By Christiana Roussel
Photos by Cary Norton
You can imagine that there might be nothing better than living year-round on gorgeous Lake Martin in nearby Eclectic, Alabama. You helm the kitchen at the most coveted dining spot for miles. You’re married to your best friend who is killing it in the second home real estate market. Y’all have been blessed with a pair of the cutest twin girls you’ve ever seen. As a family, you spend days off tooling around on the lake or foraging with friends.
But, still. There is something missing. That is exactly where Chef Rob McDaniel found himself a couple of years ago.
Sure, as executive chef of the SpringHouse Restaurant, he was a five-time James Beard Foundation Best Chef – South semifinalist (2013-2017) and was honored as Auburn University’s 2012 Outstanding Hotel and Restaurant Management Program Alumnus. And yes, his wife, Emily, was consistently selling vacation homes to customers from Birmingham, Atlanta, Montgomery and all points in between. But, the couple longed for just a bit more than lake life afforded them. In early 2019, Rob met with a group of investors and began making plans to return to Birmingham and open a restaurant of his own, Helen, in downtown Birmingham. He had previously worked under more than a few notable chefs, including Chef Chris Hastings of Hot & Hot Fish Club before decamping for Eclectic in 2009, so the Magic City was a natural landing spot.
The only question was where would the family of four put down roots? It turned out not to be a real question at all.
While the McDaniels checked out several over-the-mountain communities, Vestavia Hills was an easy choice. An easy commute to downtown could be had from other suburbs, but from Vestavia Hills Rob and Emily can just hop on Highway 31 and scoot downtown to their 2nd Avenue restaurant. “It is a long enough drive to decompress in the evenings for us, before getting home,” Emily says. “Sometimes, I like to come home from picking up the girls (3-year-old twins Rosemary and Amelia) on I-65 to see all the lights that are on in the tunnels. We also love to see Vulcan on the way home.”
But there were more factors to consider. What kinds of amenities had they been missing at the lake? Convenience to essentials ranked high on the list. After all, who doesn’t appreciate having fantastic grocery stores, retail and top-notch schools all within minutes of your driveway? As Emily tells it, “Rob visits that Publix on Highway 31 right behind our house, literally every day. Snapper Grabbers has an amazing fish and wine selection.” An avid exerciser, Emily notes, “I like the gyms like the Orange Theory there, and I work out at Pure Fitness, behind Diplomat Deli.” Speaking of the famed Vestavia Hills dining institution, she adds “Oh, we LOVE Diplomat Deli because we can go with the girls and sit outside – they have live music and a great beer selection. There are so many things we love that are less than two minutes away.”
But perhaps the biggest driving force in the relocation process was family. Emily’s sister and her family live in Vestavia Hills and they love living close to one another again. In fact, the crews get along so well together that Sunday night family dinners happen more often than not. Rob and his brother-in-law are known for firing up the grill while the sisters catch up and all of their girls run around and play. It is this exact work-life balance that was the biggest motivator for the McDaniels in their move to Birmingham. About Lake Martin living, Rob says, “Something was missing. We were living in small town that didn’t give us everything that we wanted. We had great friends but wanted more.” Emily adds that life here allows for a different kind of family structure: “Rob gets to take the girls to school every day, and I get to take them home every afternoon. And then of course, we have Sundays and Mondays off and that is pure family time.”
It is worth noting that all of this change—moving with two small children and opening a new restaurant—came in the midst of a global pandemic. But to hear Rob and Emily tell it, the timing could not have been more perfect. Rob lays out the timeline this way: “There are so many lessons here. First of all, we had already planned to be unemployed before the world shut down.” Loss of restaurant business was not felt by the family as they had already worked out an exit strategy. Rob adds, “Emily still had her job as a successful real estate agent at Lake Martin, which was going gangbusters – everyone wanted a place at the lake for quarantine! She was super busy, and I got to be home with the kids for three months and it was just amazing family time at the lake.”
Few people have the luxury of this timing or this perspective, but the McDaniels take none of it for granted. “My hope is that people can see that fortunate situation in light of all the negativity,” Rob says. “For us, we have chosen to only look at the positive things. I mean, there are so many things that have happened to us in 2020 that have been life goals, major accomplishments. It has been a difficult year to rejoice but at the same time, you have to. You have to find ways to rejoice or otherwise it is too much to bare.”
A Taste of Helen
Nestled into a 1920s era two story building in downtown Birmingham, Helen is at once convivial, intimate and yet spacious enough to handle social-distancing indoor dining requirements. Chef McDaniel draws off of the culinary memories of his grandmother, the restaurant’s namesake, with a modern approach that is neither fussy or unfamiliar. The menu changes regularly but will always feature small plates, shareable sides as well as entrees from both land and sea. Think warm angel biscuits, braised button mushrooms, creamed Anson Mills hominy, porchetta, lamb T-bone and seared fish. Rob outsources the desserts to Kristen Farmer Hall of Bandit Pâtisserie, a move that is not only bold and smart but just downright efficiently delicious. There is a small bar downstairs and a larger version upstairs, and the wine list is tight and well-considered. Reservations can be made for lunch or dinner, via the Resy app. Find their menu and more at helenbham.com.
Rob McDaniel’s Baked Green Hill Cheese, Caramelized Onions, Toasted Sourdough
- 1 wheel of Green Hill Cheese (available locally at Publix in Vestavia Hills or may substitute traditional brie)
- 3 yellow onions, thinly sliced
- 3 tablespoons butter
- ½ tablespoon fresh thyme, minced
- 3 thick slices sourdough bread
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Remove your Green Hill from the refrigerator and allow it to come up to room temperature (which can take about an hour). While it is still cold, remove the top layer of bloomy rind to expose the creamy cheese underneath. Place the cheese on a small piece of parchment paper, in a rimmed baking dish or oven-proof pan.
- In a heavy-bottomed pan over medium-high heat, melt butter and add the thinly sliced onion. Season with a sprinkle of salt to promote the caramelization process. Once the onions start to sweat, reduce the heat to medium and stir occasionally. Once the bottom of the pan starts to brown, add a little water to release the fond created by the onion juice. When the onions have turned a dark caramel color, stir in the fresh thyme and remove from heat to cool.
- Preheat the broiler of your oven.
- Prepare the sliced sourdough by drizzling with olive oil and seasoning with salt and pepper. Toast the slices under the broiler. Remove, and cut into bite-sized pieces, and set aside.
- Place the Green Hill cheese under the broiler, for about 3 -4 minutes; you want it to become warm and soft around the edges. Remove from oven and transfer to a serving platter. Spoon caramelized onion mixture on top of melted cheese. Season with fresh ground black pepper. Serve immediately with toasted sourdough pieces for dipping or spreading.