In the Northern Alabama home where Chef Frank Stitt was raised, respect was a requirement. Respect for elders. Respect for the earth and its bounty. Respect for the food on the table.
And foremost, respect for his mother who prepared the family's meals. In the Stitt home, everyone washed and dressed before dinner.
"You always thanked mom for the food and let her know how wonderful it was," said Stitt. "One time I didn't say, 'Thank you,' I was just [an] obnoxious 12-year-old, and I got a whipping from my dad because I didn't show that respect for the person that worked so hard for making the food."
Those values Stitt absorbed growing up in a small Southern town, factor large in his success as an award-winning chef, restaurateur, and author of two cookbooks, including "Frank Stitt's Southern Table, Recipes and Gracious Traditions from Highlands Bar and Grill," now in its fifth printing.
In 1982, Stitt opened his Highlands Bar and Grill on the Southside of Birmingham, seeking to perfect a balancing act of melding humble Southern favorites, such as country ham and stone-ground grits, with sophisticated French sauces.
"What I like to do is kind of play with that 'rustic humble,' with a finesse and with extravagance,'' he said.
Highlands "took off like a rocket," Stitt said. "And it's just been going like that for the last 25 years."
After his success with Highlands, Stitt soon opened Bottega and Cafe Bottega. And in 2000, he opened Chez Fonfon. All are in Birmingham.
Building a culinary empire in his home state is not what Stitt imagined for himself growing up. His father was a surgeon, his grandfather a country doctor.
His mother's family owned a farm just outside Cullman, Ala., Stitt's hometown. The family raised bees, chickens and quail, kept an apple orchard, and grew strawberries, grapes, corn, potatoes and more.
Stitt often visited the farm and helped his grandmother pick berries. He enjoys musing about farm-fresh lunches of his childhood. That "country rustic cooking of the South, with emphasis on the vegetables,'' he said, "were some of my most wonderful memories of great food."
"Summer lunch that was peas, pink-eyed peas, and butter beans and greens and greens cooked with onions and new potatoes that all have just been picked, a cream corn and boiled corn on the cob and stewed ochre and fried ochre -- you know, those kind of humble, you know, country rustic cooking of the South,'' said Stitt.
But in his youth, Stitt had no interest in cooking or farming. He wanted to practice law. After a stint atUniversity of California, Berkeley, where he studied philosophy.
Along the way Stitt says he fell in love with French cooking, and food and wine.
He found an apprenticeship with a Swiss chef in the Bay Area who was passionate about food and cooking, he said.
"He let me chop onions for the first two months and then moved me up to more aristocratic vegetables," Stitt said. "It was a great time to learn."
It was then the early 1970s, when "cooking was definitely not cool," Stitt said. "I couldn't tell my folks I was really interested in being a chef."
"There was something about the excitement of restaurants and doing something with food or wine, growing it, producing it, writing about it," he said.