The vision, memories and dreams that built a Southern restaurant.
Helen, the contemporary Southern grill located downtown, emerged from a treasured food memory of its chef/owner Rob McDaniel.
“The vision for this restaurant is a food memory of going to my grandmother’s house,” McDaniel says. “Helen was my nanny and she had a grill inside her home. And she designed it that way. You had a living room and the fireplace and next to the fireplace along the wall was a grill. It had an iron door on it. I didn’t know what a food memory was until I was in culinary school, but then I realized that was what this powerful memory was. I can close my eyes and see and smell it. The whole nine yards. Her back there cooking on that grill. She cooked every night.”
“The taste, smell, and texture of food can be extraordinarily evocative, bringing back memories not just of eating food itself but also of place and setting. Food is an effective trigger of deeper memories of feelings and emotions, internal states of the mind and body.”– The Harvard University Press on John S. Allen’s The Omnivorous Mind.
McDaniel has brought that food memory encased so long ago to life at Helen. The birth of his still-young restaurant came after a mid-pandemic preparation, opening in August 2020. Hardly the easiest time to open a restaurant and yet for McDaniel it was the culmination of a long-time dream.
“Well there is always that feeling of wanting to own your own restaurant if you do this long enough, or even when you get into it,” says McDaniel. “It is just the restaurant bug. I started waiting tables when I was at Auburn to make extra money. I waited tables for probably about nine months and then I got tired of that and moved to the kitchen at Ruby Tuesday’s. I was there for a very short time when I realized that that was what I wanted to do, and I switched jobs to Amsterdam Cafe in Auburn.”
The restaurant business challenges people in so many different ways. The lessons learned are sometimes hard, but frequently memorable.
“It was a football weekend and there was a guy training me on the grill. His name was Ennis and he was a large man. He was training me on the grill and I was spinning around like a top. And he stopped me right in the middle and said ‘Have you ever been shot at,’ and I said no. He said, ‘Well I have and let me tell you we are all going to walk out of here tonight, those people are going to get fed. There are no bullets flying here, so calm down and let’s just get through this,” McDaniel remembers.
“I’ve always taken that story with me. I told that story one other time to an Auburn class and there was someone in that class who knew Ennis. I don’t know if he truly knows the impact he had on my life and career.”
That career has seen McDaniel work under prestigious chefs such as Johnny Earles at Criolla’s in Grayton Beach, Florida and Chris Hastings at Hot and Hot Fish Club in Birmingham. In 2009, McDaniel accepted the position of executive chef for SpringHouse restaurant at Lake Martin.McDaniel is 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. He also attended New England Culinary Institute in Vermont.
McDaniel had a successful run at the Russell Lands restaurant SpringHouse. “I really enjoyed working at Russell Lands. We (Rob and his wife, Emily, now co-owner of Helen) both had wonderful jobs but there was something missing. We just had twins; we just bought a house on the lake. We lived on the lake full time. I had been living on the lake for 10 years. Waking up and seeing water for 10 years that gets in your bloodstream and it is hard to walk away from. But I never prayed to leave Springhouse but I prayed for something to change.”
February, 2018. It was the first year that McDaniel was not on the list for a James Beard Award. It was Valentine’s Day and the pastry chef at SpringHouse had gone home sick after swearing he had finished all the desserts. He had not. Chef McDaniel scrambled and made the desserts he could in the time frame left, but by 7:30 that evening they had run out of desserts. “That was my worst night in the restaurant business,” McDaniel admits.
“So fast forward a month. I opened my devotional and the bible verse was deuteronomy 1:6 and it basically said you’ve been on this mountain long enough. It was pretty clear that it was time to move on I went home and told my wife that and she was like ‘Ok, well let’s start figuring this out.”
Quietly McDaniel started looking around Birmingham for a place to create his restaurant. “I found another mountain to climb.”
The current location of Helen was the first place they looked at. It was owned by Carter Hughes of H2, a high school friend of McDaniel’s. He loved the space from the first moment, even so McDaniel looked at 22 places before settling on Helen’s current home.
So despite the looming pandemic, Rob and Emily began building their dream restaurant.
A Birmingham native, Emily McDaniel first began her career in hospitality as part of the marketing team at Jim ‘N Nick’s BBQ, where she fell in love with the fast-paced, people-oriented nature of the restaurant world. In 2011, she traded her views of Birmingham for those of Lake Martin and moved to Alexander City, where she married her husband, Chef Rob McDaniel. It was then that she shifted her career from hospitality to real estate.
Now at Helen, Emily is back in managing the hospitality experience at the restaurant, managing the front of the house operations with a focus on creating a warm and celebratory atmosphere.
Together the couple focuses on bringing to life the vision of Helen. Prime meats and seafood cooked in an open kitchen, served alongside vegetables and non-traditional sides on a menu driven by seasonality and products from local purveyors and farmers.