Underneath a powder-blue sky filled with majestic clouds, the soft, low light of early morning casts dramatic shapes across a verdant landscape. A farmer, fishing pole in hand, walks past rows of tall cornstalks on his way to a nearby river. In the distance, a mule stands outside of a barn. From this vantage point, some trees seem tall enough to pierce the horizon, while others slope sideways, providing shade for plants and animals in and along the water. The farmer is so small he almost gets lost in the vast expanse captured in Magnificent Missouri, the mural by Missouri artist Bryan Haynes that hangs in the dining room at Niche in Clayton, Missouri.
“We wanted something that represented our farmers and the bounty that is the Missouri countryside, as well as our rivers,” says Gerard Craft, the chef-owner of Niche and six-time James Beard Awards finalist for Best Chef: Midwest.
Although firmly rooted in St. Louis today, Craft wasn’t born in Missouri. He didn’t grow up in the Midwest or spend summers exploring its parks and rivers. His youth was spent on the East Coast, with family ties in New York City and Washington, D.C. When he moved to St. Louis in 2005 to open Niche, he was just 25 years old and had never set foot in the city. He recalls his first trip to Hermann, Missouri, a few years later and feeling overwhelmed by the region’s lush countryside and robust wine industry.
“I’m a coastal kid, and being on the coast, going to the ocean, does something for me,” he says. “It takes away all of my stress and makes me shed about 20 pounds of the weight I’m carrying in my life. Going to the farm in Hermann, I felt the exact same sensation, and I realized what a magical place we have right here in our backyard. I don’t think many people think about Missouri and really think about wine country that’s so beautiful.”
At Niche, Craft’s goal has always been to capture the flavors of the Midwest. Years ago, while traveling through Italy, he found himself having the same experience at restaurant after restaurant: The food he was eating “tasted like it could have been from anywhere.” Nothing about the food or environment evoked a sense of place and time, or a connection to the land where it was grown and raised.
IN NICHE'S EARLY DAYS, Craft struggled with how to best achieve the effect of evoking a sense of place through food. He knew it was more complex than simply sourcing produce and proteins from regional farmers – he wanted to share a true reflection of what it means to live and cook and eat in Missouri.
A few years after opening the restaurant, Slow Food St. Louis sent him to Terra Madre, a biannual conference hosted by Slow Food in Turin, Italy.
“I heard New Zealand aborigines speak about how the rise in lamb farming had ruined the rivers and made it impossible to live off of their own land,” Craft says. “Something becomes popular and everybody in the entire world wants to consume that one item grown in that one place, and that’s far from sustainable, when we could be living off of what’s right here.”
After his experience at Terra Madre, Craft resolved to slowly replace some ingredients from the menu at Niche, like lobster, hamachi and white truffles, with ones sourced from within the Midwest.
“We pushed a little harder – maybe at the time a little too hard – and we felt some serious revolt,” Craft says. “A lot of the diners just weren’t enthused by it.”
Craft found himself in the heart of the recession – when small businesses were already being stretched impossibly thin – trying to build a framework that customers weren’t embracing. He made the call to ease up on the new focus and add some ingredients back onto the menu. Maybe the timing wasn’t right in 2009, he thought, but that didn’t mean the restaurant couldn’t slowly, perhaps more quietly, make the transformation.
By 2011, he and his team took the next step in moving the vision forward by defining borders for the kitchen – its chefs would only work with ingredients they could source within a full day’s drive. If they wanted seafood, they looked to the Gulf Coast or the Great Lakes instead of Maine or Japan. “We were getting closer, but it still didn’t necessarily feel like us,” Craft says. “We didn’t feel like we were doing it.”
Much has changed since then – Niche relocated from its original home in the Benton Park neighborhood to a new space in Clayton in late 2012. Bright white Midwest-sourced limestone frames the open kitchen, and the flooring is made of reclaimed Missouri wood. Dining room tables were made by David Stine, a woodworker based in Dow, Illinois, and Craft collaborated directly with Haynes to offer direction for the mural that hangs in the dining room.
According to Haynes, the mural doesn’t depict an actual landscape. Craft described several scenes to Haynes, who then illustrated a composite of three or four places in Missouri. The painting may depict a fantasy – the very best of what the state has to offer, presented in one scene – but it’s Craft’s vision to share the full scope of that bounty with diners at Niche.
Ten months ago, Craft sat down with executive chef Nate Hereford, sous chef Brian Lagerstrom and pastry chef Sarah Osborn, and proposed refocusing the kitchen to work only with ingredients grown, raised or produced in Missouri and southern Illinois. The idea was as innovative as it was risky.
The farm-to-table movement has become commonplace in restaurants across the country, but you’d be hard-pressed to find another restaurant that sources almost all of its ingredients regionally. The model is so groundbreaking that Craft and his team have almost no reference point for how best to achieve it, other than taking it one day at a time.
By September, the restaurant phased out its former menu, offering new dishes developed under the regionalism focus for its four-course, a la carte and chef’s tasting menus.
“We said, ‘Let’s go all the way until we really start telling the story – where we are and where we’re trying to go,’” Craft says.
That focus has now developed into what Hereford describes as, “extreme regionalism.” He says the aim is for 90 percent of the ingredients used in the kitchen to be purchased or made in-house with products sourced from a 300-mile radius around St. Louis.
This past winter, that translated into dishes like pumpkin soup made with Missouri miso and pecans; cauliflower with Missouri caviar, sourdough and brown butter vinaigrette; pork shoulder with buckwheat, rice grits and sorrel; and black walnut custard with Jonathan apples and sage.
“It gives the restaurant a sense of time and place; it gives a sense of the winter of Missouri in 2015,” Hereford says.
The only non-native ingredients used in the kitchen are staples – Hereford says they’ve yet to find regional sources for salt, white distilled vinegar, agar-agar and xanthan gum. Lagerstrom creates many ingredients in-house, including soy sauce, miso and garum, a condiment similar to fish sauce. In place of olive oil, the chefs cook with soybean oil, and because they can’t source citrus, they’ve had to get creative with how to replace acid in dishes, too. Hereford developed reduced yogurt whey that he describes as having a citrusy quality. (“You take the yogurt whey, strain it off and reduce it, and it turns into a lemonlike flavor; it’s concentrated and beautiful,” he says.)
Acid is also imparted with vinegars that Lagerstrom makes from scratch, such as fermented wild apple cider vinegar, hyssop vinegar made with the minty, licorice-flavored herb and red wine vinegar made with Missouri-grown Norton grapes.
“That’s one way I know our food is going to taste a lot different from other people’s food,” Lagerstrom says. “Even good restaurants all use the same red wine vinegar.”
He also bakes all of the bread served at Niche with a blend of 100 percent Missouri grain – think sourdough, sprouted oat English muffins, cheese bread and dandelion-root crackers.
“You have to be good at making bread to make a 100 percent whole wheat bread [well],” Lagerstrom says. “I think where we’re at now, the bread tells as much of a story as any other dish on the menu.”
Lagerstrom makes three cheeses in-house, as well – soft, creamy, ivory-hued Camembert; a smooth, pungent, orange-red washed-rind; and his newest experiment, 14-week aged Cheddar. He uses milk from a nearby source: The pastry assistant at Pastaria, Niche’s next-door sister restaurant, grew up on a farm in southern Missouri, where her parents still raise a few dairy cows for milk production. She connected Lagerstrom with her parents, and now milk is delivered fresh to the restaurant each week (and sometimes daily).
“It would be easy to buy milk from a purveyor and make our own cheese, but it’s way better that the milk was milked several hours before I make the cheese,” Lagerstrom says.
To further the regionalism focus, Lagerstrom has immersed himself in other fermentation projects, intent on inventing new ways to elevate whatever ingredients he has at his disposal.
“The thing I really like about fermented foods… there’s a magical quality about them,” Lagerstrom says. “With most of them, across the board, what you’re developing is umami. Eighty percent of the ferments we do are because we’re trying to build umami, which is a flavor that isn’t easily coaxed out of fresh ingredients.”
While researching regional alternatives to fish and seafood, Lagerstrom, Hereford and Craft came upon Missouri-raised trout from Troutdale Farms in Gravois Mills, Missouri, and sturgeon and caviar from Show-Me Caviar in Morrison, Missouri.
“When I read back to what Native Americans were eating, a lot of it was seafood – there was this huge seafood and game-based diet that no longer exists as what people think of as Missouri food,” Craft says. “We want to explore what River City cuisine is and the idea of fish in the middle of the country – because that was one of the things that brought settlers here in the first place.”
Lagerstrom recalls breaking down trout one day and pausing at the fish’s black, inky insides. After some research, he came across a recipe for garum, a salty, pungent paste popular in ancient Rome made with fish parts fermented in a brine. He was already experimenting with making koji, the building block of fermented foods like soy sauce and miso, by inoculating steamed Missouri rice with Aspergillus mold. The rice must be inoculated at a very specific temperature – Lagerstrom estimates it took him at least a month of time-consuming trial and error to land on the final recipe. Once the koji was finished, he combined it with leftover trout innards and a high percentage of salt and allowed the mixture to ferment to make garum. “After a certain time period, the funkiness turns to an awesome sweetness,” Hereford says.
The trout and garum first came together in a dish with broccoli and hickory nuts. Hereford says the garum intensifies the flavor of the trout while also adding complexity and a depth of flavor to the other ingredients that the trout alone can’t impart.
“A big thing Gerard talks about is that this type of food needs to be luxurious, but the challenge is taking a carrot and making it luxurious, or taking trout – a very humble ingredient – and making that luxurious,” Lagerstrom says.
FOR HEREFORD, much of what the kitchen has gained over the past 10 months has been perspective. When confronted with a surplus of popcorn, he remembered that a former popcorn sauce recipe yielded leftover sediment, or fine grains, that resembled polenta. “We thought, ‘What would happen if you made popcorn like you would polenta?”’ he says. “We did it, and it eats just like polenta, and it tastes just like popcorn. It gives you versatility and something whimsical.”
On the pastry side, Osborn is also using the new limitations to her advantage. Because neither chocolate nor vanilla are grown in Missouri, she is incorporating root vegetables like beets and sweet potatoes into her desserts.
Inspired by Lagerstrom’s successes with fermentation, she substituted sourdough starter for flour to make sourdough crêpes, which are served with sourdough purée, buttermilk orbs, candied beets, hyssop vinegar and beet syrup.
“Now I see recipes that I like, and if they have a chocolate base to them, I think about how I can get around it,” Osborn says.
One of the first desserts she developed under the regional program was miso ice cream with sweet potato cake, purple sweet potato purée, Asian pears and candied pecans. She made the dessert with Lagerstrom’s miso – he made a batch with such pronounced sweetness that it couldn’t immediately be used in a savory dish, so Osborn took it off his hands.
She played with pairing the miso with Missouri black walnuts, but the assertiveness of both ingredients clashed, so she returned to the kitchen’s pantry and decided to try sweet potatoes with Asian pears. “People are so used to sugar, but it’s almost that perception of chocolate in a dessert that satisfies them,” Hereford says. “The miso ice cream satisfies those same things.”
The dessert was a gamble, but one that ended up paying off with diners.
“When it went on, we all loved it in the kitchen, but I did not expect people to like it – and people went crazy for it,” Osborn says. “That’s the biggest compliment I can get – to take this unusual thing and make it into something people really love.”
In February, Osborn began phasing cane sugar out of her desserts. While brainstorming ideas for her first no-sugar dish, she circled back to black walnuts and took stock of the other ingredients in the pantry. She thought black walnut custard might work, sweetened with powdered maple sugar and honey. But even folded into custard, she knew she’d need something to cut through the walnuts’ astringency, so she tossed Jonathan apples slices in her own made-from-scratch apple vinegar. To finish it off, she added a powdery, chilled apple “snow” and freshly cut sage leaves from the restaurant’s windowsill herb garden.
“A lot of the natural sweetness from the ingredients shines through,” she says. “The idea to use sage stems from Gerard. He’s always wanted to have some sort of herb component. It’s remarkable how well it rounds out the dish.”
Craft is the first person to admit that eliminating white sugar will be a huge hurdle for the kitchen, one he and Hereford are hoping to overcome this year through a partnership with Berger Bluff Farm in Berger, Missouri. If all goes as planned, Craft hopes to buy a big crop of sugar beets from the farm and process them to make beet sugar. The project is part of a bigger effort to grow the restaurant’s larder and pantry.
“If I took anything away from the first year, it’s that we have to plan one thousand times better this spring,” Hereford says. “How do we build our larder up so we’ll have white asparagus all the way through the fall until next April? Since we can plan better this year, we’ll really be able to elevate the food to the next level.”
As spring flourishes this month, the team at Niche is busy thinking of creative ways to cook with seasonal produce – and also how to preserve it for next winter. Hereford wants to buy triple the amount of ramps this year, while Lagerstrom is eager to work with rhubarb. Osborn has been dreaming of green strawberries since January.
“We started this at the lowest point of the growing season, and I think we’ve done it well,” Osborn says. “What we’ve learned this winter has been surprising, but spring is going to be a whole new story.”
In the past year, the chefs at Niche have also learned that parameters don’t limit their creative freedom. In a time when chefs have almost limitless access to ingredients from across the globe, it’s those limitations that may be necessary to drive cooking forward.
“You can pick from all these influences, and in doing so, we lose a sense of our own place and identity,” Hereford says. “I think it’s very important to take a step back and realize that we’re celebrating Missouri ingredients because it helps us celebrate who we are as people who live here, and it also helps us push forward while looking to the past – and by doing both things, that’s the only real way we’re ever going to truly define who we are as a culture.”
When Craft first opened Niche, one of the core values he set for himself and his employees was to create a legacy. He knows the regionalism focus at Niche is still very much a work in progress, one he hopes to keep improving upon and evolving – and not just for the restaurant’s legacy, but also for Missouri’s.
“We’re always trying to be a part of something bigger than us – bigger than Niche,” Craft says. “We want to be a part of helping people understand our region and hopefully making our region better.”
Niche, 7734 Forsyth Blvd., Clayton, Missouri, 314.773.7755, nichestlouis.com