Frank Stitt Cooks With Mom in Mind

Highlands' chef melds humble Southern favorites and sophisticated French sauces.

September 21, 2010, 2:53 PM

Oct. 5, 2010— -- 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.

A Love Affair With French Cooking

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.

He knew that was what he wanted to be doing. He managed to insinuate himself into the ground-breaking kitchen of Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower, at the now-legendary Chez Panisse in Berkeley, which pioneered a new American cuisine, experimenting with French cooking techniques and California ingredients.

With an introduction from Waters, Stitt secured an assistant job with Richard Olney, who was working on a 20-volume Time-Life series the "Good Cook." In this role, living in London, he met Julia Child, and worked with Elizabeth David, Stephen Spurrier and Simca Beck.

He also had the chance to travel through the French countryside, where he picked grapes in Provence and worked in a wine cellar.

"I would have been happy to live in France for the rest of my life, but money ran out and I decided to come back to the South," Stitt said, "to these roots that I have in Alabama."

Birmingham, he said, needed a restaurant that was both sophisticated and also authentically celebrated the South and its food.

While he credits 18th-century French and Italian cookbooks as inspiration, he also says that inspiration comes "from all over the place."

His mother's influence, no doubt, looms large. She was "an incredible cook," he said, who was able to take what was grown on the family farm and bring it to the table in interesting ways.

After living in New York in the 1940s, Stitt's mother returned to Alabama with a broader food vocabulary and new ideas for dishes.

"She was weaving these esoteric or not necessarily Southern things, and that was wonderful," said Stitt, who said some of his fondest memories are set at his mother's table. "Her way of showing her love was through cooking and through food."

A 'Spiritual Connection' to Food

"We are able to pass our love on through our cooking, through the food," he said. "There is this wonderful kind of chain that goes around that connection of food, and I do think that most people who love to cook are interested in sharing with other people -- with their friends and family. I think that that's so much about what food is about."

And for Stitt, it's also about the land. "The origin of our food, knowing where our food comes from, you know, animal husbandry, sustainable organic farming -- those are the things politically that we have to get off the couch and fight for," he said.

"I feel a real spiritual connection to the food and to the land because of my Southern agrarian upbringing,'' he added.

At Stitt's restaurants, his focus is not only on the food, but the entire dining experience. "We're always trying to engage our staff to be more respectful and to be more genuine," he said.

And manners still matter to him. He's proud that he's raised his children, a son and a daughter, who will stand to greet someone who comes to the table. And his staff is trained not to turn away diners who arrive minutes after the kitchen closes. Instead they welcome them and "make them feel at ease and you are going to nourish them and restore them...You have an opportunity to impact that person's life," he said.

Stitt, 55, gives credit to his wife and business partner, Pardis, for his success. He also won't forget to thank the rest of his team for putting food on so many tables so successfully. Some of his staff have been with him for his entire 27 years in business.

"I'm just the coach,'' he said. "It's the team. It's certainly my wife who kind of works harder than I do. She is much more obsessed with everything being perfect. I think that it's so much of the team that deserves the credit for making that happen... I do think that I've got to really give them a great gratitude and honor."

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