Interview with Kentucky-Tennessee Rising Star Pastry Chef Kayla Swartout of Capitol Grille at The Hermitage Hotel – Nashville, TN

by Rebecca Cohen
February 2014

Rebecca Cohen: Did food play an important role in your life growing up?
Kayla Swartout: When I spent time with family, we would always cook dinner together. That was when I remember being happiest as a kid, when we were all in the kitchen together. So I think that played a huge role in my career choice.

RC: Did you always know you wanted to be a pastry chef?
KS: I didn’t. I went to Auburn with a full-ride scholarship to do pre-med. Sophomore year of college, I went to Siena, Italy, for a semester and traveled all around Europe. I spent a couple of weekends in France, and happened to walk into Pierre Herme’s shop in Caen. I had no idea what a macaron was. I was a novice. My sister bought some macarons and gave me one, and that one macaron changed my life. I had no idea pastries could be beautiful and intriguing and complicated. In Paris, instead of going to the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower I went from patisserie to patisserie; I was mesmerized by it. Returning to the United States, I realized I was on the wrong career path, so I withdrew from Auburn and enrolled in French Culinary Institute the next semester.

RC: How was your culinary school experience?
KS: The way FCI was set up was the perfect experience for me. It’s fast, only six months, but you see everything once. The educators were very knowledgeable and experienced; the library was to die for. I learn well seeing something once, and then I can replicate it easily and perfect it on my own time, so it was like the program was made for me.

RC: Why were you drawn to pastry vs. savory?
KS: I love the fact that it’s not necessary. It’s extra. It exists purely to make people happy. I’ve always loved that about pastry, so I’ve always focused on that.

RC: Why have you pursued restaurant positions over bakery work?
KS: I appreciate every aspect of pastry—breads, chocolates, bakery goods, and plated desserts, as well. But I feel that you can be really creative with plated desserts. There are a lot of dimensions to them because you can have five or six components in one dish, and they meld together into one thing.

RC: Why did you choose Nashville after your time in New York City, over San Francisco, Chicago, or another big food city?
KS: I considered San Francisco for a little while, but I love the lifestyle here in Nashville. And it’s such an emerging food scene.  It’s a really great place to be. I know almost every chef in town, but new restaurants are opening almost every week. It still has a really small town feel, but because of the [country] music industry, it has all the resources of a big city without the commuting and cost of living. Things are a little more laid back, and I really like that.

RC: How was it returning to Tennessee after working in NYC?
KS: I don’t have any regrets about moving back. It was the perfect decision for me. I feel like so much of my creativity and inspiration as a chef comes from seeing what other chefs are doing, and having the time to relax, recharge, and refuel. And if I’m working 17 hours a day, six days a week, I lose that energy. In Nashville I work hard, I play hard, and I get to see what other chefs are doing. It’s the perfect balance.

RC: Who have been your mentors?
KS: [Pastry Chef] Ashley Brauze—I learned so much from her in a short period of time. She’s so organized and talented. Any time I had a question about what was going on in a recipe she always had an answer. I learned so much about how a proper pastry kitchen is run and how to efficiently time plating and prep and things of that nature. I really owe her a lot.

RC: What’s your culinary style?
KS: With plated desserts, I love people being surprised about presentation. I love for guests to say, “Oh my goodness. I can’t possibly eat that; it’s too pretty.” That’s one thing you don’t see a lot of in the South, intricately plated desserts. Slices of pie and cobblers in cast iron—real rustic and simple—I love those too. I think they’re fabulous. But my style is a little more delicate, a little more feminine.

RC: In a smaller market like Nashville, how do you keep things fresh and interesting?
KS: It was a bit of a challenge at first coming up with menus when I started. But the more I get into Southern food the richer it is, and the more history I find out, the more excited I am to cook with Southern ingredients. I like to find one interesting thing about a dish that’s unexpected. Not crazy, but something people aren’t going to expect: cornmeal in cake, a spice, an herb, pulling an ingredient people don’t usually use in pastry. There are so many good ingredients we get from our farms or local farmers.

RC: What ingredient are you crazy about right now?
KS: Buttermilk. I love it. I can’t get enough of it. In cakes, cookies, ice cream. I love the tang. We use Cruze Dairy buttermilk, and I love that it’s got a little bit of an earthy flavor.

RC: If you could cook in any kitchen, for any chef in the world, where would you go?
CH: I would love to spend a week with Chad Robertson at Tartine in San Francisco. I think their pastries are fabulous, and their croissants are my favorite in the entire world. His bread is the most memorable loaf of bread I’ve ever had. His food pulls out such fond memories when I think back on the things I’ve eaten from that bakery; I would go work with them in a heartbeat.

RC: Where will you be in 5 years? 10 years?
KS: I always want to be learning. I never want to be at a job where I’m not constantly being challenged and pushed. That’s one of the great things about a hotel: between the restaurants and banquets and special requests from guests for cakes and chocolates, there’s so much that can change from day to day. I really like hotel setting.

But I think I would like to eventually do something that’s not open 24-7, that closes one day a week and isn’t open in the evenings. I would love to have a bakery, whether one that I own or just run, it doesn’t really mater to me. But to have an outlet where I can just make really good pastries and cookies and tarts. With a Southern aspect, but with really nice presentation. That would be wonderful.