Helen Pays Homage to Family

Helen is a food memory made real.

The contemporary Southern grill, led by the husband-and-wife team of Chef Rob McDaniel and Emily McDaniel, is a fresh, new take on classic dining, but the idea for this place has deep roots. It’s based on Rob’s fond memories of his maternal grandmother, Helen Frutiger, and the welcoming home she created in Oneonta when he was young.

“One day, it just kind of made sense that that would be the direction we wanted to go when we decided to open a restaurant,” Rob says. “I’ve always had that memory with me—of walking in the back door, through the carport … and her over on the grill cooking and my grandfather sitting in his chair and the way the table was set. … All those things are still so vivid.”  

These scents and sounds and sights of his childhood – especially memories of “Nanny” cooking for her family over hardwood coals on her indoor grill – have stayed with Rob over the years. They were there when he studied at the New England Culinary Institute and when he worked for Johnny Earles at Criolla’s in Grayton Beach, Florida, and for Chris Hastings at Hot and Hot Fish Club in Birmingham. They were there during his many years as executive chef at SpringHouse restaurant at Lake Martin. They were there as he collected five James Beard Foundation semifinalist nominations (2013-2017) for Best Chef South.

And they were there when he began to yearn for something different—something of his own.

“I was doing a devotional every day before I started my day, and I never really prayed to leave SpringHouse,” he says. “But I prayed for something to change, because I had gotten to a point where I really enjoyed my job but there was something missing. I didn’t know what it was. And then one day I went into work, opened my devotional and the Bible verse was Deuteronomy 1:6, which basically says ‘you’ve been on this mountain long enough.’ All of these things had kind of been placed in front of me to point me in the right direction, and then I read that and said, ‘Okay. It’s time to make this change.’  The Lord started opening doors, and we started walking through them.”  

Emily adds, “I’m so proud of Rob. I’m so proud that he took a leap of faith, that he decided you have one life to live … He said he wanted to do something, (and) he went and did it. It’s just exciting to see. It really is.” 

photo by Cary Norton

Helen opened in mid-August. 

I visited with Rob and Emily for an Alabama NewsCenter story. You can read it here and see some video, too.

The restaurant is in a two-story 1920s-era shotgun-style building in downtown Birmingham. The McDaniels teamed up with Gavin Prier of Prier Construction, Ivy Schuster of Hatcher Schuster Interiors and Eric Hendon of Hendon + Huckestein Architects to take advantage of the building’s good bones. The thick beams, a concrete floor with character and beautiful original brick walls are the foundation of a restaurant that is elegant and welcoming. of a restaurant that is simply elegant and warmly welcoming.  

In the long, narrow dining room downstairs, an art wall showcases a diverse collection—from tortoise shells and paintings and prints to turkey feathers and handmade baskets. An open-grill kitchen anchors the opposite side of the room, offering tantalizing glimpses of the grill and smoker and delicious aromas that cannot be ignored. 

The natural, earthy elements on display in the dining rooms and bar and the wood-scented atmosphere throughout Helen echo his philosophy of respecting the land and using it as inspiration in his kitchen. Chef Rob, who wears a belt with the subtly colored, speckled pattern of a brown trout, is passionate about Southern foods, foraging and sustainability. 

“My food has always been pretty simple,” he says. “I don’t try to manipulate it a lot. I don’t try to do a lot of things to it.” The key, he says, is “finding the best source for products and finding the best ingredients and let them kind of do what they need to do.”

photo by Cary Norton

The menu features items from the land, air and sea—prime meats and fowl and seafood. Things like a 45-day dry-aged Kansas City strip, smoked lamb shank, Manchester Farms quail stuffed with pine needles and finished with a pinecone syrup, grilled scamp with sauce gribiche.

Even with all that savory, smoky exuberance, a large portion of the menu is devoted to freshly picked ingredients from the soil. Okra pirlou, smashed cucumber and tomato salad, Romano beans with Carolina barbecue sauce, celery and blue cheese slaw, kale salad with parmesan cascabel chili dressing. 

“We really wanted to be able to highlight farmers and their vegetables in the peak of their season when they are most delicious,” Rob says. “It was always important to us to be able to … provide the same experience for anybody that were to walk in the door—whether you’re a vegan or vegetarian or meat eater. I want you to feel like you’re getting the same experience as anybody else.”  

For this, chef Rob relies on local purveyors like Trent Boyd of Boyd Harvest Farm and the folks at Ireland Farms and Belle Meadow Farm and BDA Farm for a menu driven by seasonality. In the middle of a Wednesday afternoon, Betty Maddox has driven from Chilton County with some of the last heirloom tomatoes of the season. She’s been supplying Rob with fresh produce for years.

“We want to give you the best that we can give you when it’s the best,” Rob says, “and if it’s not, then we don’t want to do that.”

So the tomato pie, served with pimento cheese and herb salad, which has been one of the most popular dishes for the past several weeks, will soon leave this seasonal menu until next summer. Another guest favorite, the warm angel biscuits with whipped cane syrup butter and a bit of sea salt will probably always be there.

Rob’s partner in this restaurant and in life is no stranger to the food business. A Birmingham native, Emily began her career in hospitality as part of the marketing team at Jim ‘N Nick’s BBQ. She is Helen’s hospitality director working with general manager Daniel Goslin (who was with Rob at SpringHouse) to oversee the front of the house. She loves her job.

“I’ve always known Rob was so talented, but it’s so nice to see it firsthand,” she says. “Before, we weren’t working together, and I would just hear from other people (that) they had a great dining experience with him. … Now, I’m actually taking food to the tables and interacting with guests who are eating his food, and I think that’s been the most rewarding thing. … It’s exciting to see that.”

Helen, they both say, is a reflection of how they live and how they entertain their friends at home. Emily’s focus is on creating a comfortable and celebratory atmosphere to complement the foods her husband cooks. “I want people to …  have a cozy, warm, inviting and loving feeling when they come here,” she says. “We just, all the time, want people to feel comfortable.”

The McDaniels partnered with several local and regional artisans to create their engaging space. Small succulents adorn each of the richly grained wooden tables made by Magic City Woodworks, a nonprofit based in Birmingham that offers meaningful work through paid apprenticeships for unemployed young men. The metalwork is by John Howell of Madwind Studio on Lake Martin. He helped create the stunning glass-enclosed wine room upstairs. Each of the hundreds of bottles in the jewel-like, temperature-controlled room rests on meticulously placed iron rods.

The couple also pulled artful details from their own home—a collection of Southern Living plates from Rob’s mom, vintage rugs, an antique icebox that serves as storage near the front door, eclectic artwork they have collected over the years. Upstairs, a couple of antique French Champagne riddling racks are mounted on the textured brick walls. Two colorful paintings by guitarist Browan Lollar of St. Paul and the Broken Bones are behind the stunning stone-topped bar. A handsome trophy deer, from one of Rob’s hunting trips, hangs between them. Elsewhere, there’s a pheasant and a fox. There are duck decoys, a vintage fishing creel and watercolor paintings of colorful fishing flies.

And in the middle of it all, a large, beautiful painting of Helen, by Charleston, SC, artist Hannah Hurt, has a place of honor here. It was a gift to Rob from his sisters.

Since it opened on August 25, Helen has enjoyed a steady stream of customers and a buzzy social media following. But launching a restaurant in the middle of a global pandemic has not been easy. “I think anytime that you do something like this, to say that you’re not scared would be a little arrogant,” Rob says.

Health and safety protocols are part of every guest interaction. 

They didn’t take out any seating or put signs on any tables, but guests are spaced six feet apart. “I just want people to come and have a good time—especially right now,” Rob says. “To be able to come in and take their minds off of all that’s going on. I’ve had people say, ‘Thank you for the small bit of normalcy.’”

Guests are asked to wear masks unless they are seated at their tables. There are temperature checks, hand sanitizer and contactless payment. Making sure his staff stay safe is a huge priority, Rob says. “If they feel safe, then everybody else will as well.”

Opening Helen has been a “big test of faith,” he adds. “But we’ve continued on that path. … There are definitely times when we kind of—I don’t want to say we question it, because that would not be practicing good faith. We go at it every day, and I think that probably the best way to sum it up is:  If I wake up in the morning and I’m discouraged, I also have a voice in my head that says, ‘I’m here with you. Let’s do this.’” 

When asked what he’s most proud of, Rob simply says, “my family.” He chokes up a little when he answers and so stops for a moment as he thinks about what to say next. 

Turns out that was enough. The word family clearly encompasses so much—from the family matriarch who helped set Rob on his culinary journey to the guests he and Emily welcome as family each night to their restaurant family of employees and trusted purveyors to the couple’s own young family and what the future holds for them all. 

Helen

2013 2nd Avenue North 

Birmingham, AL  35203

205-438-7000

www.helenbham.com

So Sweet

The spotlight is on some of Birmingham’s top women in food, beverage and hospitality again this Saturday at Pepper Place Market! From chefs and bakers and mixologists to dietitians and restauranteurs and food writers, more women than ever are helping to keep our food community vibrant and fun and delicious! 

Many of these women are members of the Birmingham Chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier International, a professional organization that supports women in food-related industries. Our mission is philanthropy, education, mentoring and outreach.

This was last week at Pepper Place Market! Cristina Almanza is the cutest taco ever!

Come see me and my fellow Dames at Pepper Place Market on Saturday from 7 a.m. to noon at our tent near Homewood Gourmet’s popular space. This week, we’re sharing sweets of all kinds from some of Birmingham’s culinary superstars and a few of our favorite restaurants.

Our tables will be full. Here’s some of what you can expect to find:

Creamy vanilla cheesecake by Dame Joy Smith of Sorelle 

Emily’s Heirloom Pound Cakes bite cups from Dame April McClung

Dame Brooke Bell’s apple butter Bundt Cakes

Dame Pam Lolley’s Brown butter Chocolate chip cookies

Dame Telia Johnson’s regionally famous classic chocolate cake

Brownies, giant cookies and Ashley Mac’s signature strawberry cake from Dame Ashley McMakin

Crestline Bagel Co. granola from Dame Jennifer Yarbrough

Pizzelle cookies from me (one of the only pretty desserts I can make!)

Big Spoon Creamery ice cream sandwiches from Dame Geri-Martha O’Hara

Dame Maureen Holt’s Kentucky Butter Cake with Bourbon glaze

Dame Cheryl Slocum’s ginger-white chocolate cookies

Dame Sonthe Burge’s homemade baklava

Best-Ever Oatmeal Raisin Cookies from Dame Stefanie Maloney

Rosemary shortbread from Kristen Farmer Hall of The Essential and Bandit Patisserie

When you’re done visiting with us, turn around and grab a breakfast burrito with pico de gallo to go from Homewood Gourmet and Dame Laura Zapalowski.  

We’ll be at our tent all morning Saturday, selling these homemade goodies, telling you about our upcoming (very fun!) fundraiser and celebrating what’s sweet about Birmingham’s food scene. 

That fundraiser deserves another mention. 

Each year, we have a big party to raise money for our scholarship and grant giving. Since we were organized in 2013, we have awarded nearly $60,000 to women of all ages all across our state who are pursuing their culinary dreams.  

Our Southern Soiree in-person event is not possible this year, so we’ve pivoted to a Champagne and Fried Chicken drive-through pick-up picnic on Sunday, Oct. 18. (There will also be a vegetarian option.) Each basket will serve two people and will come complete—naturally—with a bottle of Champagne.

Additionally, we will have a virtual store with gift certificates, books, art, virtual cooking classes, a virtual wine tasting, a year of dinner playlists on Spotify, Southern Living’s Christmas Big White Cake and lots more. 

And we’ll have TWO different raffles each with TWELVE $100 gift certificates/cards to some of Birmingham’s best restaurants including Hot and Hot Fish Club, Highlands Bar & Grill, Blueprint on 3rd, Helen, Bay Leaf Indian Cuisine & Bar, The Bright Star, The Essential, Chez Fonfon, OvenBird, Sol y Luna, Satterfield’s, Ashley Mac’s, Urban Cookhouse, Iz Cafe, The Garden’s Cafe by Kathy G, Village Tavern, Troup’s Pizza and much more!

Go to www.ldeibirmingham.org/fundraiser/ for details.

Tickets for the basket and raffle as well as our online storefront will go live on Saturday, September 26, at 7 a.m.

Latin Week with the Dames

Every Saturday in September, Pepper Place Market is spotlighting top Birmingham women in food, beverage and hospitality. From chefs and mixologists to dietitians and food writers, more women than ever are helping to keep our food community vibrant and fun and delicious! 

Many of these women are members of the Birmingham Chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier International, a professional organization that supports women in food, beverage and hospitality. Our mission is philanthropy, education, mentoring and outreach.

Come see me and my fellow Dames at Pepper Place Market on Saturday from 7 a.m. to noon at our tent on 29th Street (near the chef demo area). This week, we’re sharing Latin flavors from some of Birmingham’s culinary superstars and a few of our favorite restaurants. (And we’ll be talking about our upcoming fundraiser, Champagne & Fried Chicken, set for Sunday, October 18.)

Our Latin food favorites are all freshly made and authentic and a great way to celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month, Fiesta Birmingham and Taco Fest! 

Here’s some of what you can expect to find:

Restaurateur Dame Becky Satterfield will offer two fresh house-made salsas – Salsa Veracruzana and Salsa Verde – and bags of fresh tortilla chips from El ZunZun in Cahaba Heights (did y’all know they’re open for brunch?). 

Dame Aimee Castro will have fresh guacamole, and margarita mix kits from beloved dining spot Sol y Luna, which reopened earlier this year in Mountain Brook Village. 

Samford University culinary professor Dame Pat Terry will bring slices of Pan de Jamon, a traditional festival ham bread from Venezuela.

Village Tavern Corporate Chef Dame Mary Grace Viado will share caramel flan; she makes it according to her mother’s recipe! 

Dame Cristina Almanza of Buffalo Rock, a longtime Market sponsor, will keep folks hydrated with chilled bottles of Jarritos, (PRO TIP: That’s the key ingredient in a refreshing cocktail called a “Paloma,” and I believe Cristina will have the recipe available.) Cristina and her friends from Fiesta Birmingham will also be introducing and selling the brand-new Fiesta Boxes, filled with crafts and games to benefit this year’s festival.

Another TIP:  When you finish visiting with us, walk around and find a  breakfast burrito with pico de gallo to go from Homewood Gourmet and Dame Laura Zapalowski.  

We’ll be at our tent all morning Saturday, answering questions, telling you about our upcoming (very fun!) fundraiser and celebrating Birmingham’s international food scene. 

The market is full of late-summer deliciousness! Be sure to bring your market bag/basket like these smart (properly masked!) women pictured below!

Fried down but not out!

One of my favorite organizations, the Cahaba River Society is moving forward in a fun, inventive way with #FryDown2020: Our Hot Mess.

The Cahaba River Fry-Down is a beloved celebration of the Cahaba River – the heart of America’s Amazon and our region’s primary drinking water source.
This annual competitive cook-off is usually a huge community party, and it is the primary fundraiser for the Cahaba River Society. I’ve been a judge for the past few years and am thrilled to join Kathy G. Mezrano and George Sarris to judge again this year.

It will be different though. This year, since our community can’t be together in person, the CRS will offer a unique, interactive and FREE experience that everyone can enjoy!

Each day, starting on Tuesday, Sept. 29th at noon and leading up to the Big Day on Oct. 4th, they will reveal something new on the Fry-Down website.
You’ll be able to watch as your favorite teams teach YOU how to cook those incredible dishes to “wow” your friends and family. You can even get your own complimentary Fry-Down Cookbook with all of this year’s recipes when you donate.

You’ll be entertained by featured acts and performers of Fry-Down so you can “taste” a little of what exciting things are to come. (This, too, shall pass!) You’ll explore your wild and wonderful Cahaba River through a virtual series of adventures, get fishing tips, and learn how to cook fish on a campout.
Finally, you’ll get to vote on YOUR FAVORITE team to win this year … all from the comfort of your home!


Join me and join in the fun while doing your part to help us protect, conserve and restore our treasured River for future generations!

Celebrate Mediterranean food with Birmingham Les Dames d’Escoffier

The Birmingham Chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier, an international organization that supports professional women in food & hospitality, is coming to Pepper Place Market every week in September to spotlight some of Birmingham’s female culinary superstars.

This week, we’re celebrating women food leaders who keep us connected to our culinary roots in the Mediterranean.

Quite a few members of Les Dames do this, and they’ll be at a tent in the Walk-Thru Market on Saturday, September 12 from 7 a.m. to noon.

Here’s some of what you can expect to find: Dame Kathy Mezrano (Kathy G. & Co.) will be bringing her stuffed grape leaves. Dame Sherron Goldstein of Fresh Fields Cooking School will have veggie couscous to go, along with her cookbook. Dame Stacey Craig will bring cheesecake baklava from The Bright Star, and copies of The Bright Star cookbook, too. Dame Sonthe Burge will bring Greek salads, tapenade, taziki and koulourakia (those addictive Greek butter cookies).

You can pre-order Italian dishes of all sorts from Dame Linda Croley (Bare Naked Noodles) in the Drive-Thru Market, or pick up some of her dried homemade pasta at the Dames’ tent. Also in the Drive-Thru, you can pre-order an array of authentic savory and sweet Greek specialties from The Greek Kouzina. Wow!

Meanwhile, my fellow Dames and I will be at our tent all morning Saturday, answering questions and celebrating how truly international our cooking heritage is–right here in Birmingham, Alabama.

Take Me Away

Get to a better, more mindful place. Then enjoy some brand new and not-so-new (but so worth your time!) fiction. These are the books I talked about this month on WBRC Fox 6.

Radical Compassion:  Learning to Love Yourself and your World with the Practice of RAIN, by Tara Brach Ph.D., is perfect for right now. I have been listening to Tara Brach’s podcasts while I walk, and I’m better for that. Brach is a clinical psychologist and one of the most beloved and respected mindfulness teachers in America. In this book, she gently guides readers—with compassion and heartfelt stories—in healthy ways to deal with difficult times. Has there ever been a bigger need for this? Stress can make us operate on autopilot, cut off from our feelings and, in turn, from those we love. Brach has an easy-to-learn, four-step meditation called RAIN that quickly loosens the grip of difficult emotions. Each step in the practice (Recognize, Allow, Investigate, Nurture) is explained in detail and made memorable with stories from Brach and her students. 

The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett, is one of the most-talked-about books right this minute. This novel is about race, during racially charged times. It’s also about family and history and how those determine our decisions and paths in life. This is the story of twin girls—Desiree and Stella—raised in a Southern town inhabited by lots of light-skinned Black people. They run away at age 16, and their lives take very different paths. One embraces her Black heritage and later returns to her hometown with her dark-skinned daughter. The other secretly passes for white and marries a white man who knows nothing about her family. The sisters are separated by miles and many lies, but there’s still a connection and their lives come together in unexpected ways. 

Ali and Nino:  A Love Story, by Kurban Said, is not new, but it has been a favorite of mine for a long time. It is one of the most beautiful love stories I’ve ever read. And set in exotic Baku, it satisfies the armchair traveler in me right now.  East and West collide here, so do cultures and religions—Nino is Christian; Ali is Muslim. But these childhood friends share an abiding love. The story takes place in the Caucasus in the early 20th century. It’s a place of blood feuds and war and revolution. In this historical fiction, the story of the lovers follows the formation of countries—Georgia, Azerbaijan and modern Iran. So there are a lot of memorable moments between these pages.

I link to Amazon to show you exactly what book I’m talking about, but I love to shop locally at Church Street Coffee and BooksThe Alabama Booksmith, Little Professor Book Center, and I often visit my local library.