Adam Altnether, the 26-year-old chef/entrepreneur/prodigy and business partner of local cuisine celebrity, Gerard Craft, has a resume that is so staggering I’m curious if the person behind it will be at all normal. Or possibly obese– it’s always shocking when chefs aren’t. I don’t understand how that kind of restraint is possible, being around delectable eats all day long.
Altnether graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in New York City and landed his first job as a prep cook at Niche under Craft’s tutelage at just 21. Since then, he worked his way up to helping Craft with his colony of restaurants, opened his own place, and is now chef and partner of Niche, Pastaria, Taste and Brasserie. Nope—no way this person is normal.
When I walk into Niche, Altnether greets me and asks if I’d like anything to drink. He has a deep voice, with vocal inflections that are surprisingly non-robotic. They’re varied and earnest. Normally he has a pen or some variety of writing utensil behind his ear, but not today. Casually dressed in a t-shirt and jeans, not even a little bit obese, he sips coffee from a tea cup and prepares to take on another day of insanely long hours. As our crew prepares to film in the restaurant, it’s clear Altnether feels much more comfortable in the kitchen behind the scenes, rather than being under the lights and cameras. All eyes in the room are on him.
“Are they not going to hear you?” he says, as a slight look of terror darts across his face.
“No, they won’t hear me at all,” I tell him.
“Oh, that’s weird,” he says, laughing.
“No no, trust me, that’s the good part,” I respond.
“Should I be looking somewhere else?” Altnether asks.
“You’ll be looking at her.”
“Look at her?” he says, resettling towards me. “Cool.”
Even though Altnether is young, he’s no novice to his trade. He’s been doing it for eleven years, since he was fifteen. His father and stepmother cooked at home, where he was first exposed to the art of making something from nothing.
During his junior year of high school, he came across a program for high school students at the Culinary Institute of America, called Career Discovery. The program enables promising young talents to attend CIA for a month. Altnether headed to New York City for the program, and fell in love. “It was like, all I could think about my whole senior year…how I wanted to be up in New York after that.” It’s odd to think it was almost ten years ago.
“Did you ever consider a traditional liberal arts education?” He shakes his head. “It was either this, or being a pilot,” he says, smiling. “Food brings everyone together. A family dinner is a really cool thing to experience. That’s never going to change. It only happened on holidays in my family…but there’s some people that do it every Sunday. You know?”
Now, Altnether brings families together every night of the week. He continually mentions the word “family,” so many times I doubt it’s even conscious. In addition to his immediate family, he’s created another one, a family of other culinary experts bound by a similar passion. His relationship with Craft has become a staple in his life. You can tell by the way he talks about him.
“Gerard is like a mentor to me. Honestly, he’s like way more talented than I’ll ever be. The stuff he can do with food is just incredible. And I still learn tons of stuff from him every day. It’s amazing to work with someone like that. It pushes you harder.” Craft took Altnether under his well-decorated wing, and since then, Altnether has raced up the ladder. They’ve taken trips all over the world together to explore different cultures and cuisine. In particular, Altnether was struck by the beauty of his home state, parts of which he didn’t even know about. “The hills remind you of Italy … Gerard and I talk about it all the time. He told me that before I’d ever been to Italy, and he’s a hundred percent right.” To develop their menus, they’ve focused on exploring the land, and what it can offer.
Having rich natural resources at our disposal is easy for natives to overlook, but the top chefs here and around the country haven’t. “The New York chefs or the big chefs out in San Francisco…they all use pork from Missouri, because it’s the best,” says Altnether. “We’re still a little alienated from the rest of the country. But again it’s that whole growing process, and I think that every city has gone through it at some point. Now we’re finally starting up on it.”
To him, the obstacle in our path isn’t about whether or not we have a good product to offer, because that’s a given. We do. It’s about being able to see it for ourselves. “These chefs in New York are taking trips to pig farms in Missouri. They understand how good the product is. Now we just have to.”
“We have a ton of young, talented chefs here. It’s really cool to be in the middle of this food revolution.” He’s genuinely excited about the up-and-coming talents, and does what he can to support them in the way others helped him, like Craft. As business partners they’ve forged a trusting bond, an immensely important element of any relationship, to both Altnether and Craft.
Craft has equally reverent things to say about Altnether. In an article from 2010 that appeared in Feast, Craft says, “[Altnether] has been a tremendous asset to the Craft family of restaurants these past four years, and there is no doubt in my mind that he will do anything less than succeed.”
Consciously or not, he has attached himself to strong, centered role models. Altnether’s father, a local carpenter, also instilled the power of a strong work ethic in his son. “I don’t know where I’d be without him,” he says of his father. They often see each other three or four times per week, and Altnether calls him one of his best friends.
“’If you’re going to do something, do it right,’ is something he always said,” whether it was “playing hockey or my math homework. If I messed something up and I only half way erased it, he would come behind me and just erase it all the way and make sure it was all gone.” Altnether’s father can frequently be found paging through issues of Sauce or Feast to show friends or clients photo spreads of his son’s work, explaining the process of making pasta and artisan pizzas.
When I ask him to take me through his steep uphill journey, he laughs, as though uncertain of what to make of it himself. “I’m not even sure how I got here sometimes,” he says.
During his last three months of school in New York, he began the search for job opportunities post-college. He had an offer in New York, but flew back to St. Louis to look for jobs instead. “I was in a pretty serious relationship back here at home,” he says. “I thought it would always be best, if it worked out, that I would come home.”
Altnether sent out resumes to several top restaurants in the city, including Niche, but never heard back from Craft. He had working interviews, called stages (pronounced “stahzje”) set up at Sidney Street Café and An American Place, but neither had room in their kitchens for a new chef. Ready to give up, Altnether was prepared to head back to New York when he awoke to a phone call from Craft. Kevin Nashan of Sidney Street Café had passed along Altnether’s resume.
“He was like, ‘Hey this is Gerard Craft at Niche…got your resume from my friend Kevin at Sidney Street, and he says you were really great.’” Craft asked if he wanted to come stage at Niche. Altnether was floored. “I was like, ‘Yeah, absolutely.’ I came down and worked all day,” Altnether recalls. Craft saw something special in him, and offered him a job that night as a prep cook.
Although he’s a success now, he tells me the story of his first day working at Niche, after he’d gotten the job offer. “I thought I was going to get fired on my first day, because I screwed up this huge project,” he says, affably. He laughs about it now, but at the time, he was terrified.
“We had braised a huge pan of short ribs, and all I had to do was pick it off the bone and then season it. So I picked it all off and it was in these nice big chunks, and Gerard came around and tasted it and he’s like, ‘Oh, it needs more salt.’” Altnether mixed in more salt, and Craft came around to taste it again. Same answer: “Needs more salt.”
“He did it like five times, but every time I mixed it, it broke it into smaller pieces. So at the end, it was almost like this meat paste. [Craft] came by and was like, ‘What did you do to this?’ And it was tons of product. I was like, ‘I have no idea.’ And I thought I was done for.” The team was able to fix and serve it, but Altnether visibly cringes recalling the story, even though he can laugh about it today.
“It was awful,” he says.
“Were you nervous?” I ask.
“Ah, I was so nervous! It was terrible.”
“Do you think Gerard knew?”
“Yeah, definitely. I mean, I think so. It probably showed pretty easily on my face,” he says.
But Altnether pushed onward. He lists off a litany of tedious grunt work he would do, from chopping, washing, cleaning the walk-in, and more. “You have to start at the bottom,” he says. “I just wanted a chance. If you work hard, everyone else is going to see it.”
It paid off. One night, a line cook got sick and had to go home, so Altnether wound up taking over the station for the evening. “After that, I just kept moving up.” He was assigned to prepare salads and cold appetizers, then hot appetizers, then meat. Within a year, he became the Sous-chef of Niche, and eventually the Chef de Cuisine, which allowed him to create the menu, together with Craft.
Craft himself worked his way up in a similar fashion. In a May 2013 article from STL Today, he says, “’I was washing dishes at night and cars in the morning,’…‘I got very lucky because they let me cook at the place where I was washing dishes. After that, I moved on to work with the best chefs I could find.’”
Perhaps it’s part of the personality type that is successful in the restaurant industry, but Altnether’s discipline and work ethic in place of conceit, particularly for someone who has achieved that kind of success at such a young age, is unexpected. His multiple families must keep him grounded. I can’t find a shred of arrogance, conscious or subconscious, even if I look really hard for it. “I think that everyone works just as hard as I do…it’s a huge team effort around here.”
Although he might not have known it at the time, Altnether was clearly meant to be here, in St. Louis, working with Craft. But the relationship that initially pulled him back to his home town has since ended. “That union is no longer together. But that’s definitely what brought me back.” He was ready to turn down a job offer in New York, unapologetically willing to commit, and make sacrifices for someone else. But trusting someone sincere is often times a foreign realm. When Altnether says his father and Craft taught him not to half-ass anything, he means it.
But he doesn’t dwell on all that anymore. “It’s all of those crazy what-ifs in life. If I never came back to St. Louis … who knows what would have happened?” After the interview, Altnether takes a deep breath, like it’s the first one he’s taken in over an hour. He then disappears back into the kitchen, blending right in with the others clad in white chef coats. Behind the kitchen, Altnether is back in his natural habitat. We gather around him and continue to ask questions. He tells stories and makes us laugh while chopping carrots that have been sliced into paper-thin strips, pressed between sheets of plastic, compressed under a vacuum and then frozen for a raw carrot pasta dish.
I have absolutely no idea how on earth the weird sheets of carrot are somehow going to transform into something that resembles pasta, but Altnether delicately pulls apart the plastic, stacks a few carrot sheets together and begins chopping, a motion he has repeated literally thousands of times. Sure enough, the long strips of carrot begin to mimic ribbons of pasta. How anyone would ever think to do that with a carrot, I’ll never know.
For Altnether, there are parts of his journey he’ll never totally understand either. “[I] never had time to just sit back and be like, ‘Wow this is really happening.’ It just happened.” But his initial sentiment, the mentality that has propelled him through it all, continually rings true. “If you’re going to do something, do it right. Don’t half-ass anything.”
For more information about Adam Altnether, visit www.nicherestaurantgroup.tumblr.com