Self-Made Southern

by Rebecca Cohen
Antoinette Bruno
January 2014



Turns out "Southern" may be more of a state of mind than a matter of geographic origins. Just ask Kayla Swartout, who grew up all across the country and never really identified with The South or Southern foodways. But since high school she's called Nashville, Tennessee, "home," and now with every new dessert she puts on the menu as the pastry chef of Capitol Grille at the Hermitage Hotel, she is creating her own sweet Southern story.

Blending beloved Dixie traditions with her French training and modern techniques, Swartout is a self-made Southerner, and she's adeptly playing with the cuisine of The South.

Tennessee Corncake with Moonshine Syrup, Burnt Meringue, Buttermilk Ice Cream, and Citrus Segments
Tennessee Corncake with Moonshine Syrup, Burnt Meringue, Buttermilk Ice Cream, and Citrus Segments

As a college student, after a French pastry-induced epiphany jolted her out of her med-school fast track ("I owe it to my sister for sharing her lemon macaron"), Swartout enthusiastically embraced a new challenge: spreading the pastry love. "It exists purely to make people happy," she says. "I've always loved that about pastry." While her classical training and time spent in New York City kitchens has undoubtedly left its mark, Swartout thrives in her small, lively, and distinctly regional market. She's committed to creating desserts that speak to her local diners in their native tongue. "Before working at the Hermitage, I didn't really cook with Southern ingredients, and I wasn't really Southern food savvy. So I had to learn about it and develop a palate."

Swartout looks to Capitol Grille Executive Chef Tyler Brown and Chef de Cuisine Richard Neal for insights and down-home inspiration. "They pull in ingredients I'm not familiar with, and I learn about them. They do something that piques my interest and I think 'that would be a cool component in a dessert'," says Swartout. A recent glut of pristine belly fat, left over from whole hog butchery, coincided nicely with Swartout's impulse to introduce pork fat into her pies. And a local revival of old fashioned soda production spurred her creation of a dessert that calls to mind the nostalgic flavors of a Southern soda fountain. Spiced Chocolate Cake, Chocolate-Caramel Mousse, Ginger Marshmallow, Birch Beer Sorbet, Cherry Sphere, and Cherry Pearls summon up the carbonated nostalgia of soda pops past.

Hermitage Hotel's farm and the local farmers market, which Swartout visits regularly, are also sources of inspiration and education. "There are so many good ingredients we get from our farm or local farmers [that tie into] so many aspects of Southern history." Cornmeal from last summer's Jubilee makes for a tender yet satisfyingly gritty Tennessee Corn Cake, and pairs perfectly with Moonshine Syrup, Burnt Meringue, Fresh Citrus, and Cruze Buttermilk Ice Cream. "I love buttermilk," she says, "I can't get enough of it."

Memory-engaging desserts like Coconut Cake with Cream Cheese-Coconut Mousse and intense Blueberry Compote are enlivened by unexpected additions such as yuzu, and presented in artful compositions that demonstrate a refined modern aesthetic.

Swartout is attune to and guided by the deeply embedded regional culinary identity expressed by the natives around her. "I love hearing stories from the staff or guests about food their grandmothers used to cook. There are sometimes things that I haven't heard of, so I have to find a book or a website that can clarify what the component is. If it's been lost in history and didn't get passed down; it's fun to see it come to life again." The deeper she goes down this rabbit hole, the less inclined she is to surface. "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. Utilizing those French techniques I was trained with and balancing them with Southern ingredients—it makes sense to me. And people are receiving it well, which is exciting."