Auburn’s McDaniel, Bancroft competing for James Beard’s Best Chef South

Published: February 16, 2017
Updated: June 20, 2017
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Two of Auburn's own are once again among the region's top chefs vying for the title of Best Chef South.

Rob McDaniel, a 2002 alumnus of the Hotel and Restaurant Management program in Auburn University's College of Human Sciences, and David Bancroft, owner and executive chef of Acre in Auburn, who attended the Harbert College of Business, are among 20 semifinalists vying for the James Beard Foundation Award, Best Chef South.

The James Beard Foundation, the culinary arts organization behind the nation's top recognition program for chefs and industry professionals, on Feb. 15 released the names of semifinalists in 21 restaurant and chef categories, including Outstanding Chef, Outstanding Restaurant, Outstanding Service, Outstanding Bar Program, Best New Restaurant and Best Chef in 10 different regions.

McDaniel, general manager and executive chef at SpringHouse in Alexander City, is no stranger to the semifinal list. This year makes his fifth consecutive nod. Last year, he was joined by his friend, Bancroft.

"I feel just as honored this year as I have the last four," said McDaniel.

"It is a huge honor to be listed amongst so many talented friends in the south," added Bancroft. "James Beard provides an amazing sense of camaraderie for the chefs. I am extremely proud of our team [at Acre] for upholding the quality of food and service that allowed this opportunity for a second time."

Back when McDaniel received his first nomination, he said he was the only chef from Alabama. There are four this year.

"Alabama has a voice in the food world. Frank Stitt and Chris Hastings laid the groundwork for that each year that our state has names on that list it strengthens our voice," McDaniel said. "Having four representatives this year only makes our voice stronger."

Stitt's Highlands Bar and Grill in Birmingham has been among the finalists in the Outstanding Restaurant category for eight straight years. So far, it's a semifinalist in that category this year. Hastings, chef and owner of Hot and Hot Fish Club in Birmingham, was a four-time nominee for Best Chef South before winning the title in 2012.

Also representing the state of Alabama this year in the Best Chef South category are Bill Briand, executive chef at Fisher's Upstairs at Orange Beach Marina in Orange Beach, and Timothy Hontzas, chef and owner of Johnny's in Homewood.

"I don't look at James Beard as a competition," explained McDaniel. "David, Bill, Tim and myself all work very hard, long hours along with many other chefs and cooks in our state to provide an exceptional experience for our guests and be great representatives for Alabama."

Only Florida and New Orleans, Louisiana have more representation than Alabama among the semifinalists.

The James Beard Foundation first began recognizing the people behind food and beverage in 1991, forever solidifying the designation of a celebrity chef. A James Beard award is considered the highest honor in the food and beverage industry.

After graduating from Auburn, McDaniel studied at the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont. He returned to Alabama and worked for Hastings at Hot and Hot Fish Club and Jim 'N Nick's Bar-B-Q, both in Birmingham. Nick Pihakis, owner of Jim 'N Nick's, has also been a James Beard nominee.

Bancroft opened Acre in 2013. With a strong commitment to locally sourced ingredients, he uses the restaurant's acre of land to grow produce, herbs and fruit for his ever-changing menu. He also works with local ranchers for farm-raised meats and local and regional artisans for pickles, jams and cheeses.

The James Beard Foundation will announce the final five nominees in each category March 15 in Los Angeles via Facebook live at https://www.facebook.com/beardfoundation and Twitter at https://twitter.com/beardfoundation. The winners will be named at the James Beard Awards Gala on May 1 at Lyric Opera of Chicago, which is open to the public.