Chef Aubrey Daniels really didn’t have much of a choice. “My father is a World Master Chef, and his dad was a chef. My great-granddad was a chef trained at the original Le Cordon Bleu,” says Daniels, executive chef of Wildhorse Grill at Robson Ranch in Denton. “It’s pretty much in my blood.”
His introduction to the profession was more pragmatic than romantic, however. “I was kind of a bad kid in school. When I was young, probably around eleven, my dad started taking me to work to keep me out of trouble,” Aubrey recalls. Once there, though, he fell in love with the kitchen. He showed a natural talent from the beginning, and learned quickly thanks to his curiosity and keen powers of observation.
Aubrey’s dad provided him with an excellent foundation, but as his skills and knowledge progressed, Aubrey was looking beyond Wichita Falls, where his family had lived for the previous four years. “I wanted to go more in depth with food,” he says, “and my dad told me I should return to the Dallas area, where I grew up.”
“At about age 22 I really started to delve into the science of it all. I loved the science—the way that food reacts really grabbed my attention,” says Aubrey.
Aubrey’s first position back in Dallas was at a private country club working for an executive chef who gave him good guidance. “That's when I really started to hunker down and learn a lot of different concepts about food and techniques,” he says.
From there, Aubrey moved to Oklahoma to worked as sous chef at a casino. “It was a very, very big operation,” he recalls. Then after a year as executive chef at a privately owned restaurant in Louisiana, he decided to head back to DFW.
“After leaving my mentor at the country club in Dallas I was, at last, on my own. Those years as a sous chef and then as an executive chef were when I really started to mold into what I am today,” says Aubrey.
Just as in the beginning, Aubrey had continued learning through passionate curiosity and careful observation. “I started to reach out more with flavors. Flavors that I thought I didn't like, I learned to like, and learned to use differently,” he says.“I read a lot of books about other people's techniques and the way that they were taking flavors and incorporating them in their area of expertise. It really broadened my spectrum.”
With matured skills and increased confidence, Aubrey was ready when opportunity knocked as he returned to the Dallas area. “There was a food rep who had been out to Robson Ranch who told me they were looking for a chef. So I went out to Denton and met with the food and beverage manager, and we hit it off right then and there,” says Aubrey. The match took, and now for going on six years he has served as executive chef at Wildhorse Grill at Robson Ranch.
Wildhorse Grill is open to the public, but as the onsite dining venue for Wildhorse Golf Club at Robson Ranch, it serves many repeat customers. To maintain continuity while keeping things fresh and trending, Aubrey has established a core menu that rotates quarterly, and offers two other menus that change each week. “I constantly have new menu items, ideas, and concepts to keep it all in balance,” he says.
“I love the members, and that I can put a smile on their face with my cuisine,” says Aubrey. He especially enjoys being asked to serve foods that members have enjoyed when traveling out of the country. “They want to see the same exact dish, just the way they remember it. And even thought I’ve never been to that region, I pretty much always pull it off,” he says with pride.
Chef Aubrey has free rein over his menus, but has a regular thought process to keep it from being too overwhelming. “First I consider input from guests for something that they would like to see, then put my twist on it, then add something to balance the menu,” he explains. “Because you know, you can't just do ‘duck duck, duck.’” He continues, “From there, I look at what's in season—colors, tastes, textures and flavors. I put it together in my head and play around with it before I actually put it on the menu.”
Chef Aubrey must of course meet other demands along with menu development, not to mention the crush of holiday events and a few minutes of table touching each evening. His sous chef covers kitchen management and ordering, freeing Aubrey to interact with staff to maintain consistency.
“You have to work fast. You’re doing a lot of things at once, and telling your staff what to do while you're doing your your work in front of them,” he says. “It's a lot to keep track of. Basically you turn into an octopus when you’re a chef.”