Having grown up working in his family’s restaurant in New Mexico, La Tertulia, chef Kevin Nashan never imagined himself with a culinary career. After graduating pre-law at Saint Louis University with a political science and marketing degree, he eventually lost interest in his lawyerly ambitions and found himself drawn back to food.
Nashan is owner of the acclaimed restaurants Sidney Street Cafe and Peacemaker Lobster & Crab in the Benton Park Neighborhood. He is also one of only two chefs to win a James Beard award for Best Chef: Midwest – an honor he is modestly appreciative of. After noting how many others in the field are deserving of praise he admitted, “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think it was an amazing thing. I love it more for our staff… Everyone works their tail end off, and it’s nice to get a pat on the back.”
Modesty aside, the recent awards are helping St. Louis stand out as a modern, culinary destination – something it might not have been thought of as a decade or more ago. During his 17 years at the helm of Sidney Street Cafe, Nashan has had the privilege of watching the food scene evolve in St. Louis. That’s why he sat down with Feast for a special series of Feast on St. Louis: Behind the Apron in partnership with Explore St. Louis.
Nashan bought Sidney Street Cafe from the previous owner in 2002, but it had not been his original plan. Tom McKinley, who was looking to retire, sought him out. McKinley had been to La Tertulia in Santa Fe and heard the Nashan family was looking to get into the industry at the same time he was looking to get out of it.
“Sidney wasn’t even on my radar,” Nashan says. When he visited Sidney Street, he was attracted to the culture and comradery. “It reminded me of my family’s restaurant.” Plus there was opportunity to buy the building and the parking lot and completely shape it into his own. So that’s exactly what Kevin, his wife, Mina, and his brother Chris did.
Thirty years old and fresh from experience at notable restaurants like Daniel in New York City and El Bulli in Barcelona, Nashan had the ambition (and skills) to create substantial changes at Sidney Street Cafe. It was his wife and business partner, Mina Nashan, who encouraged him to be patient. She had grown up in St. Louis and knew the restaurant was already a staple.
Over the course of several years the Nashans slowly shaped the menu to what it is today. Over time they built the casual, “almost rustic” fine dining experience Sidney Street offers currently. For those who loved the original, two dishes remain – the Veal Dumplings and Filet Béarnaise.
Now the menu is more seasonal – you may find halibut and scallops on the menu before it phases to fall offerings. They like to use end cuts known for flavor, like Hanger steaks. And Nashan is passionate about sourcing fresh ingredients.
That passion inspired him to dedicate a large portion of the restaurant’s parking lot into a raised bed garden, where he grows everything from sweet potatoes to chamomile to corn. What grows there can be found in the dishes at both restaurants.
On the farm-to-table movement he says, “It’s pretty common sense to use farms. I don’t think you should get your back patted because you’re using farms.” But there is a balance. For instance, he was not able to source ducks locally because of supply and inconsistency, which forced him to use outside suppliers. Sourcing can be a skill in and of itself – one that was integral in opening his second concept, Peacemaker.
Much in the way that Nashan did not expect to end up a chef or for Sidney Street Cafe to become his first restaurant, the evolution of his second restaurant Peacemaker was similarly organic. When his neighbor and friend, chef Gerard Craft, was selling the building that originally housed Niche in 2014, it presented an opportunity. He began to dwell on what concepts he might want to play with if he were to open a second restaurant.
Eventually inspired by his time in Maine and New Orleans, Nashan decided it was seafood he wanted to explore. “That’s the food I really liked at the end of the day,” he says. Peacemaker boasts the only menu in St. Louis to have fresh seafood flown in daily. Guests can enjoy lobster rolls and a fresh oyster bar on par with what they would find on the coasts.
He looked for the link between his two regions of inspiration, which landed him on the Acadian route. “The same people creating your clam chowder were creating your gumbos,” Nashan found. The Acadians – descendants of French settlers in Maine who eventually migrated to Louisiana in the 1700s – were responsible for many flavors and styles associated with the regions he admired.
The name “Peacemaker” actually comes from the preceding name for the po’boy sandwich – a signature of Louisiana cuisine which traditionally was made up of two pieces of white bread, mayonnaise and fried oysters. The lore of the name is that it was supposedly given to angry housewives and bosses as a peace offering.
The name, Peacemaker, evokes a theme carried through both of Nashan's restaurants: food is more than just sustenance. Whether it is the playful style of Peacemaker, with family-friendly offerings like house-flavored shaved ice or the low-lit romanticism of Sidney Street Cafe, Nashan is offering his diners an experience that doesn’t end at food. These experiences offered up by Nashan and chefs like him are what is putting the St. Louis culinary scene on the map.
Sidney Street Cafe, 2000 Sidney St., Benton Park, St. Louis, Missouri, 314.771.5777, sidneystreetcafe.com
Peacemaker Lobster & Crab, 1831 Sidney St., Benton Park, St. Louis, Missouri, 314.772.8858, peacemakerstl.com