Chef Evy Swoboda’s Masterful American Fare at The Last Kitchen

 In Food, Interviews

Chef Evy Swoboda has been messing around in kitchens for as long as she can remember. 

The executive chef at The Last Kitchen, Swoboda first developed a passion for food as a child, a passion that would blossom as she traveled the world with her family, enjoying cuisines from around the globe. 

As a self-taught chef, Swoboda embraced the idea that cooking could be fun and that recipes and techniques didn’t have to remain the same, but that they could evolve. 

After spending five years at Pastaria in Clayton, Swoboda joined The Last Kitchen in Downtown‘s newly redesigned architectural gem, The Last Hotel, when it opened in July 2019, spearheading efforts to create a restaurant and food experience that would be long-lasting and memorable. With a team of 22, including an in-house butcher, three sous chefs and a pastry chef, Swoboda has developed a menu inspired by dishes from up and down the Mississippi River.

From homemade pasta and pizza dough to boudin sausage-stuffed giant toasted ravioli, Swoboda is manifesting ideas from scratch and cooking up her own melting pot in the heart of the Midwest. And with seven months of success behind them, Swoboda and The Last Kitchen’s team are rebuilding the bridge between food and hospitality and finishing it off with a splash of lemon. 

Guided: What inspired you to have this love for food and desire to pursue a career as a professional chef? Take us back to the beginning!
I’ve always—since I was a little kid—loved food. My parents gave me free range of the kitchen, so I never liked to eat anything out of a box. I think I was sensitive to sugar, so when I went to school, I didn’t want to have a stomach ache. So my mom was like, “Oh, you want eggs or something in the morning,” and I was cooking it. I would say early as second or third grade, I was making food. And it just stemmed from there. I always loved eating, first and foremost; I didn’t really know if it was going to turn into a career or not. I also had the opportunity to travel a ton when I was growing up. My family has gotten to go to like 16 different countries together. 

Guided: What are some of the places you’ve visited?
We’ve been everywhere from India to China, Spain, Turkey, Estonia and South America.

Guided: So you were able to try all different types of cuisines as a child?
Yes, and I really loved that we liked to do as the locals did. We liked to go into neighborhoods, and I loved seeing the street cooking and all the markets and the colors. I liked the informal side of cooking. I haven’t been classically trained anywhere. And as much as I absolutely love and respect technique and all of that, I think that you can do it in a way where you’re also just embracing the food and the culture of whatever you’re cooking. At home, we always did different nights where we’d cook and have Indian food night or Mexican food night or Chinese food night. And that just kind of grew into more of a passion to learn about each one. 

Guided: Before you came to The Last Kitchen you were at Pastaria in Clayton. What brought you over to The Last Kitchen?
So I was at Pastaria for five years—a wonderful five years. I got to cook really closely with Gerard [Craft], Michael Petres and Ashley Shelton. I also got to help open Pastaria Nashville. So, I got to experience going down there and … helping hiring and training.

I’d just gotten engaged, and I had the opportunity of moving down there—but I was engaged, and I planned on getting married, so I ended up staying in St. Louis. And I realized that it was a good time to leave. I don’t know the best way to say it, but there was a wonderful chef running Pastaria at the time, and no one was going anywhere fast.

I came across this opportunity because my dad lives in Milwaukee next to the Iron Horse Hotel, and the opener of that independent hotel is the developer of this hotel. So he got wind of him coming to St. Louis and opening up something. Two and a half years before this place was in construction, I got in touch with the developer, and we just slowly built this relationship where I was helping his architect and design team, like showing them the neighborhood around.

We really tried to make this a total St. Louis experience. It was important for them to learn the town from someone who had grown up here. He considered me his “Culinary Ambassador of St. Louis” while I was still working at Pastaria at the time. Then when they came and were ready to start hiring, they hired me as their executive chef. 

Guided: What has your experience been like facilitating the restaurant so far?
Well, it’s been crazy opening a hotel. [Laughs.] I’ve never been in the hotel world, so I’m learning things day by day. But I had the opportunity to be a part of the whole pre-opening phase, so I was here from the very beginning of construction. And I was lucky enough to be included in a lot of major decisions in the hotel … from the mini bars all the way down to the hotel lobby restaurant. I really have a full understanding of our story. So it’s been good, and we are still learning every day. It’s the fastest and slowest year of my life! But I’m on my feet, and I have a wonderful team. 

Guided: Who Is your team comprised of?
I have 22 employees. I have three sous chefs: Ryan Sommerkamp, Elliott Brown and Brandon Panosh. And then we have a butcher, Enoch Simpson, who is wonderful, and Suji Grant, our pastry chef. And I’m a little bit biased, but I think I have some of the best talent in St. Louis here in my kitchen. I’m very happy to have them on my team. 

Guided: A lot of people really love your in-house butcher! How does that benefit you as a restaurant versus having meat delivered?
Well, the main thing is supporting a local farmer called Price Family Farms in Alton, Illinois. It was a major and obvious decision for us to use someone local and support St. Louis. Also it gives us the opportunity to provide different cuts of meats and steaks and revolve our menu more frequently. I’m not one that likes to get set on something. We obviously have our standard staples that are here to stay, but I love to create something new—and sometimes you have the perfect pepper in house or the perfect piece of  meat in house to make something, and I don’t think its always necessarily better to try to recreate it all the time. 

Guided: I totally agree! You can always switch it up and make something different. Speaking of the food, your concept dishes on the menu are inspired by cuisine along the Mississippi River. Are there any fan favorites that people seem to really enjoy?
We make all of our sausage in house. We have a salsiccia sausage—which is my grandpa’s recipe—that is served on our sausage sampler board, and it’s also on our pizza because we have a wood-fired pizza. And it’s really great. And then we offer other kinds of sausage as well. Like right now we’ve got a wild boar; Nashville hot chicken; a hot, smoked Swiss sausage; and miso-kimchi-pork sausage. So, my sous chefs have fun creating these new sausages. 

Guided: What’s some of the inspiration behind some of the other items on the menu?
Originally, we went on this Mississippi tour trip. As a way of making this a total St. Louis experience, we gravitated towards the Mississippi. You know, the train along it from the north and the south really made a melting pot in St. Louis. In the middle of the Midwest, we have everything from the North, East, South and West creating all of these cuisines in St. Louis, so it’s hard to define. We’re moving forward with grasping the American fare made from scratch, and I would say that’s the best way to describe the restaurant. We have a boudin ravioli—toasted ravioli—and the boudin sausage is a classic Louisiana rice and pork sausage. And I put it in a giant toasted ravioli, St. Louis style, and it’s served with comeback sauce, which is like the Ranch of the South.

Guided: Are there any new dishes joining the menu or upcoming events at the restaurant that we should be looking forward to?
I’m doing a neighborhood dinner series where we’re pairing up with different alcohol distributors and pairing it with a neighborhood in St. Louis that matches the cuisine. In January, we did Cherokee Street with Southwestern-style food with Patrón. And then we have something new: Every single Wednesday, we have Five Dollar Burger Night. They’re quarter-pound smash patties, and they’re wonderful! It’s the same burger we serve on the roof all year round, and it’s my favorite go-to burger.

Guided: What would you say is the most rewarding part of your job?
For me, it’s definitely giving the space to my chefs to create. I’ve worked with all of them in the past, and just knowing I can give them the opportunity to create their own dishes and manage in their own style and figure out their place in this industry. I don’t expect them to all be here forever. You’ll be hearing from them next opening up their own places, I can just tell. 

Images courtesy of Jasmine Osby. 

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