Chef Robert McDonald III | Bistro by the Tracks, Happy Holler



Chef Robert McDonald grew up in Fountain City and got into cooking after his family built a gas grill into their back deck and he started grilling burgers for friends. McDonald was an actor at Central High and had stints in New York and LA. He was breaking down the grill at the Creamery Park Grille when he met his wife, Jennifer. McDonald was the 2023 Top Chefs Champion.

“The whole meal is my childhood,” said Chef Robert McDonald. “Picture myself as Gandalf and you’re all Hobbits. This is who I am and where I came from, as a person and as a chef. Come with me on a journey to my childhood.”  

The theme for the opener was Camping, honoring the food Chef Robert and his dad, Dr. Robert McDonald Jr., took along with them when backpacking in the Big South Fork and the Smokies—all-beef smoked sausage, Sweetwater Valley cheddar cheese, and crispy wild rice. “Rice A Roni was our favorite thing to cook on the campfire,” said Bob McDonald. The paired wine, 2021 Saldo Shiraz, was “peppery and fruity, with flavor of brine,” said Chef Robert.

Top Chefs | Happy Holler Appetizer

The appetizer theme of School Lunch morphed the motif of chicken nuggets and PB&J into chicken and duck liver pâté rolled in roasted peanuts and served with roasted strawberry compote and grilled sourdough bread, and paired with a Blindfold Sauvignon Blanc.

Top Chefs | Happy Holler Entree

The entrée theme, Summer Family Grill, evoked the gas grill built into the McDonalds’ deck that, said Chef Robert, “opened up a new world for me as a child.” Paired with The Prisoner Cabernet Sauvignon from the Napa Valley, the charcoal-grilled Koji-cured eye of the ribeye with duck fat confit potatoes, charred broccoli florets, and cheddar puree and house-made A1 Steak Sauce, “because you always needed a lot of steak sauce to choke down the steak that your dad burned on the grill.” 

Top Chefs | Happy Holler Dessert

As it should be at a family cookout, dessert was Grandma’s Cake—really Grandmas’ Cakes. The base was Dolores McDonald’s layered devil’s food cake. “Dad’s mother brought our family together,” said Chef Robert. “Love as pure and simple and sweet as it can possibly be.” The topping was Marvel Wallace’s vanilla cream-cheese icing. “When Mom’s mom is making her icing, what’s the first thing to do?” asked Chef Robert. “You lick the spoon.” For extra measure, Chef Robert added his chocolate buttercream raspberry puree, and paired the dish with a Saldo Zinfandel. 

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