THE HOT SEAT: Rob McDaniel
By Stephanie Burt, The Southern Fork
photo credit: Hector Sanchez
If you know much of anything about Southern cuisine and restaurants, chances are, you know the name Rob McDaniel. He’s been nominated for numerous James Beard awards, and his long tenure at SpringHouse on Lake Martin outside of Birmingham, AL has allowed him to evolve as a chef respecting the seasons and sustenance from his home state. The restaurant was named one of the best 100 restaurants in the South by Southern Living in 2014, and McDaniel an outstanding alumnus of Auburn University a couple of years later, but he still spends the majority of his time in the kitchen, building relationships with regional farmers and producers, or on his days off or at a festival, in front of (as he likes to term it) a “ripping hot fire” getting ready to grill. Cooking is the rhythm of his life, and he’s always pondering ways to do it more simply -- and thus more beautifully -- in order to let good ingredients shine.
Do you have a grilling or campfire memory that started your love of outdoor cooking?
My fondest food memory is going to my Nanny’s house. She had a grill next to the fireplace in her living room, and anytime I cook steaks, it always reminds me of that. It was on the brick wall next to the fireplace and flumed into the fireplace stack.
What’s one meal that really shines on your SIF?
Well, I’ve cooked steaks on it the most. The ability to manipulate fire to get a really, really good sear is wonderful. And to get that without having that orange flame lick the crust (when the fat begins to render) means that those steaks don’t have any burned flavor on the crust, just delicious sear. Both times I’ve done a bone-in cowboy ribeye, and the last time were ones about 2 pounds a piece, grass fed from Niman Ranch. They were phenomenal.
What is something that you’ve cooked on the SIF that surprised you?
That’s a hard question for me to answer because I feel like cooking over fire is the beginning. So anything can be cooked over a fire, but I think as chefs we get so used to popping things in the oven, the challenge is to remember the other ways. When you cook something over flame, you are the thermostat. It’s a much more sensual way of cooking than closing the door on an oven.
How would you describe your style of cooking?
Southern rustic. I’m a minimalist with a focus on delicious ingredients and then letting them do their thing.
What type of wood do you like for your SIF and why?
I prefer to cook with hickory and oak, but I’m not snobby, because I also am fond of charcoal with the electric starter. I’m a fan of grilling, so I’ll use it all.
What’s something trick about open fire that the average cook needs to know?
I think there’s an intimidation factor of not having a knob for controlling the temperature. The orange flame isn’t what you want to be cooking over. And I hate the stigma also that it’s a guy thing. I have twin daughters and there right there with me when I’m lighting the fire.
What is your favorite element of the SIF?
The overall attention to detail. Every time I’ve used one at an event, Steve and Sandy’s open mindset is “please let us know any feedback on what we can improve.” That leads to excellence -- it looks great, is functional, and will withstand the test of time. And being able to raise and lower the grate off the fire means that it’s easy to manipulate the cooking temperature.
Ribeye Steak with Chimichurri Rojo
From Rob McDaniel, SpringHouse, Alexander City, AL
Chef’s note: A steak cooked over hardwood coals is (in my opinion) hands down the way to prepare steak, and the Sea Island Forge Kettle allows the perfect way to do that. Steak cuts and thickness vary, so cooking temps and times will so as well.
For the Steak
4 1-inch thick bone-in ribeyes
8 tsp. peanut oil
Fresh cracked pepper
- Prepare your fire and build a ripping hot coal bed.
- Place the grilling surface as close to the coals as you can get it and allow it to heat for a few minutes.
- Oil the steaks with 1 teaspoon oil on each side then season with Kosher salt and fresh cracked pepper.
- Raise the grilling surface to around 6 inches from the coal bed and place the steak on the grilling surface. (This is where using the Sea Island Forge becomes key; you have the ability to control the cooking temp by easily raising the grilling surface up and down, so you can dance on the edge of too hot and never flip the steak, achieving an amazing crust that is normally thought of with a steak cooked under a high temp broiler.)
- Cook the first side for 5 minutes then flip for an additional 3 minutes until internal temperature reaches 125-130 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Remove from grill and rest the steak in a warm place for 10-15 minutes, in which time it will carry over to reach a perfect medium rare.
- Once the meat has rested, slice the steak and serve with Chimichurri Rojo.
1 c. sherry vinegar
1 tbsp. smoked paprika
1 tbsp. Hungarian paprika
1 head of garlic, minced
½ red onion, minced
¼ c. thinly sliced scallion
½ tsp. cayenne pepper
1 tbsp. freshly ground cumin
1 tbsp. freshly ground coriander
Zest and Juice From 1 Orange
2 roasted red bell peppers, peeled and small diced
1 c. extra virgin olive oil
- Mix everything together with ½ cup of olive and allow to sit at room temp for 1 hour.
- Whisk in remaining ½ cup extra virgin olive oil. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Serve room temperature either drizzled lightly over the sliced steak or pooled beside it.