From the looks of their résumés, Nicole Rucker and Shawn Pham—the duo behind Fiona, a new all-day bakery and restaurant on Fairfax—might seem like an unexpected pairing. Rucker, one of the city’s most exciting bakers, developed the pastry programs at Venice’s Gjelina Take Away and Gjusta, and, later, at the doughnut shop Cofax. Pham cooked at restaurants like West Hollywood’s Sona and Century City’s Craft before opening Simbal, an ahead-of-its-time Southeast Asian spot in Little Tokyo that shuttered in early 2017. After continually running into each other while working pop-ups and collaborative dinners, the two formed a friendship; when it came time for Rucker to debut her long-awaited bakery, sharing the spotlight with Pham was an obvious move. “Shawn is incredibly talented,” Rucker says. “I really just want to eat the food he’s making and cooking. I wanted to play in that band.”
Walking into Fiona feels like walking into the Land of Oz, only with better food: A cheery emerald-and-gold dining room is accented with a marble-topped pastry case, one that houses Rucker’s famed pies (chocolate chess, key lime, whatever fruit is in season) and maybe thick slices of chocolate Bundt cake. On the menu, Rucker’s sourdough country bread serves as a canvas for Pham’s creative toasts, one topped with a fermented black garlic spread and dates, another coated with an addictive Indian-inspired yogurt and decorated with fried curry leaves and two kinds of chutney. During lunch and dinner, Pham expands his repertoire: savory masa pancakes crowned with guacamole and toasted-pumpkin-seed salsa, a niçoise salad with vegetables marinated in dashi broth, and a Vietnamese beef stew served with a flaky scallion pancake. If there’s one thing uniting the chefs, it’s that both are cooking exactly the sort of foods they themselves crave. “We wanted to go beyond the standard café menu,” says Pham.
Another thread connecting the two: an emphasis on self-expression and a familiarity with the frustration that goes with it. Pham has closed a restaurant, and Rucker dealt with an ambitious bakery project that fell through last year. “We sort of bonded on an intellectual level,” recalls Rucker. When she finished her first cookbook a few months ago, Pham tested all the recipes for accuracy—no small feat for a chef who’d never baked a pie. Many of those inspired desserts now have a home at Fiona, which also serves a white layer cake with vanilla custard and vanilla frosting—a showcase for top-flight vanilla beans—and a riff on Pepperidge Farm’s Milano cookies filled with Peruvian chocolate. If you pair the cookies with one of Pham’s savory dishes, all the better. “There was an opportunity to do something different by combining our backgrounds, and, to me, that was the most important,” says Rucker. “The sum ends up greater than the parts.”