From the time he was 11 years old, Rand Carswell had two goals: to appear on Food Network, and to someday have a restaurant of his own.
“I don’t know what it was — I just caught the bug,” he said.
At 34, he’s still afflicted, having achieved his claim to fame with a 2015 victory on Food Network’s “Food Truck Face Off” with his famous fried mac and cheese balls, which Gainesville gourmets might recognize as a mainstay of Carswell’s year-old lovechild, The Chattahoochee Grill.
“It’s definitely a lifestyle,” the chef said. “It’s not something that you can just walk home and forget about the day or clock in for your hours and then that’s it. It’s a full lifetime deal where it’s just a constant 24 hours.”
Born and raised in Gainesville, Carswell moved home last fall, launching The Chattahoochee Grill shortly thereafter.
He studied restaurant and hospitality management at the University of Alabama before enrolling in culinary school at Johnson & Wales in north Miami. He stuck around the sunshine state for a number of years thereafter, feeding appetites from Orlando to just north of the Keys with gourmet pressed sandwiches, burgers and salads via his food truck Miami Press, which eventually morphed into a fast-casual 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’re talking crazy crowds,” he said. “It was just an absolute party at every single stop.”
But for Carswell, Gainesville boasts a sense of community unlike any other place he’s hung his chef’s coat.
“This is an exceptional town. We’re having an explosion of restaurants and different event spaces, and it’s still got that great community. When people ask, ‘Why’d you move back up here?’ or, ‘What’s the difference between the two (Gainesville and South Florida)?’ I can sum it up in one word: community.”
He’s been devoted to cultivating that sentiment on the north side of Thompson Bridge spanning Lake Lanier, where dining options are quite scarce compared to those on the other side leading into downtown.
“We really wanted to bring a neighborhood restaurant to this community that doesn’t really have anything out here,” Carswell said. “When this 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 likens The Chattahoochee Grill to a “Cheers”-esque hangout where patrons’ names and drinks of choice are known the moment they walk in, emitting a “small-town neighborhood, old Gainesville feel.”
Carswell’s wife, Macy, also from Gainesville, is a bit of a cocktail magus. Using her expertise from more than a decade in the beverage industry, she’s curated the sum of The Chattahoochee Grill’s drink menu, including fan favorites like the smoked old fashioned and strawberry lemonade.
But that’s not her only realm of influence. Described as Rand’s better half and the front end of the restaurant’s whole operation, his every idea runs through Macy before landing on the menu.
“She can ground me down and tell me when it’s a good idea or a bad idea,” he said. “Everything that I do, it’s always run through her to kind of filter that out.”
The two have only been wed 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 touch, with some leaning toward the Asian side of the foodscape — a trademark of his time in South Florida.
Alongside pimento cheeseburgers, bacon-wrapped dates and brunchtime chicken and waffles, his menu flaunts spicy tuna crispy rice — spicy tuna atop crispy rice cakes, garnished with eel and dynamite sauces and serrano pepper — and 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’s infused into his own kitchen at The Chattahoochee Grill.
“We have such a family environment back there,” he said. “If you ask anybody here, they love coming to work every day. We share the responsibilities and make sure we have fun, that it’s not just all work, work work.”
Carswell has seen an episode or two of comedy-drama “The Bear.” So far, he said, the series offers a pretty accurate glimpse of life in the kitchen, sans the animosity between staff — or at least such is the case at The Chattahoochee Grill.
And, unlike other golf club restaurants, The Chattahoochee Grill is anything but exclusive.
Being on city-owned property and independent from the neighboring Chattahoochee Country Club, the restaurant is open to the public daily for breakfast and lunch, and dinner Wednesday through Saturday. Brunch is served on Sundays.
In the year ahead, Carswell’s vision for The Chattahoochee Grill is to “execute everything better” and widen its reach beyond the golf club’s neighborhood with the hope that more people recognize the potential for business on the side of Thompson Bridge.
“Maybe other restaurants will start to pop up,” he said.
One of them may be his very own. Plans are in motion for additional concepts, Carswell said, but couldn’t divulge further details as of Oct. 19.
“There’s something in the works now. It’ll be very cool,” he said. “It’s all really close to the chest right now.”
When asked what drives him, Carswell’s answer is twofold.
First and foremost, it’s the legacy of his grandfather, the late local radio pioneer John Jacobs.
“I’ve always hoped that I would be someone like him. It’s awesome to still hear to this day people’s thoughts on him and what he’s done (in) creating something that’s bigger than one person, that’s continued on, that I would like to step into his shoes and build in a different way. Something that’s not just like, ‘Oh, yeah, he has really cool restaurants,’ but, ‘He actually does good.’ I think that’s a difference maker, and leaving a legacy is something that is selfless and better for everybody else.”
And secondly, as a self-proclaimed people-pleaser and perfectionist, it’s honing in on details to ensure everything that comes out of his kitchen is top-notch.
“I love seeing people enjoying meals or enjoying drinks,” he said. “It’s almost like (I) get to throw a party every single night that we’re open for dinner.”