A change is taking place in restaurants throughout America’s heartland thanks to a group of chefs who want to be a part of something bigger than themselves.
Call it what you will—modern Midwest cuisine, modern American—we are working to redefine the region’s cuisine by investing in the people and purveyors who take as much pride in the Midwest dining scene as we do.
In St. Louis, Kevin Nashan at Sidney Street Cafe. In Kansas City, Colby Garrelts at Bluestem. In Findlay, Ohio, Michael Bulkowski at Revolver. In Peoria Heights, Illinois, Josh Adams of June. These chefs, and many others, have worked in the great restaurants of New York City, Paris and elsewhere, but now helm progressive kitchens in the Midwest that offer well-curated wine lists, tasting menus and refined preparations.
As Midwest chefs, we do more than embrace the locavore movement. We want to play a role in the entire process, and not just in the selection of purveyors.
For years, chefs throughout the country have been getting attention for “heritage” pork and beef, when much of this product comes from our own backyard. Our proximity to these farmers allows us to establish direct relationships and engage them in everything from selecting the exact mix of feed to helping take part in the planting process.
We have learned one of the most important lessons in food today: Take pride in using what you have in abundance. In Missouri, for instance, I rely on trout, crawfish, carrots, potatoes and fennel.
At one of my restaurants, Niche, we express the flavor of simple ingredients through multiple layers. As opposed to 15 flavors competing on a single plate, which can be confusing to the palate, we hone in on the nuances of one or two.
A good example is our carrots served three ways, which is a showcase of how different cooking techniques can summon a variety of flavors and textures and elevate a humble ingredient.
The centerpiece is a long strip from a large carrot, which we cook sous vide with orange juice and cumin. It’s fresh, acidic and vibrant.
Placed diagonally on the plate are roasted carrots—roasting brings out the deep, sweet caramelized flavors. They are dusted with fennel pollen, and that flavor really pops.
Then we place pickled carrots, which have nice acidity and texture. We finish the plate with crumbled carrot cake, which we have dehydrated until it’s crispy, mixed with Espelette pepper and crumbled for a sweet, crunchy element.
For a garnish, we take the leafy carrot tops, toss them with lemon and olive oil, which lends acidity and bitterness, plus dill and house-made yogurt.
As the dining scene changes, we are growing up together. We take pride in our community and in our ingredients, and we hope to expose others to the greatness of our Midwest cities the only way we know how, through our food.
Midwest Wines With Midwest Fare
Winemakers in the Midwest are learning how to make dry wines from Norton, Chardonel and other hybrid grapes.
Norton, the official grape of Missouri, makes a dry, full-bodied red wine with berry and spice flavors. Chambourcin, generally more medium bodied, often with earth tones and notes of cherry and spice, is finely suited to accompany food.
Chaumette Vineyards & Winery in Missouri makes a lovely rosé from Chambourcin, and Bethlehem Valley’s 2002 Norton pairs well with our pork dishes. A Norton from 2002? Yes, it really ages, mellowing into notes of smoke and cherry coke.
Missouri has one of the most beautiful wine regions on earth, with rolling hills so lush and green, you could be in Umbria. Kansas City or St. Louis would be a base for a day or weekend visit.
Gerard Ford Craft is the executive chef and owner of Craft Restaurants, Ltd., in St. Louis, Missouri. After opening Niche in 2005 at the age of 25, he opened Taste by Niche (a modern speakeasy), Brasserie by Niche (a classic French bistro) and, in August 2012, Pastaria, a rustic Italian restaurant.