Rob McDaniel’s passion and respect for Southern cuisine was inspired by the food his grandmothers prepared while growing up in Haleyville, Alabama.
Before SpringHouse McDaniel has held positions under prestigious chefs such as Johnny Earles at Criolla’s in Grayton Beach, FL and both Chris Hastings at Hot & Hot Fish Club and Drew Robinson at Jim ‘N Nick’s BBQ in Birmingham, AL.
Today, McDaniel is the Executive Chef at SpringHouse in Alexander City, AL where his respect and inspiration of the land is showcased in his seasonal based menu. McDaniel has been a James Beard Foundation “Best Chef: South” Semifinalist for the past five years in a row and SpringHouse was was included in Southern Living’s 100 Best Restaurants in the South.
Could you start by just telling us about SpringHouse?
SpringHouse is a 140-seat restaurant located in rural Central Alabama nestled on a hill overlooking Lake Martin. We opened in the spring of 2009 in classic Alabama style with a hail storm and tornado sighting. We cook with plenty of Hickory and Oak so your sense of smell is immediately greeted with the sweet smell of hardwood smoke and visually drawn to the rock work and roughhewed beams that were cut from the property.
We have had a garden in some capacity since we opened, however the garden really began to grow a few years ago. We have expanded to 28 raised beds and employ a part-time farmer to help keep up with the weeding, planting and deer repealing. Currently we have blue curled scotch kale, red Russian kale, Nero di Toscana cabbage, green and purple asparagus, cherry belle radish, purple cosmic carrots and Arugula. Our summer crops are being prepped now and will be in the ground in the coming weeks.
Were you ever concerned that a restaurant at the level of SpringHouse wouldn’t be able to sustain itself especially in a small town like Alexander City? What do you believe brings people to travel and eat with you?
SpringHouse is defiantly off the beaten path to the general consumer. It has been challenge to build off season business – as our high season is Memorial Day to Labor Day. Lake Martin plays a major role in our business because our core customer base come from Birmingham, Atlanta, Columbus and Montgomery, but own homes on the lake.
I think any new restaurant worries if they are going to make it, hell if you’re not worried when you open a restaurant something is wrong with you. SpringHouse is an amazing restaurant architecturally speaking with a crazy view of the surrounding area. My goal is to provide food and service that duplicates the surrounding area and architecture.
Many chefs build up notoriety and then decide to move to a bigger city to build out their own brick and mortar. What influenced you to stay in a small town in Alabama?
I live on the lake, I have a CRAZY good quality of life for someone in the restaurant business and I have two baby girls on the way that I want to be a great father to.
How often do you change your menu at Springhouse and what inspires it? What’s your initiative on foraging ingredients around you?
I try to change the menu items weekly – unless they are good menu items in which case I may keep them on for an extended period of time. When I can get an amazing product I want to use it immediately, so we change the menu accordingly. I spend a lot of time in the woods, when I come across things that we can use we try to incorporate those as often as possible
What should people expect from the Alabama food scene within the next few years?
Southern food has been and still is all the rage (in my opinion), from fried chicken to cornbread every part of the country has their copycat. I see Alabama food continuing to evolve because we have an amazing palate and base to work from. As chefs we need to continue to push boundaries, try new ingredients in classic southern preparations and blow people’s minds.
What is your favorite comfort food?
Sliced ripe summer tomatoes, lady peas and cornbread.
What first inspired you to become a chef?
I have always loved to cook, but my first restaurant job was as a server. I waited tables for about 2 years and needed a change so I was moved to the kitchen – I’ve never looked back.
You seem to be very inspired by the food you grew up eating with your grandmothers. Were their cooking styles different? What are a few of your favorite things they made growing up?
Both of my grandmothers had very different cooking styles, they lived in very different environments and parts of Alabama.
Grandmother Mack lived in very rural Alabama, had no car, no central heat/air, and got drinking water from a spring a mile down the road. As you would probably expect she cooked biscuits pretty much every morning, had fresh vegetables at pretty much every meal, and almost every night before bed enjoyed a glass of cold buttermilk and cornbread.
My Nanny lived an hour or so outside of Birmingham and cooked anything my Granddaddy wanted. Nanny had more of the conveniences of being in a “town” and her food reflected that. I have a passion for cooking with hardwood and coals because of Nanny. She could cook the best steak you have ever put in your mouth and she cooked them on an indoor charcoal grill – they were amazing!
You’re very passionate about sourcing ingredients within a close proximity to the restaurant. Why is supporting local farms important to you?
The closer to the source I can be the better. There is a relationship that goes on between a farmer and a chef where there is respect for one another from the beginning to the end result. Unfortunately, we can’t source everything we need from local farms so we depend on produce companies to help fill a void. Imagine two conversations about an onion, one from the farmer and one from a delivery guy. Both work hard and we depend on both, but which one is going to tell you how good that onion really is?
What season of the year is your favorite?
Without a doubt summer. Every year I can’t wait to have sliced tomato with lady peas and crumbled cornbread, I get so excited just thinking about it.
You attended the New England Culinary Institute. Some chefs believe that culinary school isn’t necessary for the progression of a chef. What do you feel you truly got out of culinary school? Would you advice a young chef to attend school or just work their way up?
Culinary school isn’t for everyone just like this business isn’t for everyone. I chose the culinary school route simply because at the time I thought it was a good opportunity and if I had to do it all over again I would. I have several very successful friends that didn’t go to culinary school and I think if they had to do it all over again they would choose the same route as well.
Who would you say is your biggest mentor/inspiration?
There are several people that have helped me become the Chef I am today. But, I would say the one person that helped me form my opinion of the type of chef I wanted to be was Philippe Robles, a Sous Chef that I worked for during my first internship. Philippe Robles was the first and only French chef that I have ever worked with. I was terrified at the beginning, but I quickly learned his style and didn’t want to disappoint him – not because he was going to scream at me or throw something at me, but because he showed me respect even as an intern. I knew when Philippe was upset at my work, he didn’t even have to raise his voice. I learned how productive that method of leading worked and how counterproductive getting in a cooks ear in the middle of serve to tell them how bad a job they were doing was. Philippe treated every cook in the kitchen with respect no matter their skill level.
You are a co-founder and partner of the Alabama Oyster Social. What are some problems facing the Alabama oyster community and what the Oyster Social is doing to help?
A few years back the AU Shellfish Lab found out that they were going to lose their lease. This impacted about 7 oyster farms and the business park where these farms were located. The money raised (the last two years) through the Alabama Oyster Social has helped the AU Shellfish Lab relocate and expand to a new business park, pay expenses associated with moving, obtain necessary permits, and just recently the driving of pilings that hold the oyster baskets.