Birmingham chef Frank Stitt's trajectory to Southeastern food fame is more than just a corn pone to coq au vin story. In this era of clichéd and comfortable farm-to-table cuisine, try to remember life before organic stone-ground grits.
Stitt's story mirrors the story of Southern food. A quiet revolutionary, Stitt changed the face of our plates and our palates with Southern gentility and European panache.
Affectionately named the Godfather by his gastronomic peers, the James Beard award winner will be honored at this year's Wine + Food Festival's first-ever tribute dinner, which stars a preeminent selection of chefs handpicked by Stitt himself: Mike Lata of FIG, Sean Brock of Husk and McCrady's, Karen and Ben Barker of Magnolia Grill in Durham, Linton Hopkins from Restaurant Eugene in Atlanta, and Hugh Acheson of Empire State South in Atlanta. Wine will be provided by Harry Root of Grassroots Wine.
Stitt's first memory of food was outside of his rural, northern Alabama hometown of Cullman on his grandparents' farm. "There was a big farm plow, a Jersey cow, beehives, chickens, and a big garden," he recalls fondly. "Chores were fun for me back then. I'd go out and help pick cotton and strawberries. My grandmother always said I was slow with the strawberries." These deep-seated agrarian values formed the foundation of Stitt's food philosophy.
While Stitt valued his family roots, like any 18-year-old, he was ready to branch out. After a summer of traveling around Europe, Stitt returned stateside to pursue political science at Tufts University. "Tufts was a great liberal arts school, and Boston was an exciting place," Stitt says.
After two years in Boston, Stitt began to develop a strong interest in philosophy, and the Bay Area was the place to be for all things cutting edge. Fortunately for Southern foodies, Stitt landed at University of California-Berkeley, where he fell in love with cooking, French culture, and further developed a lifelong devotion to regional food products through his work at the renowned Chez Panisse.
"I had an incredible experience at Chez Panisse," Stitt thoughtfully says about his brief stint working in the kitchen for food credit with restaurant co-founder and activist Alice Waters. "The food was so inspiring. We had one menu a day. We served whatever was beautiful."
Stitt charted his culinary course using Waters, British food writer Elizabeth David, and American memoirist Richard Olney as guides. "Search out the best, insist on it, and reject all that was bogus and second-rate," David was known to say. Stitt lived out this mantra to its fullest during his three years in San Francisco, where he embraced the Chez Panisse school of sourcing pristine ingredients and developing local resources.
Beauty. Wonder. Honor. Integrity. The more you talk with Stitt, the more you realize that food and wine are the outlets with which he expresses his passion for history, philosophy, and the land. His life pursuits have always gone hand in hand with cuisine.
"I was taught to pursue whatever I did with passion, searching out the best and making it beautiful," Stitt says. "In my case, a true connection to the land makes everything you do beautiful."
Stitt's work with Waters in San Francisco led to a yearlong southern European tour with food writer Richard Olney, where the young chef explored all aspects of French culture and cuisine, from harvesting grapes in the south of France, to tasting the finest at l'Academie du Vin in Paris, meeting notable chefs and food writers like Julia Child and her co-author, Simone Beck, along the way.
As 1978 waned, practical problems began to surface. "I love the south of France, but I couldn't stay there forever," Stitt laughs. "I learned quite a lot during my travels, but I wanted to bring my experience to the South."
Stitt pondered Charleston, Atlanta, Savannah, and Athens, but his family was in northern Alabama. Birmingham was the obvious choice, despite the fact that the city's culinary scene in the early 1980s was not exactly buzzing. After a few years at Hugo's, a fine dining restaurant located in the Hyatt Hotel, Stitt opened Highlands Bar and Grill in a small space in a rundown section of town in 1982.
"It just took off," Stitt says of the now famous restaurant that combines the energy of the Big Easy's Galatoire's with a distinctive northern Alabama bent. "I wanted to incorporate my love of southern France with Southern ingredients."
Birmingham needed a restaurant like Highlands and so did the rest of the South. "Frank saw the future of American food before it happened," says Sean Brock, executive chef of Husk and McCrady's. "He was paving the way for us in the early '80s when he opened Highlands. He did then what we're still trying to do now."
Stitt incorporated this perspective into Bottega in 1988, Café Bottega in 1990, and Chez Fonfon in 2000. It was at Bottega that Stitt met his other half, Pardis, while managing the dining room. Pardis Stitt co-owns and manages front-of-the-house operations for all four restaurants, in addition to piloting the couple's work in the Birmingham community. The Stitts helped found Birmingham's Slow Food Movement, the regional Southern Foodways Alliance, and lent leadership support to Birmingham's Jones Valley Urban Farm and Pepper Place Farmer's Market.
"Frank is a true Alabama chef, representing his place and his time," says Linton Hopkins of Restaurant Eugene. "The best restaurants are personal. When you walk in to their restaurants, you get Frank and Pardis."
Stitt's connection to the farm, the land, and the seasons gave him a leg up on his contemporaries. "Many chefs want to be creative and artistic," Stitt explains. "The ingredients you need might be available with current technology, but that's not reality. The closeness of the farmer to the land — that has been my muse. It gives me blinders and limits. The ancient art of farming is what drives me as a chef. "
Stitt displayed an early advocacy of locally grown food and a relentless commitment to local ingredients. Karen and Ben Barker, owners of the esteemed Magnolia Grill in Durham, N.C., have been morally allied with the Stitts' passion for local product sourcing and seasonality from their first meeting at the inaugural Salute to Southern Chefs in Charleston in 1992.
"It was the nature of the time," the Barkers wrote in an e-mail. "Sometimes it required more effort, more diligence; often it was incumbent on chefs to inspire farmers to grow certain products, or raise certain animals. It was a process, a step requisite to putting the best food on the plate."
"Frank is a champion of small producers and not afraid to trumpet the little guys," adds Harry Root, President of Grassroots Wine, a purveyor of family farm-produced wines and a longtime friend of Stitt's. "His support of growers and farmers built a market for these guys by himself, but it also inspired me and other chefs and restaurants."
The Barkers and Stitts provided support to one another, while establishing the precedent and foundations for the current generation of farm-to-table cooks.
"Frank's integrity with the ingredients he uses is infectious," says Mike Lata. "He is kindred spirits with so many Southern chefs. Even 500-600 miles away, he's successfully using local products. He is inspiring to us all."
Stitt has reclaimed Southern food for Southerners by elevating its preparation as well, using classic European techniques. "Southern food used to be fried chicken and barbecue," laughs Brock, who personally identifies with Stitt's rural childhood. "But Frank showed us that our food can be beautiful and delicate with the proper method applied."
For example, when braising a free range chicken in wine, using the French technique is the best, says Stitt. "The French are the best at some things. Other cultures are the best at others. I have taken that foundation and interplayed with Southern traditions, specifically focusing on French and Italian techniques."
Hugh Acheson agrees that those influences help Southern food evolve. "It's how to make that smothered pork chop sing! Technique is important; the marrying of styles just makes things better."
European and Southern cooking methods are less born from style and more from necessity, explains Lata. The vegetable and grain-driven cuisine of both regions has informed their preparation. Italian braised greens and polenta? Think collards and grits.
"It's not a far stretch to contextualize European techniques to Southern food," Lata adds. "But Frank was the spark. A classically trained chef like Frank can redefine but also remind you of the true flavors of a dish."
Despite the accolades too long to list and the veritable worship from producers, chefs, and patrons, Stitt remains humble and engaged in the kitchen. "He's a student, always willing to learn something new," says Lata, who invited Stitt to cook at FIG the first year of the Wine + Food Festival. "As accomplished as he is, it was amazing to see how passionate he was. He was full of curiosity."
"He's a master of his craft," Brock says, "like Obi-Wan Kenobi. As Southern chefs, we're standing on his shoulders. He continues to lead the way, like a Southern Thomas Keller."
With regard to the esteemed group of chefs Stitt has chosen to cook his meal, he humbly discusses the philosophies and restaurants of each participant with admiration. "We have mutual respect for one another in the kitchen," he says. "This dinner will go too fast. A week at Pawley's Island with this group would be great."