It’s a sunny late winter’s day in St. Louis, and Pastaria is mostly empty as the hour approaches 3 p.m. For a hungry traveler like myself, it’s a good thing Gerard Craft’s place continues service between lunch and dinner. I’d just landed in the city and took a cab right to the usually buzzing spot, wanting to try the pastas that have helped the talented chef and restaurateur earn raves, awards and an über-loyal local following. (He has been named a James Beard finalist for Best Chef in the Midwest six times.) The mark of a great restaurant? You walk in at 3, are treated respectfully, and are served one of the most delicious, spicy, perfectly cooked pasta dishes you’ve ever had.
Now I see why Craft is beloved in St. Louis. And why Pastaria, the adjoining fine-dining spot Niche and his French Brasserie by Niche and cocktail-led Taste by Niche are such successful businesses. It also helps explain why Craft, a husband and father as well, is looking to go even bigger, to follow Danny Meyer and, more recently, Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson in creating a new, more chef-y take on fast food. He’s been hard at work on Porano Pasta + Gelato, his “fast food” concept — he prefers this term to “fast casual,” wanting to change the connotation of the term, he says — which will launch in St. Louis this summer. Soon after I finish my bowl of pasta, Craft shows up, gently chides me for arriving early and dining anonymously, then talks freely about his plans for this ambitious new restaurant and, eventually, if all goes well, chain.
Let’s talk about Porano. What is it, and where will it be?
It is a fast-food Italian restaurant — fresh pasta, a few simple sauces and endless combinations. It’s fast food that’s affordable, using really good ingredients. It’s going to be in downtown, right on Washington Avenue, near the convention center. We felt it was really important to open it in downtown St. Louis, because that’s really the heart of the city, and we don’t feel like we’ve been investing enough in the heart of the city.
How are you going to order when you go in?
Well, you’ll go down a line, like you would at Subway or Chipotle or a place like that. You’ll get your choice of semolina pasta, gluten-free pasta, farro, greens, or just focaccia, for a sandwich. Then we have different proteins, like braised beef brisket, slow-roasted pork shoulder, Calabrian-spiced tofu, grilled chicken and roasted vegetables. The sauces are pomodoro, and then we have this sort of smoky Sunday sugo, so it’s like tomato sauce simmered with smoked pork for about 12 hours. It’s really rich, but still a really simple, nice sauce. We also have an herb pesto and a few oils like garlic oil, chili oil, olive oil, butter, and vinaigrette. Again, it’s the same thing as Subway or Chipotle, where you go through and you can combine the ingredients you want, but we’ll also have some presets. At the end of the day, it’s all being done with good food, kind of a chef’s focus.
What made you want to go into – I guess you’d call it fast casual, right?
Actually, it’s funny, we debate about the terms. It’s a big topic in that world, to call it “fresh casual,” “fast casual.” I think Danny Meyer had one that was like “fine casual,” or something like that. I almost just want to keep calling it fast food, so that people understand that we’re really talking about the same thing; we’re just talking about making that thing better.
Do you think that fast food has gotten a bad rap because of McDonald’s and unhealthy options?
Yeah, I mean, as it should have gotten a bad reputation. So I think in calling all of these cool places “fast food” still maybe forces the other guys out a bit faster. If they’re still playing in the same league, they’re going to have to up their game.
Yeah, they’re all announcing initiatives—
Kale! Burger King is going to have kale, like that’s gonna solve all the problems.
So what made you want to do this? I mean, you’ve got successful fine dining and casual restaurants here in St. Louis; you could keep opening up new restaurants instead of doing this. What drew you to this specifically?
Well, I think it’s an extension of what we’ve done at Pastaria. One thing that I really enjoy about Pastaria — we talked about this when we were opening it — is really bringing food to everyone. I’ve spent a good chunk of my life catering to the wealthy and elite, which is fine, but I don’t really exist in that world, so it’s not the world that I live in when I go out to eat. It’s not where I’m eating. I have two kids, and we’re crazy busy, so I don’t cook at home as much as I’d like. We were ending up at places where I can bring my young kids, like Maggiano’s. I’m not going to bring them to my friend’s fine-dining restaurant.
Right, so you want to create a welcoming environment where you can grab a fast bite.
Yes, that was a huge driving factor to me, just trying to get to places where everybody felt comfortable, just to eat. It was not necessarily for some kind of fantasy experience or, you know, an artistic presentation, but if you’re in Italy, you’ve got your place where you go have dinner. We’re just trying to translate that into other aspects of dining, and fast food happens to be one that’s really lacking. You know, and we’ll know more, when you’re rushing around trying to get your kids to dance class or soccer practice or whatever thing you have, you don’t even have time to go to a Pastaria. Your choices are limited in what you can just grab and go.
It sounds like you’re using good ingredients and bringing that experience to people who are in a hurry. But the kind of dishes you described are not easy to make, necessarily, and especially not for a mass audience. How will you make it work?
So we’re already well past the testing phase. Again, I think a lot of it is just the commitment, and I think that’s the toughest part for a lot of these organizations. They’re so far down the road of not touching food anymore that I think it’s going to be really hard for those guys like McDonald’s and Burger King to come back. It’s gonna totally bomb their organization to try to flip it on its head. So making the commitment to quality up front, maybe over profit sometimes, is the biggest thing. To quality both of ingredients and of people. You know, hiring the right people. Our chef at Pastaria, Michael Petres, is going to be running the first fast-food restaurant. He’s arguably a better chef than I am in classical technique, and he’s gonna be running a fast-food restaurant. Those kind of commitments I think are really important to the future of fast food.
So what about as a career, though? You are a chef who’s reached the top of your game, and now this represents a little evolution into like a chef-businessman, right?
Yeah, I think business has always been a focus of mine, even when I was younger, and all through growing up I always wanted to be in some kind of business. This T-shirt I’m wearing is one of my failed clothing companies. I was a snowboard photographer, trying to run my own snowboard-photography company — all total failures.
Where were you doing that?
Salt Lake City. I love doing business; I love figuring out puzzles and that aspect of it, and it’s awesome because I also happen to love cooking, so I think the two really work out. And we do want to make actual careers. I see so many young chefs burning out, getting tired. They have families and then, you know, they didn’t make any huge status and they’re kind of stuck, and tired and worn. Whereas this, I think — building into industries that are a little bit bigger — we have a lot more opportunities for people for real careers. You look at the guys who started early with Danny Meyer and Shake Shack and they’re doing really well for themselves.
More about Craft and his restaurants can be found at nichestlouis.com.
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