Find Your Place
Words by Dee Mimbs
Photos by Cary Norton
I arrived at SpringHouse on a Saturday in the late afternoon, before the restaurant opened and became a bustling stir of people sampling delicacies designed by Chef Rob McDaniel. Even before diners began arriving and enjoying an evening of his world-renowned cuisine, I could see the intentionality with which Chef Rob, owner Ben Russell, and Russell Landings CFO Roger Holliday designed the place.
When Mr. Russell envisioned SpringHouse, it was crucial that the restaurant reflect and honor the land. With that in mind, Russell Lands On Lake Martin, in Alexander City, Alabama, teamed up with five-time James Beard “Best Chef: South” semi-finalist Rob McDaniel to deliver a restaurant that respected the land and a menu that featured excellent, local products. Mr. Russell chose a commanding location on a hillcrest overlooking The Stables, pastures, pine and hardwood forests and, in the distance, serene Lake Martin.
The restaurant sits atop a hill overlooking a beautiful view, spanning 360°. However, this is a lake town, which begged my questioning of not positioning the restaurant on the lake.
Rob answered, “Oh, you ask that only because you haven’t been upstairs and seen the sunset from there.” He’s precisely correct. What a magical place at sundown! And the magic didn’t stop with the view.
Rob took me on a tour of the restaurant, showing off the large fireplace in the dining room, which also features a roasting station designed and created by Mr. Russell. The station, as creative and unique as everything else in the restaurant, rotates hypnotically using a rustic pulley mechanism harkening to an earlier era. And there is something here for everyone—from those seeking to host an elegant wedding or private dining party to those seeking pristine hiking trails and adventurous horseback rides.
While the place is simultaneously breathtaking and welcoming, I was more astounded by the man standing before me. During our wide-ranging conversation, it was apparent to me that the passion Rob has for his food is matched by the love he feels for his family. It is typical for a chef as accomplished and acclaimed as Rob to be unabashedly proud, but he is welcoming and humble.
How did you come to be executive chef at SpringHouse?
Roger Holliday rolled out the building plans on the top of his Suburban and said, “This is what we are going to build, and we want you to come and run it.” It was a dream come true. I had a house in Birmingham and a girlfriend, Emily, who is now my wife. I already had a good life, so it was hard to move, but I did. I moved here in December 2008, and we opened in April 2009. I lived here for three years without Emily. She thought I would come back to Birmingham. But on a Valentine’s weekend, she came to the restaurant, and as we were sitting here, she said, “I can’t ask you to leave this.” A few months later, I proposed, and we got married. She moved here, and now we have two little girls.
Did you always know you wanted to be in the restaurant industry?
Most of my important childhood memories are centered around cooking. Growing up, my parents had a garden and cooked well, as did both of my grandmothers. One grandmother lived in the country and ate buttermilk and cornbread before putting bricks warmed in the oven in her bed as a source of heat at night. She didn’t have much, but she did a lot with what she had. The other grandmother had more. I remember her house smelling of ribeye steaks off her indoor grill and eating raw veggies and ranch dip. That’s where I fell in love with cooking by fire. These women have inspired my love and respect for traditional Southern cuisine.
But I didn’t decide on this as a career until I was already in college at Auburn University studying to be a chiropractor, my grandad’s profession. I failed anatomy three times and was fed up being a server at traditional-fare chain restaurants, so I moved into the kitchen where I realized I was at home. I still had a lot to learn, but this started me on the course of becoming a chef.
What advice do you have for young people aspiring to be chefs?
Sometimes you have to take chances. I graduated from Auburn with a degree in hotel and restaurant management. Then I went to Vermont to study at the New England Culinary Institute.
I remember driving through the mountains of Tennessee with the sun coming up on my way to culinary school, and I thought, “This is either going to make me or break me.” It did a bit of both. It broke me from being an introvert, but it was one of best decisions I have ever made. Without an education, I would not have arrived where I am today.
My second piece of advice is to take the business side of your education seriously. I was a C-student at Auburn. I can handle the cooking, foraging, being creative, and blending Southern cuisine with fine dining. This is all very natural to me. But what is equally important is the management side of being a chef, and I wish I had studied more and been more intentional with learning this part of the craft while at school.
What makes SpringHouse special to you?
Part of the greatness of being here is the quality of life. Our busy season is Memorial Day to Labor Day, when we employ about fifty people. We start picking up in April and stay steady until September or November. We also have catering services throughout the year and host weddings. But while we are busy, I’m not too busy to see my daughters grow up and have a wonderful life with them and Emily.
Do you ever feel like, “Wow! I’m living my dream?”
For sure! When I came to interview with Ben and Roger, I had my own restaurant in my mind. Every chef wants to own his or her own restaurant eventually. But when Roger rolled out his plans, I was stunned. I thought, “Holy crap! That’s it! That’s the restaurant I want to build!” We were on the same page, and we’d never even met. This is how the Lord works in mysterious ways. Ben is carrying out his grandfather’s dream to do what he is doing to this land, and my dream fit in with that perfectly.
I once thought that maybe I wouldn’t be here forever, that I would eventually go open my own restaurant. But that decision has become even easier now that we have the girls. If I opened my own restaurant, I wouldn’t have the quality of life that I experience now. I like being home most nights with them. Friday and Saturday are hard, but during the week, I’m at least there when they wake up. Perhaps there will always be the question, “What if I’d opened my own place?” But right now, I’m not too worried about that. I am thankful for what I have.
How has having your girls changed you?
I knew having children would change my life, but I had no idea just how much. I had a friend tell me that I would do all the “girl stuff”—have tea parties and paint fingernails, which I thought were the privileges of motherhood. But my friend said that I should be the one to do it with them—to set their expectations of how they are supposed to be treated. Not only did I take this advice seriously as a father, but also as a chef.
I grew up with my parents saying you can do anything you want in life as long as you put your mind to it. I want to be able to tell my daughters this without there being doubts in my mind. I grew up in church and was taught to respect other people. I have never walked down a street as an immigrant, woman, or minority, but the fact that we still have to talk about racism and how to treat people in the workplace is disturbing. The things that have come out in the restaurant business and our society in general about how women have been treated is disturbing. I want better for my girls. We have got to do better, and that starts with me.
Where do you go from here?
Right now, I’m still enjoying the ride here at SpringHouse. And it keeps getting better. I have the best of both worlds. I have an outlet where I can be creative when I cook. Nobody tells me what I can or cannot do in the kitchen. I am fulfilled.