“They replaced everything – especially the stoves,” says Gerard Craft, sizzling with enthusiasm over his vision come to fruition for the kitchen at the Cinder House at Four Seasons Hotel St. Louis. Tapped in 2017 to create a new concept for the Hotel’s signature food and beverage experience, Craft found inspiration from the open flame. With heavy influences from the “grilling meccas” of South America such as Argentina and Brazil, Cinder House’s menu features the chef’s take on global grilling techniques with meats, seafood, vegetables and more.
Like a trophy catfish reeled in from the nearby Mississippi River, Craft is quite a catch as a partner for the Hotel. The first-ever St. Louis honouree of a James Beard Award for Best Chef: Midwest, he was just 25 years old when he arrived in the city and shook up the local dining scene. With Craft’s work as Consulting Chef of Cinder House, his Niche Food Group now encompasses six restaurants in St. Louis and one in Nashville.
Cinder House marks Craft’s first foray into South American cuisine. The menu is inspired not only by the continent’s grilling traditions, but also by Craft’s early food memories. His beloved nanny, Dia, was a native of Brazil and introduced him to flavours of her country at an early age. “She was like a second mother to me, and one of the best cooks I’ve ever met,” he says, recalling the many dishes she created to nourish his youth. As a young chef, Craft and his wife, Suzie, spent time with Dia in her kitchen, jotting down recipes and cooking side-by-side to master her techniques.
Many of those Dia-inspired dishes are now on the Cinder House menu, albeit transformed by Craft’s creativity and the heat of the wood-burning hearth. There’s feijoada, for instance, the national dish of Brazil, which the restaurant serves with grilled duck legs and a stew of black beans surrounded by bold Moroccan chermoula sauce. And there’s the addictive pão de queijo, an airy cheese bread made with tapioca flour that can be found on home dining tables across Brazil. “When I was growing up, I ate pão de queijo almost everyday.”
Craft also provided inspiration for the design of Cinder House. The restaurant takes full advantage of its eighth floor setting, with an extensive open-air patio and bar and commanding views of the Mississippi River and the Gateway Arch from the Hotel’s Sky Terrace. He also had a hand in the restaurant’s beverage program, with original takes on cocktails such as the Caipirinha made with Brazilian rum – “similar to a Mojito, but a little bit sharper” – and the Argentine favourite Fernet con Coca – “I have a weakness for drinks mixed with Coca-Cola.”
Following a couple of years studying history in college, Craft pursued a more adventurous profession as an apprentice snowboard photographer in Utah. He took a restaurant job to supplement his creative endeavour. There, he fell in love with the energy of the kitchen. He progressed rapidly, landing cooking gigs at Bistro Toujours in Park City, Utah; the famed Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles; and Ryland Inn in Whitehouse Station, New Jersey. Then he headed for St. Louis.
Why St. Louis? “I wanted to be part of the rise of the city, building something as opposed to just swimming upstream in New York.” His timing was perfect, putting him on the leading edge of a wave of creative types who had eyes on doing the same. Craft is modest about his influence on the local dining scene. “If I did something, I think that I made it okay for a lot of young chefs to break the rules,” he says. “There was a set kind of restaurant in town for a long time, and I’d like to think that I broke that mold a bit.”
“There is so much talent and good food in this town right now.”
Craft also recognises that his story has encouraged local chefs to gain experience in other cities and then return to St. Louis to open their own restaurants. “There is so much talent and good food in this town right now.” Craft also credits the quality of local ingredients as a positive for the St. Louis hospitality industry overall. “I think St. Louis has come a long way in that regard. There are a lot more young people out there who find farming as a great career right now. Whatever we need, we can get it.”
So what is a still-young, rule-breaking chef doing partnering with a top-of-the-line and long-established luxury hotel group? Craft has always been impressed by the Four Seasons brand: “There’s a ton I can learn from this company.” He once stayed at Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at Sultanahmet, housed in a former prison in the Old City, and remembers it as one of the coolest hotel experiences he’s ever had. “Four Seasons is a great brand for my brand to be associated with.”
When not shaping the dining scene surrounded by the wood-burning oven at Cinder House, Craft enjoys hanging out with his wife and daughters. “We’ve got two dancers, and one of them has already fallen in love with camping.” Meantime, he is sticking with St. Louis. “There’s so much cool stuff to do in this town,” he says, noting in particular paddle trips with a local outfitter on the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. “It’s a lot of fun. You pretty much pull up and get out right at Four Seasons.”