As Chef Gaetano Di Benedetto prepares to close his Forest Park market, he is looking ahead as he serves a sampling of his forthcoming line of shelf-stable and nutrient dense plant-based meals. | Melissa Elsmo/Food Editor

In mid-March, Chef Gaetano Di Benedetto announced his namesake market, Chef Gaetano’s Artisan Foods, 7636 Madison St. in Forest Park, will permanently close after selling down its stock of pastas, sauces, cheeses, and house made limoncello. An exact date the niche Italian market will go dark has not yet been determined as the pace of sales will drive the decision-making, but according to Di Benedetto that date is likely coming soon.

The artisan market opened in October 2020 after Di Benedetto closed the fine dining establishment bearing his name in response to pandemic volatility. He swiftly transformed the same space into a gourmet carry-out market known for peddling prepared foods including house-made breads, artisan sandwiches, bakery pizzas and pasta sauces. The pivot proved to be successful until pandemic restrictions started to ease. When mask mandates lifted and people started to dine in restaurants again, Di Benedetto experienced a noticeable drop in business.

“This is a story of a pandemic and then not a pandemic,” said Di Benedetto matter-of-factly. “This is like experiencing a death in a way. First, I killed the restaurant and now I am killing the market.”

Chef Gaetano Di Benedetto has made the emotional decision to close his artisan market in Forest Park. | Melissa Elsmo/Food Editor

The emotional chef was quick to express gratitude for his longtime customers and appreciates having had a place where he could “use his creativity” rather than churning out the “Alfredo sauces and chicken Vesuvio” commonly found on Italian American restaurant menus. Both incarnations of the Gaetano’s brand allowed Di Benedetto to cook the food he was most passionate about making. He considers the market closure to be a matter of survival and has started a GoFundMe to help support his staff as they brace for the eventual closure of the market.

Though the closure is a sad milestone in a long career, Di Benedetto is gearing up for his next food-focused endeavor — Lazy Food Ventures. The new business model focuses on bringing chef-driven, shelf-stable, plant-based meals to the public. Di Benedetto and managing partner, Nakul Napoor, are just weeks away from their beta launch featuring “Gaetano’s flavors for home cooking.”  The restaurant quality meals come in varieties including Bolognese, Italian Ramen, and Pistachio Pesto. All the meals are plant-based, high in protein and cook in 10 minutes. For example, a pouch of Lazy Food Venture’s Carbonara boasts pea protein, vegan bacon, vegan eggs, vegan pecorino, almonds, coconut oil, brown rice, pepper, and cauliflower. The meals are designed to be healthy for both people and the planet.

Chef and co-founder, Di Benedetto also serves as head of research and development for the company. He will retain the Forest Park building and transition it into a food lab where he will continue to develop new recipes for Lazy Food Ventures. He will be assisted in the food lab by Alicia Carlson who started as an intern at Gaetano’s market and just one other employee.

“This has been a long-time dream. I have been acting like a scientist since 2004,” said Di Benedetto who has a long history perfecting vegan meat and cheese alternatives. “I won’t have to worry about production; I can just close myself in a room and play.”

The business will have a robust e-commerce platform, but Di Benedetto and Napoor are clear the launch will have distinct local appeal. Folks interested in participating in the beta launch should sign up at lazycooker.com. Di Benedetto and Napoor have committed to donating 25% of sales during the launch to Gaetano’s GoFundMe. The official launch of Lazy Food Ventures is expected later this summer. In the meantime, pay a final visit to Chef Gaetano’s Artisan Market to stock up on your favorite items and wish Di Benedetto well on his next reinvention.

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