Buckhead Chef Prepares for AquaCurean

As Savannah’s food scene continues to evolve, the attention being paid to our growth by chefs across the South, and across America for that matter continues to expand as well. There was time when the culinary community outside of Savannah rolled its eyes when someone stood up and tried to make a claim that Savannah had great food beyond the standard fare comfort foods she was known for. Charleston or New Orleans she is not, but considering where Savannah’s food scene was 5 short years ago, there’s no question that serious talents are paying attention and wanting to get in on the growth. One of those chefs that is looking forward to sharing his skill in Savannah at the end of August, is Craig Richards, Executive Chef at St. Cecilia, an ‘Italian Seafood’ concept he heads for Ford Fry, one of the biggest names in Atlanta’s restaurant scene.

You will find St. Cecelia in Buckhead. If it has been a minute since you’ve been to Buckhead, you owe yourself the road trip. There was a time when Buckhead disappeared from Atlanta’s food and nightlife scene. Who can forget when a drive up Peachtree was dominated by Cheesecake Factory, ESPN’s hugely overrated sports bar concept and Fado’s Irish Pub. Buckhead got itself a power wash and is once again a shining star on the Atlanta scene. Great food has a lot to do with that. Spots like King and Duke (also owned by Frye) and St. Cecilia are just two of the spots that are drawing attention on the Buckhead food scene. Here’s my short chat with Chef Craig Richards.

How would you describe the cuisine here (at St. Cecilia)?

Modern Italian Seafood. Mostly fish. A lot of raw preparations. A lot of pasta. We make all of our own pastas here. We have 9 different pastas on the menu. We have 2 people that all they do is make pasta. We also make all of our pastas gluten free in addition to all of our regular. It’s a big part of what we do. We print our menus every day, so we tweak and change our menus every day depending on what seafood we get and items from local farms. The farm to table kind of concept. We work in micro seasons (depending on what’s available). We have 5 or 6 different farmers that we use.

Where were you before here at St. Cecilia?

I was at Ecco in Midtown

How did you end up here?

I knew Ford from before. We had worked some events together. We were doing an event together and he said to me “I really want to do an Italian Seafood restaurant.” I said ‘That’s really what I do. All of my training is Italian.’ I was looking for a change. So it made sense. That was about a year before the restaurant opened. We reconnected. I opened as Chef de Cuisine and took over as Executive Chef about 4 months later.

What do you know about Savannah’s food scene?

I know it’s very good. I’ve never been to Savannah to be honest with you. I moved down here about 10 years ago from Pittsburgh. I was in Kansas City before that. I went to Charleston for the first time just this last Spring.

How tough is it to get great seafood this far away from the ocean?

Well, it’s not… Well, you can pay for anything. I can get fish from Japan if I want to. We get stuff from the west coast that is 4 days out of the water. Of course, we get stuff from the east coast. Right now we have snapper on the menu. We have salmon from off the coast of Vancouver. We have monkfish that is coming from Boston. With Fed Ex and everything else, you can get it overnight. You can get fish caught that night and get it the same day. If you want to pay for it. It depends on the purveyors you deal with. When they get to know what your expectation is, it makes it easier.

Have you developed a following here already for getting any kind of fish here along with great pasta?

Yes. I think…especially our pasta program is pretty special. And then our raw fish program is pretty special. They are called ‘crudos’ kind of Italian sushi. I think they are done very well. We got fresh mackerel in yesterday, we are doing it today. This neighborhood isn’t always the most adventurous.

Really? You would think it is.

It’s a little bit old school too. Midtown audience is a little more ambitious and adventurous. Sometimes around here people can be a little conservative with their tastes. That said, Buckhead has changed. We had a big boom. Then they closed down. A lot of restaurants closed down. Now restaurantuers like Ford and others are coming back into Buckhead and re-engergizing it. I will say the number one dish that we do is octopus. We sell a lot of octopus.

How is it prepared?

We simmer with red wine, mirepoix, herbs and spices. Then cool it and grill it over a wood fire quickly to char it. We have one wood fire grill. We do a lot on there. Smoked olives. Grilled eggplant.

How would you say the food scene in Atlanta has changed? I don’t think this would have worked here 10 years ago.

No, I don’t think so. It’s definitely evolved. There is a lot of diversity. There is a lot more talent and chefs. Chefs that are willing to take risks and do different things. It’s really blowing up though.

Do you know what you are going to be preparing in Savannah?

We are going to do a raw course. I think I’m doing the first course. I’m not 100 percent sure what I’m doing yet because we’ve still got a little bit of time. I will wait until we are little bit closer to see what is good. For instance, we got this mackerel that popped up a couple of days ago. It’s one of our raw preparations. Those are easier for me to be honest with you since I’m traveling. I was going to do pasta but then we have to make it here, keep it frozen. I’ve done that for an event before and I’ve had an event go really badly in Brooklyn where the frozen pasta got lost in the shipping process so we had to make 800 ravioli in less than 12 hours.

Last one and I will let you go, where is your guilty pleasure. Where do you like to eat in Atlanta on your day off?

It’s gotta be Mexican. We have a Tex-Mex concept called Superica that just nails it. Really good. Usually my daughter is with me on my day off so we tend to go kid friendly. I love a good burger too. Yeah burger is pretty solid. We live near there so we go there sometimes. I like the burger at Grindhouse. I try to find a balance between kid friendly and what I want to eat. Usually Mexican. Sometimes Chinese delivery.

Catch chef Craig at AquaCurean, Savannah’s premiere seafood event coming August 26-28 to the Westin Savannah Harbor Resort.

See you on TV,
Jesse

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Eat It and Like It launched in Savannah, Georgia with television personality Jesse Blanco as the host. His passion for food and travel has made Eat It and Like It a two-time EMMY nominated program about contemporary and traditional Southern food.