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Rob McDaniel

College of Human Sciences alumnus
Executive chef of SpringHouse

A native of Haleyville, Ala., Rob McDaniel earned a bachelor's degree from Auburn's Hotel and Restaurant Management Program in 2002. He then headed east to study at the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont, where he says he learned to appreciate sustainable living and cooking, supporting local and organic farmers, and the importance of using local resources. Before graduating from NECI, McDaniel worked for Chef Johnny Earles at Criolla's in Grayton Beach, Fla. In 2004, he returned to Alabama to be sous chef under Chef Chris Hastings at Hot and Hot Fish Club in Birmingham. After three years, his culinary path led him to serve as chef at Jim 'N Nick's Bar-B-Q, also in Birmingham. McDaniel left Birmingham in 2009 to be the general manager and executive chef at the new SpringHouse restaurant in Alexander City. Auburn's Hotel and Restaurant Management program honored McDaniel at the 2012 Hospitality Gala with the Outstanding Alumnus Award. This February, it was announced that McDaniel is a semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation Best Chef South award. A James Beard award is considered the highest honor in the food and beverage industry. On March 18, the foundation will announce the five finalists in each of 20 categories recognizing the best of the best in the food and beverage industry.

1. Did you come to Auburn for the Hotel Restaurant and Management Program?

I didn't come to Auburn for the HRMT program; the hospitality industry was not where I saw myself spending the rest of my life. It wasn't until I started working in restaurants that I knew it was what I wanted to do. The real reason I went - well, that is a secret that you know the answer to if you're attending Auburn or an alum. People either get it or they don't. Thank God I got it!

2. What made you pursue a culinary career?

I fell in love with it, pretty simple. Like most careers, it has to be your life and in this lifestyle, you work while everyone else is playing. Many people in the hospitality business struggle with this, but I love to cook so it was not a difficult change. I remember sitting out back at Amsterdam Cafe one year and listening to the Auburn football beat Florida. It was crazy! We were listening on the radio and could hear the crowd. I would not have had it any other way. Once the game was over, we rocked out a great service and then celebrated.

3. In 2011, you teamed up with your former boss, Chris Hastings, of Hot and Hot Fish Club in Birmingham to compete on Food Network's Iron Chef America. You faced a masterful Iron Chef, Bobby Flay, and won. What was that experience like? What do you think gave you guys the edge over Chef Flay?

That was one of the best experiences that I have ever been a part of, but it was very intense from start to finish. Our edge was that we didn't change what we do on a day-to-day basis. We cooked the food we cook every day. We practiced for three to four days a week the whole month of June, all while running our own businesses.

Once we arrived in New York we were ready - there was no more practice. It was go time. On our first night in New York, we hopped around town eating small bites at several different places. The next morning we went to watch someone else compete so we saw how it all went down. After getting the firsthand look, we huddled one last time to iron over our game plan. We had an early dinner and enjoyed great food, wine and conversation, but there was no mention of the real reason we were there. Once we arrived to the competition, things went pretty fast. We found out what the secret ingredient was and met Bobby Flay and the judges.

You will sometimes hear cooks and chefs talk about the "dance." The dance is a perfect night, no problems and very little talking, almost like we are reading each other's minds. It is truly a beautiful thing, so when they said "Go," we danced.

4. What was your initial reaction when you learned you were a semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef South?

I couldn't believe it. Really. I didn't believe it until I saw it with my own eyes. It still blows my mind to think about it. Being nominated was a goal, but I never pondered on it. I don't go to work every day thinking, "Man I'm going to give it my all in hopes of winning the Best Chef in the South Award." I just try to make people happy. That is the best part of what I do – making people smile when they take their first bite. 

(Note: McDaniel keeps good company. Hastings is the 2012 winner of the Best Chef South award. And Nick Pihakis, owner of Jim 'N Nick's Bar-B-Q, is also a semifinalist this year in the Outstanding Restaurateur category.)

5. What do you like to do when you aren't in the kitchen?

I'm very blessed to live on Lake Martin with my awesome wife Emily and German Wirehair Lilly. It is truly one of the most peaceful places on Earth. During the summer we spend our time island hopping and I enjoy hunting chanterelles which I use at SpringHouse, and during the winter we keep a fire going and enjoy the sunsets. We live a pretty simple life. We also enjoy taking short weekend trips to Atlanta and Birmingham to people watch and eat at different restaurants. We very seldom make reservations and rather slip-in and sit at the bar, have a few bites and then on to another place. We normally like to hit two to three places in a night.

March 11, 2013