By Jon Gargis
Chef David Silverman’s history in and around restaurants led him to opening his own place, Reel, on Main Street in Woodstock in May 2014.
Silverman’s 30-plus years in the culinary arts began at age 14 when he lived in Marietta. His introduction into the business came soon after his mother returned home one night with a job application after eating at a restaurant in the neighborhood.
“She had spoken to the owner — basically ‘My son’s looking for a job.’ It started that way. I had gotten into some trouble and had to pay for something,” Silverman said. “I went up there and talked to the owner and basically started washing dishes.
“I was prying and showing interest in what was going on, always stuck my head on the line, watching the guys cook. One day, one of the cooks just gave me a spatula and let me get up there on the line and start cooking some steaks. That’s pretty much how that interest became.”
Silverman moved on to a culinary apprenticeship when he was 19 and worked under a New Orleans chef for a year and a half. “By the time I was 21, I was a corporate trainer” in the restaurant business.
His career has taken him to Atlanta-area restaurants such as Ray’s on the River and Prime. He has also cooked at the James Beard House in New York.
He has learned nearly every aspect of the restaurant business and has opened restaurants for several groups. His longest tenure was with Here to Serve Restaurants, whose establishments include Prime, Aja, Coast and Smash.
With his wife and partner, Karen, who manages the front of the house, Silverman opened Reel (reel-seafood.com; 770-627-3006) in the city where they live. The restaurant is his first solo project as an owner.
“I’ve been doing this a long time. I’ve had my hand on every type of food,” he said. “When we were looking at different restaurants to do, different concepts to do, after seeing what has already been here and who else has already beaten me to it, so to speak, seafood made sense because, one, there was a void. Two is when we go out to eat, when we took our kids out, Sunday night was our dining night, and nine times out of 10 … whether it was sushi, fish concepts, we were going out for seafood. There are very few choices.”
He said a good seafood restaurant was something he was craving, and the idea grew into a concept (a nonkosher one) he was sure would succeed.
“Every neighborhood should have a good fresh-fish, chef-driven concept,” he said. “I think as a chef, and I can speak for other chefs, we kind of have a little bit of pride in making things ourselves, seasoning it well, handling the fish well, making sure it’s fresh, and that’s really my biggest thing: This is a fresh concept, and that’s what I’m sticking to. If I can’t get it fresh, it’s not on my menu.”
Seafood aficionados will find what Silverman calls the staples of the seafood restaurant — crab cakes, mussels, tartare — but those looking for bold flavors have plenty of choices as well at Reel.
“I like to think there’s a little bit of Asian influence in some of the things I do. There’s a little bit of Boston and New England influence in some of the things I do, and of course there is a Southern and New Orleans and Southeast region (influence),” he said. “It’s not a thematic restaurant. The only theme is seafood, fresh fish.”
He said some of his New Orleans dishes, such as gumbo, lead people to think he’s from that city, “but I like to think that I’m broad in what I bring to the table.”
Since opening, the restaurant has added a patio, more seating, and a broadened lunch menu, including entrees only available at lunch. Silverman said he plans to continue to grow the menu.
Reel recently started doing wine dinners, and other special events are in the works to “engage the neighborhood,” Silverman said, but regulars won’t see their favorite menu items go away, such as salmon, flounder and fritters.
“I believe in changing the menu when you have, one, piqued interest from people who want variety. That’s where the wine dinners and your specials come in,” he said.
Despite his extensive experience, Silverman has little formal culinary education. He said he has picked up a lot from watching his co-workers, especially those who fed him opportunities to do key parts of their jobs.
When he is not cooking in the kitchen, he is on the computer, usually late at night, examining food costs and other restaurant numbers. Industry magazines help him stay current on cooking trends. He also takes time to speak to the restaurant’s vendors.
“If you have a good relationship with your vendors or your purveyors, they keep you abreast of things that are new, new cuts of meat, trendy fish, trendy things, ingredients, sauces,” he said.
Customers, he added, are also key sources. “With Food Network and all the TV cooking that’s going on, and as many people who are enthralled in that, you hear from them what’s new, up and coming. To keep them interested, you have to give them a little bit of what they’re looking for that’s new and different.”
Feedback from customers after their dining experiences seem to show that Silverman has been serving many of them well.
Reel seems to be pleasing customers, earning an average of 4.6 out of 5 stars from 122 reviews on Facebook as of July 10 and 4 out of 5 stars based on 57 reviews on Yelp.
Those endorsements could help Silverman pursue a second restaurant.
“There are a lot of different foods that I’d love to try. I’d love to do a bakery down the road. I’d love to do a sushi concept. I’d really love to do a New Orleans concept, which is at the top of my list. A noodle house, I’d love to try something like that,” he said. “There are a lot of little niche concepts that I’d love to do.”
But he has to find the right spot in the right neighborhood, plus “an investor or a partner or someone that shares my vision of it.”
Before he opens a second restaurant, Silverman will make sure his first is running smoothly and won’t suffer from his divided attention. “Even with multiple restaurants, I’ll never just be a restaurateur,” he said. “As long as I can physically do it, no matter what, no matter how many I have, I’ll always be somewhere in the building.’
He added: “Me being a kitchen guy, it starts with the food. It starts with the kitchen and how we operate. For a while, at least for the foreseeable future, I intend to be still in a chef coat and in the kitchen.”