Every Wednesday morning, top L.A. chefs descend on the renowned downtown Santa Monica Farmers Market, jostling to buy the best goods of the season. Shannon Swindle, pastry chef at Craft Los Angeles, is regularly in the shuffle. As he moves from stall to stall, he stacks up crates and baskets of fruit on his dolly — a trusty steed in a setting like this.
Fashionistas revel at a sample sale, but Swindle delights in produce. The chef has a well-practiced knack for choosing just-right Medjool dates and figs — he’s been qualifying such things since he was a kid, when he’d sample plums, tomatoes and other fruit in all stages of ripeness on his grandparents’ farm outside Dallas. And since Swindle has shopped the Santa Monica market on behalf of Craft Los Angeles since 2009, he has formed relationships with local growers, including Barbara Spencer of Windrose Farms, who have gotten to know his preferences over the years. With these powers combined, Swindle is able to gather some of the Golden State’s finest fruit.
“The amount of choice we have still blows my mind,” Swindle said. “Everyone has a misconception about L.A. in some way — I did at first, too. But it’s gorgeous, and the product we get is ridiculous — stone fruits through May, for example, and not just Bing cherries but eight types of red cherries and Black Tartarian cherries and Black Republican cherries.”
A self-proclaimed “fruit geek,” Swindle draws inspiration from Alice Waters, a pioneer in cooking with local, sustainable and organic goods. Long before Swindle was a pastry master — he worked in a number of Dallas kitchens in his early career, including on the hot line and in the pastry kitchen at Stephen Pyle's Star Canyon — he read The Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook. He hasn’t put it out of his mind since.
“I read it and thought, ‘I’m going to become really obsessive about this, too, just like Alice Waters,’” Swindle said. “And I’ve been afforded the chance to do that, thanks to the places I’ve worked.”
In 2006, Swindle’s deft hand with dough helped him land the position of pastry chef at Craft Dallas. Three years later, he took the same title at Craft Los Angeles, where the full-page dessert menu is a testament to his love for quality fruit.
Much of what Swindle purchases at the farmers market goes right onto the menu’s fresh-fruit list. Guests can try one item for $6, but most go for the assortment ($14), an unfussy heap of color, composed of a little of everything on the list. In mid-October, that meant dates, Asian pear, Warren pear, pomegranate, Fuji apple, Mutsu apple and Thomcord grapes. A couple of weeks later, Fuyu persimmon and passion fruit made an appearance. Some of the same fruits are transformed into flavor-packed sorbets each day, and there are usually one or two roasted offerings, too, such as quince or figs.
“I put as much effort into the fruit list as I do in making great doughs and composed desserts,” Swindle said. “We buy really incredible (and quite expensive) fruit, and I haul most of it myself in the back of my car. So it pleases me tremendously to see people go toward it. I don’t see many other restaurants offering fruit plates, unless it’s sort of generic. I think this sets us apart, absolutely.”
Since Craft reprints its menu daily, Swindle can follow in Alice Waters’ footsteps, letting the market drive his creations. He keeps his walk-in stocked with building blocks of the pastry world — pie dough, sweet tart dough, rugelach dough, sourdough, cake batter and so on. Then, depending on what Mother Nature and local growers provide him, dessert puzzles come together. When Swindle picked up figs at the market in mid-October, for example, he added them to the fresh list and put a fig-and-almond galette on the menu. When forager Kerry Clasby delivered Warren pears from Frog Hollow Farms — another way Swindle gets the best of the best at Craft — the fruit was offered fresh and as a sorbet.
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Swindle is, of course, delighted when lesser-known fruits land in his kitchen. Putting something like feijoa, or pineapple guava, on the menu is an opportunity for him and his staff to bring guests into their fruit-centric world.
“I’d never had a Warren pear until I got to California, and its complexity blew me away,” Swindle said as we stood chatting in the Craft kitchen early one morning. He sliced one up and gave me a piece to sample. “Though it’s a little more firm than a ripe Bosc, it’s still sweet. It also has some tropical stuff going on — pear-flavored, but also like pineapple, if you’re going to get really geeky about it.”
If you sit down for dessert at Craft, you will want to get geeky about it. And with any luck, Swindle’s talent with fruit (and pastry) will rouse you to go to your own neighborhood farmers market, where edible treasures await.
10100 Constellation Blvd., Century City; (310) 279-4180, craftlosangeles.com.