COMMEMORATING FRANK STITT’S 30 YEARS IN BIRMINGHAM, ALABAMA
In a former life, I worked in land conservation, specifically saving land for the planet’s good and for children to have safe places to play. My foremost passion, however, was—and remains—food, specifically good, honest eats made with joy from simple, pure ingredients, preferably sourced from farmers with real names (not Archer Daniels). It goes without saying that these two passions—land and food—are inextricably twined.
Wherever my day job took me across the South, I relished the side benefit of eating at homegrown restaurants I had only read about. In 2008, a conservation project took me to Birmingham, where finally—Finally!—I had the opportunity to dine at one of Frank Stitt’s storied restaurants.
Chez Fonfon exceeded every expectation. While my husband and I sampled country pâté with country ham and sipped perfectly balanced wines, a long table of high school students nearby practiced conversational French. Had I not been hyper-aware of being in B’ham, I might’ve sworn we were sitting in Provence. The memory of that flavor-filled, gracious and exquisite meal is but one treasure of that trip; an autographed copy of Frank Stitt’s Southern Table is the other.
I’ve been using Chef Stitt’s cookbook, published in 2004, as a guide to planning my first backyard garden. At its heart, his book celebrates his Alabama childhood, filled with his mother’s “unbelievably great” cooking and his grandmother’s “feasts of vegetables”—creamed corn, stewed okra, green beans and potatoes, and sliced tomatoes.
The cookbook also serves as a clarion call for leading an ethical life. Though Stitt might not have intended that outcome, it is something he has mindfully practiced daily since he opened his first restaurant, Highlands Bar and Grill, 30 years ago.
Stitt was not the first to champion right farming or to bring his considerable experience in French cooking techniques to bear on Southern cuisine—there was Bill Neal at Crook’s Corner and Ben Barker of Magnolia Grill, both in North Carolina. Yet, Stitt’s influence continues to reverberate across all terrains of our region, from Appalachia to the Delta to the Low Country. Through his standard-bearing restaurants, which also includes Bottega Restaurant and Café, Stitt, his wife Pardis, and their legions of dedicated, long-serving staff, have begat new generations of conscientious Southern chefs, and it’s a wonder whether Chris Hastings or Sean Brock would be here without Stitt plowing the waters ahead of them.
When I recently asked Stitt what he thought would be the most lasting of his many accomplishments—reviving heirloom vegetables, founding farmers markets, sustaining Gulf fishermen—he answered with genuine sincerity, “I’m not sure how to answer that … perhaps that’s a question best answered by someone else.”
“It’s not an elitist thing,” Stitt says. “We need to talk about where our food comes from; it’s a security issue. That we raise livestock humanely, that clothes are not made in sweatshops. [Sustainably grown] food will cost more, but it will change the way purveyors do business.”
Fellow James Beard Award-winning chef Linton Hopkins of Atlanta’s Restaurant Eugene studied anthropology before following his heart into food, and he found a kindred spirit in Chef Stitt when they met at a SFA meeting several years ago.
“It’s the whole package with Frank, not just about what’s on the plate,” says Hopkins, who looked to American models of the great French chef-owners when he was thinking about establishing his own restaurant. Frank Stitt’s name kept popping up.
“One of the things I really like about Frank is his thoughtfulness. It’s integrity. That’s a big word with a lot of meaning. But someone who has integrity is a natural leader.”
Virginia Willis, another French-trained chef who rediscovered her native South’s bounty upon return stateside, realized a dream earlier this year when she cooked alongside Stitt at Bottega when Food Blog South was held in Birmingham.
A revered chef in her own right, Willis gushes about the experience: “The kitchen is exactly like him—no yelling, no screaming, no heavy metal … people said ‘thank you’ and ‘please.’ It was civilized. That presence and demeanor is in his food.”
She says it all comes down to “respect for your fellow workers, respect for the farmer, respect for the food.”
With respect an often scarce and precious commodity these days, reverence may be Frank Stitt’s lasting legacy, after all.