PARDIS AND FRANK STITT RETREAT TO THEIR ALABAMA FARM
Everyone needs a happy place. That destination where we go—whether mentally or physically—for a reprieve from the everyday, where we hit the pause button on our routines, where we retreat, relax, and get centered again.
For James Beard Award-winning Chef Frank Stitt and his wife and business partner, Pardis, that place is Paradise Farm. Situated just thirty-five miles southwest of Birmingham, Alabama, the farm provides more than a change of scenery for the couple. The seventy acres provide the ideal location for growing heirloom varieties of the chef’s favorite fruits and vegetables. There is a barn for his polo ponies and a ring in which to train. A shady side yard makes the ideal location for hens to hunt and peck and coo. Hundreds of flowers make cutting for floral arrangements, large or small, a joy. It is the kind of spot you might dream about having, whether you’ve been in the restaurant business for more than thirty years or not.
Tuesday through Saturday, almost fifty-two weeks a year, Frank and Pardis Stitt oversee their four restaurants: Highlands Bar and Grill, Chez Fonfon, Bottega, and Bottega Café. Hallmarks for the establishments include not only exceptional French and Italian cuisines with a Southern fingerprint, but gracious hospitality and a level of service that sets the bar for all others. But when given more than thirty-six hours that are obligation-free, the pair is likely to pack up a few necessities and hit the road for Paradise.
“The farm has definitely become a respite from the city—it takes me a few minutes to calm down after I arrive, but once I do, I’m happy to stay,” says Pardis with an exhalation that bears witness to her contentment here. “There are so many aspects of the farm I love—harvesting vegetables, cutting flowers, being a passenger on one of Frank’s wild ‘mule’ rides.”
For Chef Stitt, who grew up in North Alabama, being at the farm connects him with his past, completing a circle of sorts. “It is this coming back to what I grew up with, as a city boy from Cullman, where just two miles outside of town was the farm my grandparents farmed, which was very much a wonderful working farm. Where my grandfather plowed with mules and had a jersey cow and bees and orchards. I would pick strawberries, which they raised for a cash crop.” His face softens with the memory, and he adds, “There is this kind of coming back, as a person, as a cook, as a man who had that in his childhood and kind of returns.”
Naturally, restaurant life takes up the majority of the Stitts’ time, and keeping a farm running is no small task. Freddy Villar is Paradise Farm’s farm manager. Like Frank, Freddy grew up around horses with a grandmother who raised chickens and most of the family’s vegetables. But it was Freddy’s prowess with polo horses that originally endeared him to Frank. Hailing from the Dominican Republic, Villar was a professional groom and then polo player himself. The two met when Freddy was working at the Birmingham Polo Club where he trained Stitt and a few other players. Some years later, Frank was able to convince him to move to Paradise Farm full time.
Watching the two work together in the ring, it becomes clear that their relationship is unique. “I like to say Freddy is like The Buddha,” says Frank. “He has a calm purposefulness. I have never seen him be negative or bitter or anything other than accepting and kind of ‘Let’s make it happen.’”
Freddy has a broad smile that seems to glow from under his ever-present ball cap as he offers his take on life at Paradise Farm: “I’ve always been an easygoing person, and every day I want to make things as simple as possible. To anticipate our needs for the farm and be respectful of all the animals.” His days vary in their routine, but he is always busy. “I work with the horses in some way every day, but it depends on the time of year—right before and during polo season, there is much more to be done with them. There is farm work every day as well—bush-hogging, keeping the tractor cleaned, turning the compost, feeding the horses, goats, and chickens.” Frank notes, “He loves that part of planting and taking care and growing and harvesting,” confiding that “Freddy is kind of my partner in crime at the farm.”
There are twenty raised beds on the property where Chef Stitt grows his favorite fruits and vegetables: Tuscan kale, Swiss chard, savoy spinach, collard greens, turnips, beets of all colors, carrots, radishes, sweet peas, asparagus, green beans, Romano beans, and Fordhook limas—to name a few. It is not uncommon for diners to see “Paradise Farm okra” on a menu or to enjoy some golden chanterelles that were foraged by the chef himself. In addition, Freddy brings in whatever else has been harvested once a week. But his truck is not empty when he leaves Birmingham. Frank says, “He will take all the vegetable trim and coffee grounds and then we’ll combine that with the manure and shavings and leaves. As Freddy likes to say, ‘The compo is good stuff.’” One more way they complete the circle at Paradise Farm.
Autumn days bring shorter afternoons. The horses can feel the change in seasons just as much as Frank and Pardis. The beautiful creatures yearn to laze in the pasture, which is not lost on Pardis, who loves “watching the horses as they are released from their stalls and led to the pasture, not by Freddy, but by Moonshine [the polo pony].” Frank shares the sentiment, adding, “To see the horses jump and kick in the evening when they are let out and all those rhythms of the seasons and of the day is wonderful.” Wonderful indeed. And time for supper.