When people hear St. Louis, a great dining city isn’t necessarily what they picture. But Gerard Craft—who last year became the first St. Louis-based chef to win the James Beard award for Best Chef: Midwest—is doing his part to change that image.

He’s declared innovation a  core value of his Niche Food Group to give St. Louisans a reason to come downtown. But rather than build buzz from scratch, he’s helping to drive the energy of the on-the-rise market by embracing the start-up scene of the Fourth City and setting an example to encourage other chefs to open.

Why St. Louis? “[It] has historically been a great supporter of the independent restaurant scene over chains,” says Craft, who moved to the area 10 years ago. “There are a number of up-and-coming restaurants run by a close group of innovative chefs that are pushing new ideas and trying to make the city better.”

“St. Louis has a lot of pride for its community, and downtown is the heart of the city. [We’re] reigniting that energy for downtown.”

For Craft, that means sourcing close to home. At fine-dining spot Niche, nothing on the menu comes from more than 150 miles away. And he gets creative with the supply chain for his restaurants, distributing ingredients across the menus of all his restaurant to be used in different ways.

While Craft has stuck to upscale until now, his new Porano Pasta marks another fine-dining chef going fast casual. The build-your-own pasta concept combines quick, Chipotle-style service with quality Italian food.