SpringHouse Restaurant’s Rob McDaniel was announced as a semi-finalist for the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef: South division award. This is McDaniel’s third year to be named a semi-finalist for the prestigious award. In 2013 Shorelines profiled Rob McDaniels, and his SpringHouse Restaurant on Lake Martin.
Rob McDaniel’s passion for cooking radiates from him like ripples of water from a stone thrown in a lake.
It is a passion inspired, in large part, by his grandmothers, two very important, yet contrasting, figures in his life.
“You could say one of my grandmothers was elegant, while the other was rustic,” says McDaniel, executive chef of SpringHouse Restaurant at Russell Lands On Lake Martin.
When you are at SpringHouse, you feel their influence, in the décor and the food. The Riedel stemware glasses are elegant to the core, while the cedar and stone shout rustic. McDaniel’s food shares a similar mantra. A vegetable plate, for example, combines an elegant stack of okra with the homegrown rustic delicacy of field peas and squash.
Since the restaurant opened in 2009, McDaniel has received many accolades, including being named a finalist this year for the prestigious James Beard Foundation Award for best chef in the South. In 2012, McDaniel received the Outstanding Alumnus Award in hotel and restaurant management from Auburn University.
Also last year, McDaniel helped Chris Hastings, of Birmingham’s Hot and Hot Fish Club, beat renowned Chef Bobby Flay on the Food Network’s Iron Chef. McDaniel was Hastings’ sous-chef for three years, and that relationship led to the introduction of McDaniel to Roger Holliday, the vice president of planning and development for Russell Lands.
When Holliday called McDonald in 2009 and asked him to be the executive chef at a new restaurant on Lake Martin, McDaniel jumped at the chance. Not only would McDaniel be an executive chef, but it was a dream location for a lake lover. McDaniel grew up on Smith Lake and has been a lifelong lake enthusiast.
While SpringHouse isn’t Gatsby opulent, there is a certain ambiance to the white leather chairs, cedar beams and floor-to-ceiling hearth. “Bottom line, this place is special,” McDaniel says.
“The crazy thing is, if you would have asked me what my dream restaurant would be when I was at Auburn, it would have been SpringHouse down to the detail,” he says.
McDaniel had his chef epiphany when he was a student at Auburn and took a side job at Ruby Tuesday. “It was an Auburn football Saturday night and I was running crazy in the kitchen when it hit me, this is what I love to do.”
After working two more years at Ruby Tuesday and moving on to Amsterdam Café, McDaniel graduated from Auburn with a degree in hotel and restaurant management. He went on to study at and graduate from the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont. It was in Vermont that McDaniel realized the importance of sustainable cooking and ingredients, and how to intricately tie them into Southern food.
“When I went up to Vermont for culinary school I was like a sponge,” McDaniel says. “I wanted to learn everything. Ten years ago in Vermont, the community-supported agriculture philosophy was thriving and now it is cool to see that same method coming to Alabama.”
SpringHouse is part of the farm-to-table cooking movement that emphasizes the importance of growing and using local ingredients. The menu changes weekly per McDaniel’s suggestions and what’s in season. “I don’t want to have a signature dish, I believe if you have only one best-known thing it limits the chef,” he says. “And you want people to trust the chef.”
Janet Price, head of marketing for Russell Lands, says McDaniel is “simply unbelievable.”
“Rob has his own special way that’s just different,” she says.
Not only does McDaniel buy fresh local ingredients, he forages for them, Price says. “He will go out and find blueberries and mushrooms and add them to the menu that night,” she says. McDaniel spoke about his hopes to use the wild yeast from local pears as a starter for fresh sourdough bread.
“We are constantly getting calls for him to do stuff, and this is all him,” Price says.
It is all him, with a little bit of inspiration from his grandmothers.