Hailing from Baltimore, Jay Swift entered the culinary world early. He started out in the restaurant business to support himself through high school and college, and soon discovered his passion for food. Swift graduated first in his class from the American Culinary Federation Apprenticeship Program. After stints in Washington, D.C., Boston and New York, Swift made his way to Atlanta to head up the culinary team at South City Kitchen. After gaining plenty of recognition there, he opened his own restaurant, 4th & Swift, in the ATL’s eclectic Old Fourth Ward neighborhood. Concentrating on the freshest ingredients, 4th& Swift serves up modern American comfort food and is universally regarded as one of the top restaurants in town. Swift took time out of his busy schedule to discuss his restaurant, his favorite cities and his top things about living in Atlanta.
What are your favorite cities to visit?
New York and San Francisco, mostly because of the restaurants. I haven’t been to San Francisco in three or four years, and there’s already a bunch of new places I haven’t been yet. New York, last time we were there, we went to Gramercy Tavern. That’s a classic — a favorite. But there’s always a bunch of new places to go to.
My wife likes the shopping in New York, and I like Northern California for the outdoors and stuff, too. You can combine San Francisco and Napa into one trip, which is great. That’s convenient, especially if you’re a food or wine person. That’s a great vacation for a foodie or a wine enthusiast.
What are your favorite restaurants?
I like ethnic restaurants, and I like neighborhood restaurants. I also love the classic ones. In New York, I love Gramercy Tavern. I still think Gotham Bar & Grill is great. There’s a bunch of good ones there, too. In Atlanta: Aria, Bacchanalia, 4th& Swift. I love Cakes & Ale — it’s great.
What do you always travel with?
My wife. She’s not an item though. I usually bring my e-reader.
What was the best trip you ever took?
San Francisco, Napa Valley, and then renting a car and driving down Route 1 to Los Angeles — all in a week’s time.
What would you serve at your ultimate dinner party?
It’d be a tough call; probably rack of lamb. I think I just love rack of lamb more than anything else. It’s a close call. I’d get the lamb from Gum Creek Farms in Roopville, Georgia.
What inspires you?
I love the restaurant business. It’s like having a party every night, a lot of fun. Lots of instant gratification, with happy guests to talk to. You get to see a cross section of people and always meet new people. It’s a business of having fun, and making other people have fun is fun.
What’s the best meal you have ever had?
I’m going to have to go with Daniel in New York City. It was like 13 courses. I remember the main course — they split it up. The guy next to me got beef two ways, and I got lamb two ways. There were 12 people at the table and six people got lamb and six people got beef, and each was prepared a different way: one was braised and one was rare. It was amazing. There was a cheese course. Amazing bread service. Incredible.
How do you come up with your menus?
The menus are market-driven, more or less, and seasonal-driven. We try to make them around what we know is going to be available for the duration of the menu — what’s going to be freshest and, as much as possible, sourced the way we like. In the fall, you have vegetables like Brussels sprouts, cabbages and root vegetables — parsnips, turnips, rutabagas — and all the stuff you associate with fall harvest; we’ll use those ingredients and work around that. In summer, we’ll use tomatoes, asparagus and legumes and make the menu around that. So it’s pretty much harvest-driven, if you will; although some things you have year-round.
What is your idea of a successful restaurant?
A successful restaurant has a connection between a place and a guest. It makes people want to come back — gives them a reason to come back, a connection.
What are your favorite Atlanta markets?
DeKalb Farmers Market. I like that place. And I use the Whole Foods on Ponce a lot. DeKalb is a big farmers market. I go there once or twice a month, at least.
What is your favorite places for brunch in Atlanta?
4th & Swift. Also, Local Three. I like them both.
What are your favorite Atlanta bars?
The Righteous Room, and Proof and Provision. They both have good beer menus, good cocktails, good bartenders and good atmospheres. I like dingy places.
What are your favorite Atlanta neighborhoods?
Old Fourth Ward and Virginia-Highlands. They have a fun, local feel to them. They offer lot of local establishments, including small shops.
What are your favorite things to do in Atlanta?
Now we have the Beltline, which is really cool. High Museum is awesome. The Botanical Gardens are great.
What is your favorite time of year in Atlanta?
Fall. It just feels great. Summer’s hot, so as soon as it cools off, it just feels literally like a big breath of fresh air. It’s energizing because summer’s brutal. As soon as the weather drops 20 degrees, it’s like getting released from prison. Not that that’s ever happened to me, but I can imagine.