midwest” was the third honor to be announced during a ceremony that would run nearly four hours and include musical performances and video presentations with the award presentations themselves.
The award is of course a career milestone for Craft, who over the past decade has established himself as St. Louis’ preeminent chef-restaurateur at his flagship Niche as well as at Brasserie by Niche, Taste and Pastaria. His fifth restaurant, Porano Pasta & Gelato, a fast-casual concept drawn from Pastaria’s menu, will make its debut downtown later this year.
(In case you were wondering, once a chef wins a regional award such as “Best Chef: Midwest,” he or she is ineligible to win that category again. In the future, Craft could be eligible for the “Outstanding Restaurateur” category, and once it reaches its 10th birthday, Niche will be eligible for “Outstanding Restaurant.”)
It also represents a seminal moment for the St. Louis dining scene. We’ve received national recognition before. Craft and Kevin Willmann both received Food & Wine’s coveted “Best New Chef” honor, for example, and this year alone five area chefs (Eric Heath, Kevin Nashan and Ben Poremba along with Craft and Willmann) and the wine program at Annie Gunn’s were James Beard Award semifinalists. This award, though, voted on by a large pool of very well-traveled food journalists and past James Beard Awards winners, is a much broader validation.
(Full disclosure: I am a member of the James Beard Foundation’s Restaurants & Chefs Awards committee.)
With this recognition will come greater scrutiny. How does Craft measure up against other regional James Beard Awards winners and previous “Best Chef: Midwest” honorees? Is St. Louis itself a rising restaurant city? If not, what do we lack? Should we even care what outside observers think?
I believe we should welcome this scrutiny. Our best chefs and the talented young sous chefs and line cooks and others working for them should see this as an opportunity to refine their talents further— to give those outside observers a reason to return to St. Louis and to talk about it beyond this one moment.
Craft’s seven-year wait has ended, but for the St. Louis dining scene as a whole, this should be the beginning.
A few other notes from this year’s James Beard Awards:
• The awards might have relocated to Chicago after spending its first 24 years in New York City, but Big Apple restaurants still dominated the major national awards, including “Best New Restaurant” for Bâtard, “Outstanding Chef” for Michael Anthony of Gramercy Tavern and “Outstanding Pastry Chef” for Christina Tosi of the Momofuku restaurant group. Also, Blue Hills at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., about an hour outside New York City, won “Outstanding Restaurant.”
• Jonathon Sawyer of the Greenhouse Tavern in Cleveland won “Best Chef: Great Lakes,” beating out four Chicago chefs. I mention this here only because I visited the Greenhouse Tavern in the fall of 2013 and loved it. I strongly recommend dinner there should you travel to Cleveland.
• I write often about the barbecue boom in St. Louis, but it’s not just a local phenomenon. Aaron Franklin of the wildly acclaimed Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Texas, where you might wait in line for three hours for brisket and other meats, won “Best Chef: Southwest.” It was notable that a pitmaster was even a semifinalist for one of the regional chef awards. In his first year, Franklin not only made the finalist cut, he won.