We Talk Coffee With James Beard Award Winning Chef Gerard Craft

gerard craft chef st louis niche sump coffee sprudge

It’s been a big year for chef and restaurateur Gerard Craft. After being nominated and reaching the finalist position six times, he recently was awarded the James Beard award for Best Chef: Midwest in 2015. He’s also expected to open his fifth restaurant, Porano Pasta & Gelato, in downtown St. Louis at the end of the summer. Not bad for a former snowboard photographer.

Craft’s commitment to understanding ingredients is evident at his flagship restaurant, Niche. After moving into a new space in 2012, Niche changed gears to focus on tasting menus over its previous à la carte options. Recently, they limited ingredient sourcing to a 300-mile radius around the restaurant. The result are dishes highlighting Missouri and Southern Illinois ingredients. The coffee program recently received a similar refurbishment. Craft switched from longtime coffee partner Kaldi’s Coffee to Sump Coffee for his restaurants. Sump will be roasting different coffees for each restaurant (Niche, Brasserie, Taste, and Pastaria) to highlight each space. Sprudge recently sat down with Craft to talk about his recent coffee program changes, what he likes about Italian coffee culture, and his soft spot for gas station coffee.

gerard craft chef st louis niche sump coffee sprudge

Sprudge: What was your first memorable coffee experience?

Gerard Craft: I really started drinking coffee at boarding school in northern Idaho around 1997, and there was a place called Green Mountain Coffee Roasters in Sandpoint, Idaho. I think my parents had come to visit me and bought me a bag of this coffee, and I just instantly fell in love with it. It was back when French press was really the thing, at the time. Everything about it, I just loved.

Back then, coffee was a lot different. You were looking at a lot of darker, oily, roasted coffees. But it definitely got me thinking about coffee, and thinking about the flavors of coffee, and we started a coffee club in that boarding school. Every morning, we’d make coffee and we would sit around and talk about the coffee and what we thought of it, and do a little study on coffee history. It was a lot of fun.

How did your coffee experience evolve from high school to where you are now?

In high school, I definitely had it in my mind that I was going to open up a coffee shop, and my dad was going to open up a bookstore next door to it. We just had his retirement all planned out. And then I went to college and things slipped away. Coffee became more about staying awake really late and things like that. Salt Lake City, where I was, actually did have an enormous coffee scene. I think people find it kind of mind-blowing, because of where it is in Utah.

From there, I got into cooking, and then I think, when I was in the restaurants, I started getting a little more into it. But even back then, it was all about French press, and still getting into more table-side presentation, things like that.

There was a restaurant in New York called The Tasting Room. They had four different types of coffee on their menu, which I thought was awesome. It was all done through the Toddy method. That’s the first time I had had coffee that was cold brewed. I loved it. The flavors were really, really amazing. It was right around then that people started talking about single-origin coffees, and that there was a difference between all of these different estates and things of that nature.

What year is all this happening?

This was probably happening in 2003–2004. When we opened Niche in 2005, that’s when I kind of got to implement some of that stuff. We actually started with that cold brew Toddy method. We always had problems with consistency of making it hot. I don’t think we ever nailed it to its potential, but that was the first interest we really had in it.

I think then we moved to Kaldi’s Coffee, and Kaldi’s had a lot of great single-origin stuff. They really streamlined it for us, and made it a lot easier to manage as a program. But then, when Sump Coffee opened up in Benton Park, I found myself hanging out in that coffee shop quite a bit. I actually didn’t like the espresso at first, but I loved the shop. I loved talking with [owner Scott Carey], who was a really, really thoughtful guy and had a lot of great things to say and a lot of great insight on food and coffee. I loved the passion behind it. I went there more just to be inspired in general.

I started to kind of understand what I was tasting, why I was tasting it, and now I have a really hard time drinking dark-roasted coffees. Maybe my first cup of coffee in the morning, like, if I’m going on a long bike ride, will be a gas station cup of coffee that really just rips you apart and wakes you up. Other than that, now I really, really enjoy the subtle nuances and the bright flavors, and more of the flavor of the fruit in coffee, as opposed to just that kind of bitter roast.

What are some of the things that you’re looking to improve upon in switching to Sump Coffee?

Number one, I like Scott’s passion and what he brings to our team. Already, just the way he talks with our team about coffee gets them excited and starts to teach them what he’s already taught me. I think the training alone of all of our staff is the biggest part, because it gets our staff excited to actually sell coffee and understand why they’re selling it, as opposed to just an after-dinner drink. It becomes part of the meal.

gerard craft chef st louis niche sump coffee sprudge

How does coffee service hope to play into future dining experiences at all of your restaurants?

What we do as chefs is try to coax the best flavors out of an ingredient. Whether that’s by adding just the right amount of salt or acidity, we want to bring out the flavor of a carrot. We want it to taste like a sweet, delicious carrot. I think for years, we’ve been looking the wrong way on coffee, and we’re kind of looking at that as more as a digestivo or something, just something bitter to calm the stomach, when some roasters are taking the time to really coax the flavors out of the bean, which is kind of a new idea.

I think being able to bring those flavors into the restaurants adds an experience just like we’re adding with gelato or our pastas at Pastaria, or even the 12-course tasting at Niche.

Do you have any daily coffee rituals that you implement at all?

The funniest thing is that I used to. At one point, I had a little espresso machine in my house, a French press, and a Chemex. I realized to do it really well, it just took too much of my time, and I’m so busy. Instead of just brewing out of a coffee machine or something like that, I just forgo it right when I wake up, and then I go to someplace that serves a thoughtful cup of coffee, whether it’s Blueprint Coffee or Sump Coffee.

Are there any coffees that you dislike, or any coffee that you are nixing now? You mentioned you have a soft spot for gas station coffee.

(Laughs) At the end of the day, sometimes you just need a cup of coffee, and any cup will do. Sometimes it’s the one that punches you in the face that you really need most of all at four in the morning. I don’t nix out Pizza Hut pizza… pizza is usually always pretty good.

Are there any shops that you’ve experienced on your travels that you wish you could be in right now?

Again, I love Sump. I think it’s the best shop I’ve been to. But places outside, I really love the space at La Colombe in Washington, DC, in Blagden Alley. I think it’s one of the neatest spaces in the city, and I also love The Wydown down there. I spend a lot of time there.

All the little cafes in Italy that are now starting to get a little more serious about coffee, and that’s actually stemming from, ironically, America. I love them all.

gerard craft chef st louis niche sump coffee sprudge

What did you notice about the Italian coffee culture when you were researching Pastaria that you maybe would like to implement, or anything that you noticed that was very different from American coffee?

I love the social aspect of coffee in Italy. It’s like going to the bar, but in the morning, you know? You’re going, you’re just chatting with people standing next to you, and it’s a really lively experience. I’d like to see a little more of that. I think coffee, for some reason, in America is a little more of a slow and somber, almost, experience, where I really like the chattiness of the Europeans.

Is there anything else you’d like to add about coffee that we haven’t had a chance to talk about?

I got to spend some time with the guys at Nuova Simonelli, in La Marche, in Italy. They have a test lab. It’s really inspiring to see how they work, number one, how they build espresso machines. It’s way more hands-on than I thought. How these guys travel the world, literally, the entire world, drinking coffee and understanding the different cultures of coffee, and taking a lot of that. Taking what we’re doing in America with coffee, and bringing it around the world to other places, which I think is a pretty cool connection.

Evan C. Jones (@theevanjones) is a Sprudge.com contributor based in St. Louis. Read more Evan C. Jones on Sprudge.