Niche | Clayton, Mo.
At its core, a pastry is essentially made with butter, flour and sugar. From there, most pastry chefs have free range to play with sweet and savory ingredients, limited only by their imagination. Sarah Osborn, pastry chef at Niche in Clayton, Missouri, however, is limited to about 300 miles.
About two years ago, the fine-dining institution in the greater St. Louis area changed its kitchen philosophy to only source ingredients made or grown within a 300-mile radius, most within a mere 50 miles, to showcase all that is grown and raised in Missouri and Illinois. It’s a challenge for the savory dishes prepared by executive chef Nate Hereford and sous chef Brian Lagerstrom, but for the pastry side?
“Things like chocolate, vanilla bean, cinnamon; she can’t use any of those in her desserts,” Hereford says.
Osborn saw the challenge as a chance for creativity. “I thought I would be horribly depressed not using chocolate at all, and there are still times when I’ll be flipping through cookbooks and realize I can’t really make anything in them,” she says. “But chocolate is often used as a binding agent rather than for flavor. It’s pushed me further as a chef.”
Hereford agrees: “At first she was more ambivalent about the idea, but she rose to the challenge and is now rolling with it. She’s creating amazing desserts that are a hit with our guests, and that creativity and willingness to test the limits is not something you see all the time.”
Osborn makes all of the desserts on the four-course menu at Niche, which rotates every month or so. She uses locally grown savory ingredients like parsnips, beets and sweet potatoes to replace the staples typically found in desserts.
Osborn has flourished inside the creative constraints; a few of her standouts include Missouri miso ice cream with sweet potato, candied pecans and Asian pears, as well as a salted-caramel tart with fig jam, butternut squash butter and a whipped cream fig fool.
She’s always had an inventive spirit – at 16, she tried to make her first pastry cream without even knowing what it was – which led her to The Culinary Institute of America in New York City’s Hyde Park two years later, where she specialized in baking and pastry. After graduating, she came back to her hometown of St. Louis, working at a smattering of bakeries until landing a pastry assistant job at Niche for a year and a half. Eventually, she and her then-fiancé, now-husband, decided to further broaden their experiences and career opportunities, and they headed to Chicago.
Once in the Windy City, Osborn was hired as pastry assistant at Michelin-starred Boka, where she and another assistant were given the responsibility to develop desserts for the menu.
A year and a half later, in the summer of 2013, she got call from Gerard Craft, owner of the restaurant group that encompasses Niche, asking her to return to the restaurant as its pastry chef.
“When she moved to Chicago, I always knew that we wanted to find a way to get her back to St. Louis,” Craft says. “She has this acute understanding of flavors that are progressive but still homey and nostalgic at the same time.”
Since returning to Niche, Osborn has thrived. In fact, her next project is even more ambitious: “I’m convinced 2015 is the year we’ll serve a dessert that uses no white sugar,” she says.
That’s right. Remember those three pastry staples – flour, butter and sugar? Osborn wants to cut that to two, substituting sugar with local honey, Missouri-tapped maple syrup and more.
“It’s so easy to pout,” Osborn says, “but why not push ourselves? It’s still cakes, ice creams and fun flavors. It’s still dessert at the end of the day.”
Niche, 7734 Forsyth Blvd., Clayton, Missouri, 314.773.7755, nichestlouis.com