Alabama Chef Rob McDaniel has a way with hickory
There is a particular type of alchemy that happens when flame hits meat; when hot coals coax a slab of ribs into utter relaxation or smoke wends its way between the fat and muscle of a well-marbled piece of beef. Chef Rob McDaniel is privy to that alchemy and whole-heartedly welcomes the advent of grilling season.
As general manager and executive chef of SpringHouse Restaurant at Russell Crossroads in Lake Martin, Alabama, McDaniel has the good fortune to cook over live fire as often as he can find ingredients that merit the use of good hardwoods. That is to say, daily. His menu is as likely to feature cured and smoked Manchester Farms quail as it is hickory-grilled swordfish, seared duck breast, and a wicked wagyu burger.
“I love the fragrance and the flavor it imparts to the meat. I have not come across anything that does not take to hickory smoke.”
When it comes to grilling, hickory wood is McDaniel’s preferred fuel, though he’s been known to throw in some oak as well. “I love the fragrance and the flavor it imparts to the meat. I have not come across anything that does not take to hickory smoke,” he says. First-time guests are sometimes surprised to see mackerel on the menu when they are used to a more traditional Gulf catch. He’s been a long-time advocate of the Alabama Gulf Seafood movement to protect the marine species that are the lifeblood of that area. In selecting fish for SpringHouse diners, he adds, “My philosophy now is to stay as far away from red snapper and white grouper as we can because there is so much controversy over maintaining diversity in our waters. Mackerel isn’t overfished right now and it is perfect on the grill.” But fish are not the only thing McDaniel loves to add to the fire. As a member of the Fatback Collective—a group of chefs, restaurateurs, farmers, artisans, and writers dedicated to heritage livestock breeds—he has developed and honed his skills, cooking over everything from fresh flame to deceptively powerful ash. “It’s a crazy group and we are all very busy, but when we can, we love to get together and cook. [Being with these fellow chefs] has really given me encouragement in cooking with live fire and wood and coals; hanging out with folks like Rodney Scott and Sam Jones and just seeing how they handle these coals and the placement of them.”
You can hear the pleasure in his voice as he thinks back to various events where this crew has cooked together, the early mornings when they start the pits, the late nights when they’ve stoked fires to get that last bit of heat. Guests at SpringHouse benefit from that education, where McDaniel and his staff put a bandsaw to work cutting ribeyes to his exact standards and using the wood-fired grill to get the perfect char. If a road trip ninety minutes southeast of Birmingham to sample his cuisine proves too daunting, try your hand at McDaniel’s recipes at home. No bandsaw required.