Top Chef Returns to Savannah

David Landrigan now heading up culinary program at Cohen’s Retreat

For our first several years living in Savannah, my wife and I never hesitated when friends asked us, “What’s your favorite restaurant?”

Circa 1875 was the answer, and the reason was largely down to then Executive Chef David Landrigan, who was the bona fide bistro’s main man in the kitchen from its day one until 2020. What owners Jeffery Downey and Donald Lubowicki created at Circa while Landrigan was wearing the top toque rivaled any resto you might saunter into along the Seine itself.

Alors, after eleven years, les carottes sont cuites, as the French say, and Landrigan packed his grip and headed to Hilton Head to help reopen The Lucky Rooster Kitchen and Bar, which had shuttered operations during the pandemic before being by bought and resurrected by the Leffew Restaurant Group.

In March of this year, Landrigan took over as executive chef at Cohen’s Retreat, landing back in the 912 a few miles south of where he had previously cheffed around town.

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Alexia Welch

Having previously opened Circa and La Scala, and then reopening Lucky Rooster, the much-heralded chef opined, “This is the first time, for me, to get into something that is already moving and change its direction.”

“You’re kind of fixing it while the wagon’s going,” he added.

“I am thrilled and just honored to have this opportunity to work with him,” owner Colleen Smith said of Landrigan. “He’s been a joy.”

“It’s unbelievable what he puts out of that kitchen,” added Smith, who bought the property in 2012 and began onsite dining service two years later. “I can already tell that he has us poised where we need to be for success with our big events that come up in the last quarter.”

MUCH MORE THAN A RESTAURANT

With the laugh of a chef who has been at it for several months, Landrigan admitted that going from a single restaurant kitchen to such a broad operation can be a challenge, adding that that weather plays a major factor in what he and his crew see any given day.

“For brunch today,” he cited, “nine-top walk-in, twelve-top walk-in. Just keeping up with that is a little daunting.”

Again, this is not just one restaurant. It is a multi-faceted retreat.

“We had a wedding last night on top of dinner service. We had a birthday party this morning for brunch. We’ve got things that go on in the Club House.”

“The beauty of Savannah,” Landrigan said, still smiling, “everything happens at the same time. Literally, all at once, but it’s just muscle memory, practice.”

Last winter, so he has been told, Cohen’s did 49 events in three weeks.

“There’s a lot coming up,” he said knowingly. “That’s why it’s important we streamline the menu a little bit.”

Early on, his focus was organizing storage, streamlining usage, and looking at products that he wanted to upgrade by way of seeking out new purveyors.

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Alexia Welch

“He wants quality in every ingredient, and he’s taking the time and the care to make sure that we are partnering with the right vendors,” said Smith. “It’s making a huge difference in the way the dishes are coming out.”

In the weeks and months ahead, Landrigan and Smith are also beyond excited to introduce more seasonal fresh vegetables to the plates, especially produce that comes from Blue Heron Farms (Garden City).

In January of 2022, Smith’s son, Bo Ballance, and Michael Kiriakos bought the land that had been the longtime home of the stables for the Clydesdales that marched in Savannah’s St. Patrick’s Day parade. Today, Blue Heron Farms is producing mushrooms and some veg, with eggs and chickens are on the way, all of which Landrigan will incorporate into Cohen’s menu.

In time, he “hopes for a majority of products [used at Cohen’s] to come from" Blue Heron.

A CHANGE IS AS GOOD AS A FEAST

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Alexia Welch

More than a half year into this new role, Landrigan wants Smith’s diverse enterprise not to be defined by its differentiated spaces. Instead, imagine an aligned tableau that spreads across the establishment’s expanse by way of combining brunch and lunch menus and “refining” some of the dinner offerings that “echo” in the banquet area and vice versa.

While “quietly elevating the ingredients themselves,” Landrigan and his crew, including sous chef Sebastian Dupre, whom he brought down from Lucky Rooster, have also been trying out dishes that have premiered as lunch items or dinner specials.

A halibut special a few weeks back sold well, almost every two-top with one order, but Landrigan said that no two plates looked alike due to tweaking and fine-tuning within the same service. He is right there on the line right now training his culinary team, which helps him think dishes through.

“I have to plate it three or four times before I’m happy with how it looks,” said the head chef.

As an example, the smash burger has been changed to a Black Hawk Farms (Princeton, KY) American Wagyu eight-ounce patty cooked to temp on the flat top for a nice crust.

“I came in the first day and saw the smash burger on the menu and said, ‘We’re not doing that anymore. Everybody’s doing that.’”

One recent Sunday, the kitchen cooked burger after burger, “down the line,” so this was obviously a change for the tastier. In this bigger kitchen space, Landrigan has also been experimenting with bread and is hoping to use scratch-made dough to make a fresh New York-style hard roll to go with the reimagined burger.

Perhaps he can save that upgrade for when he can catch his breath.

“We’re changing things on the fly,” he said.

‘REFINED AMERICAN COOKING’

Up and down Cohen’s familiar and much-beloved menu, Landrigan and Smith foresee no outright 86s, but both are keen on making little adjustments to “elevate” the overall dining experience.

“It’s an all-day thing,” Landrigan admitted about this more widespread position. “My nose is in books. I’m constantly getting ideas.”

He and Dupre were talking about steak au poivre the other day, and Landrigan was reminiscing about menu items at his former restos: the Circa 1875 burger’s green peppercorn gravy, the steak frites with a similar pepper sauce at Lucky Rooster.

“I don’t want to be a one-trick pony,” he said, but Dupre countered that the sauce is a soon-to-be must on Cohen’s menu.

Landrigan said, “I’m pretty confident I know what works” but immediately added that he does not want Cohen’s to become a facsimile of his former restaurants.

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Alexia Welch

“That’s the great part about it,” he asserted about Cohen’s non-definable culinary ethos. What he envisions for the brand is “refined American cooking” using “classic French techniques” and “some seasonality.”

The equipment and space are offering Landrigan a breadth of cooking opportunities. He has added three prep tables, and Cohen’s is building a banquet kitchen to offer more efficient plated service during events. Landrigan & Co. have already made more use of the 84” Lange smoker, purchased by predecessors Will Herrington and Sean Goggins, which all but shut down during the pandemic.

“If we’re building a fire in there,” Landrigan said, “we’re throwing in whatever we can, vegetables, salmon, brisket, ribs, scallops.”

KITCHEN KISMET

“This is a reminder to all of us that timing in life is everything,” Smith said of her new executive chef’s hiring. “This was the perfect time for our paths to cross.”

As she recalled, Gabby Ballance, Smith’s daughter-in-law and Director of Special Events & Cottage Rentals for Cohen’s Retreat, put an ad out, and Landrigan responded to it.

“I felt like we would be ‘dating out of our league’ a little bit,” Smith said with a laugh before she cited his culinary pedigree that “spoke for itself.”

“I knew right away that he was the one I wanted to work with.”

On a day that Cohen’s was closed, Landrigan and Smith sat in Cohen’s comfy-chic lobby and enjoyed a “real conversation” that “tackled a lot of the tough issues right out of the gate.”

“We had so many great conversations, even prior to my coming on board,” Landrigan wholeheartedly agreed. “I think she’s ready for a refresh.”

“This is the guy I can take it to the next level with,” Smith said, “and he believed enough in what we were doing to give us a chance. He is so talented and so creative, and I want great things for him, too.”

Those “great things” are going to mean more things, too.

Miss Co, to those who know, divulged that though there is no timeline as yet, plans “to “expand the backyard on the property to seat additional guests” is on the horizon, “bump[ing] out the windows, turn[ing] them into walkways, and set[ting] up more dining and fun family-oriented” offerings at Cohen’s.

She laughed and said, “So he’s going to be doing even more.”

In Landrigan’s interview, Smith explained to him the intentionality of the company’s spiral logo, symbolizing an enterprise that is “always changing.”

“That’s going to be us because we’re going to be in constant motion,” she said. “We’re constantly looking for the next thing to do. We’re not going to get stagnant. I can promise you it won’t be boring.”

“What an opportunity for us to put together something so special for our customers and our guests,” Smith continued, “and we’re all pumped about it.”

“We want to stick out down here,” Landrigan said of Cohen’s prosperous past and present and promising future. “Just take time, make the right decisions.”

“It’s a lot of work, but it’s fun if you do it right.”

Cohen’s Retreat (5715 Skidaway Road) is open Wednesday through Saturday for lunch and dinner (11 a.m. to 9 p.m.) and Saturday and Sunday for brunch (11 a.m. to 3 p.m.).



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