October 20 — From the age of 11, Rand Carswell had two goals: to appear on the Food Network and one day have his own restaurant.
“I don’t know what it was – I just caught the virus,” he said.
At 34, he’s still grieving, having achieved fame with a 2015 win on Food Network’s “Food Truck Face Off” with his famous fried mac and cheese balls, which Gainesville foodies might recognize as a mainstay of Carswell’s one-year-old love child, Le Grill Chattahoochee.
“It’s definitely a lifestyle,” the chef said. “It’s not something you can just go home and forget about the day or time your hours and that’s it. It’s a lifetime contract where it’s just 24 constant hours.”
Born and raised in Gainesville, Carswell moved out last fall, launching The Chattahoochee Grill soon after.
He studied catering and hotel management at the University of Alabama before enrolling in the Johnson & Wales Culinary School in North Miami. He remained in the sunshine state for several years thereafter, feeding appetites from Orlando to the northern Keys with gourmet pressed sandwiches, burgers and salads through his Miami Press food truck, which eventually transformed into a fast-paced, laid-back brick-and-mortar. He ran the food truck circuit for about five years.
“That was around the time the food truck scene was really exploding in South Florida — you talk about crazy crowds,” he said. “It was just an absolute party every stop.”
But for Carswell, Gainesville has a sense of community like no other place where he hung his chef’s jacket.
“It’s an amazing city. We have an explosion of restaurants and different event spaces, and there’s always this great community. When people ask, ‘Why did you move here?’ or “What’s the difference between the two (Gainesville and South Florida)?” I can sum it up in one word: community.”
He has dedicated himself to cultivating that feeling on the north side of the Thompson Bridge spanning Lake Lanier, where dining options are quite scarce compared to those on the other side leading downtown.
“We really wanted to bring a neighborhood restaurant to this community that really has nothing here,” Carswell said. “When that opportunity came it was kind of a perfect match. The feedback we got from the neighborhood was, ‘We want something that can be ours. “”
Today, Carswell compares the Chattahoochee Grill to a “Cheers” hangout where patrons’ names and drink choices are known as soon as they enter, emitting a “small-town neighborhood, old Gainesville feel.”
Carswell’s wife, Macy, also from Gainesville, is a bit of a cocktail wizard. Using her expertise from more than a decade in the beverage industry, she curated the sum of the Chattahoochee Grill’s drink menu, including fan favorites like Old Fashioned Smokey Lemonade and Strawberry Lemonade.
But this is not his only area of influence. Described as Rand’s better half and the start of the entire restaurant operation, his every idea runs through Macy’s before landing on the menu.
“She can crush me and tell me if it’s a good idea or a bad idea,” he said. “Everything I do, it always goes through her to filter that out.”
The two have only been married for two years, but, according to Rand, “when you have businesses together, it feels like a lifetime.”
As a culinary artist, most of Carswell’s dishes have a Southern flair, with some leaning toward the Asian side of the culinary landscape – a hallmark of his time in South Florida.
Along with chili cheeseburgers, bacon-wrapped dates, and brunch chicken and waffles, his menu features Spicy Tuna Crispy Rice – spicy tuna on crispy rice cakes, topped with eel and dynamite and serrano pepper – and tuna nachos – a bed of wonton chips with ahi tuna, dynamite sauce, sesame reduction, green onions and sesame seeds.
Carswell also draws inspiration from South Florida’s Spanish culture, namely its flavor and zest for life, which he infused into his own cooking at the Chattahoochee Grill.
“We have such a family environment there,” he said. “If you ask anyone here, they love coming to work every day. We share responsibilities and make sure we have fun, that it’s not just work, work, work.”
Carswell has seen an episode or two of the comedy-drama “The Bear.” So far, he said, the series offers a fairly accurate look at life in the kitchen, without the animosity between the staff — or at least it does at the Chattahoochee Grill.
And, unlike other golf club restaurants, the Chattahoochee Grill is anything but exclusive.
Located on city-owned property and independent of the neighboring Chattahoochee Country Club, the restaurant is open to the public daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner Wednesday through Saturday. Brunch is served on Sundays.
Over the coming year, Carswell’s vision for The Chattahoochee Grill is to “execute everything better” and expand its reach beyond the golf club district in hopes that more people recognize the potential commercial on the side of Thompson Bridge.
“Maybe other restaurants will start popping up,” he said.
One of them may be his. Plans are underway for additional concepts, Carswell said, but could not release further details as of Oct. 19.
“There is something in the works now. It will be very cool,” he said. “Everything is really close to the chest right now.”
When asked what motivates him, Carswell’s answer is twofold.
It is first and foremost the legacy of his grandfather, the late local radio pioneer John Jacobs.
“I always hoped that I would be someone like him. It’s great to still hear people’s thoughts about him today and what he did (in) creating something that is bigger than ‘a person, going on, that I’d like to put yourself in his shoes and build in a different way. Something that’s not just about “Oh yeah, he’s got some really cool restaurants”, but “He’s doing really good.” I think that’s a big difference, and leaving a legacy is selfless and better for everyone.”
And second, as a pleasure seeker and self-proclaimed perfectionist, he focuses on the details to make sure everything that comes out of his kitchen is top notch.
“I like to see people having a meal or having a drink,” he said. “It’s almost like (I) have a party every night when we’re open for dinner.”