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Photo by Jay Paul
Chris Svoboda and David Shannon
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Photo by Jay Paul
Two friends prepare to open L’OPOSSUM
Where has David Shannon, chef and former co-owner of Dogwood Grille & Spirits, been since he sold the restaurant in 2007? “I’ve been here,” he says. “I’ve been right here in Richmond.”
He hasn’t changed much since his days cooking at Helen’s in the 1990s prior to Dogwood — no gray hair, few wrinkles, and the same lankiness he had when he was younger. While it may not show on his face, he’s learned a few things along the way.
He needed a break after he and partner Roger Lord sold Dogwood. “I took classes at [J. Sergeant] Reynolds in drug counseling … I didn’t think I was going to go back into the restaurant business, and as a recovering alcoholic, I thought [becoming a counselor] would be a good thing — something I know about.” He was in a holding pattern, he says. He slowly stepped back into the business, working as a private chef for a year and then as the overnight pastry chef for The Boathouse at Rocketts Landing.
“I never really stopped looking [for a new restaurant],” Shannon says.
“This had been going on for the last couple of years,” adds his collaborator, Chris Svoboda. “He’d find a place and say, ‘Hey, come take a look,’ and we’d drive around. I was the wall he bounced [ideas] off of.”
Svoboda and Shannon met in seventh grade at Collegiate School — they were middle-school girlfriend and boyfriend. Now, Svoboda, who lives in Washington, is helping Shannon open his new restaurant, L’Opossum, in Oregon Hill. It’s in the former EAT by Pescados space, but Shannon never ate there. He did visit a few times when he lived in the neighborhood and the bar in the building was The Chuck Wagon. “[It was] pool tables and knife fights — an occasional gunshot into the ceiling,” he says with a smile.
Svoboda and Shannon reconnected about 10 years ago when she ran into him at Dogwood. “We just started going out to dinner together, checking out different restaurants,” she says. “We fell into a pattern … talking about what worked and what didn’t.”
By this time, both Shannon and Svoboda had come out to family and friends as gay. “The best part of working on this [project] has been that I’ve gotten to be 15 years old again with my gay best friend — and be gay about it,” Shannon says. “I feel cheated out of those years.”
Accepting who they were was a long process for both of them — neither came out to friends until after college — and the shared experience is an integral part of their friendship.
Svoboda, a lawyer and LGBT activist, was in and out of the food business when she was young in the ’90s, while working in the film business in Los Angeles by day, she owned an after-hours restaurant, Privato, where she cooked at night. Her role at L’Opossum? “David’s a dream visionary, and I’m his minion,” she says.
“She knows food … and she can help me with all the things I can’t do,” says Shannon. “Think of my head as being full of all these ideas that are the coal, and she’s in charge of turning them all into diamonds. … With her kick-ass, ball-busting skills, she can pretty much get whatever she wants over the phone, and with her legal background, she’s an invaluable asset.”
Svoboda adds, “I also have a Vitamix.”
The name of the restaurant bothers a lot of people, Shannon says. He thought of the name a few years ago when he looked at a place in Scott’s Addition. “I saw it as hillbilly-fancy … a ratty little possum pretending to be ‘oo, la la.’ ” It stuck with him. Although he’s never been comfortable putting a label on his food, “The term ‘French soul food’ has been bouncing around in my head,” he says, “even though I’m not even sure what it means yet to me or L’Opossum.”
The food will be Shannon’s biggest commitment. He has a background in French cuisine (he trained at the New England Culinary Institute and was the sous chef at The Inn at Little Washington before returning to Richmond), but L’Opossum’s menu will be “very personal.” That’s tough when the most frequent request Shannon gets is to keep the menu exactly as it was at Dogwood. A few favorites — updated — may make it onto the new menu. “Every plate should be a complete thought … there should be some cohesive thread. I think if you’re chasing the trend, you’re losing the voice within [the dish].”
Shannon has stashed light fixtures, dishes and other restaurant-y things for years in storage, waiting to open his dream restaurant. “Going around to places in town, a lot of them have a familiar sameness…At some point I decided to open the gates to Crazy Town — and people can come visit if they want to.”