John T. Edge / January 2010
Food Arts presents the January/February 2010 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Frank Stitt, the Birmingham, Alabama, chef and restaurateur who put cast iron–cooked cornbread on a damask-draped table, where it belongs.
In 1982, when Stitt opened Highlands Bar and Grill—a luxe bistro that draws inspiration from both faraway Marseilles and nearby Montgomery—Southerners in general, and Alabamians in particular, did not embrace their own brand of provincial cookery. The original clientele at Highlands didn't celebrate crops plucked from Alabama soil, fish pulled from Alabama waters. Over the past three decades—as he has added a grand Italian restaurant, Bottega, and a casual French spot, Chef Fonfon, to his stable, as he has written two definitive cookbooks—Stitt has made it his mission to win them over. To his place. To their place. To their common foods.
Stitt left the South in his youth, intent on escaping the strife that hung like a pall over the region. First came Tufts University in suburban Boston. Then the University of California at Berkeley, where, inspired by the writings of Richard Olney and Elizabeth David, he sought a kitchen job. A stint at Chez Panisse followed. And, finally, an invitation to the South of France, where he worked as Olney's assistant. While in France, Stitt had what he calls "an Alabama epiphany." He realized that much of what he valued in French life—reverence for place, reliance upon agriculture—was waiting to be rediscovered in his native South. And so he returned, intent upon leveraging his past for Alabama's future.
Stitt was born and raised in Cullman, an hour north of Birmingham. His father was a doctor, his mother a talented home cook. But Stitt's childhood was as informed by country as city. His maternal grandmother churned farm milk for butter. His maternal grandfather tended a smokehouse and plowed the red clay hills with mules. When Stitt opened Highlands, he drew upon that farm experience. And he drew upon the strength of his family—to raise startup capital, his mother mortgaged her home.
In concert with his wife Pardis Stitt—one of America's great front-of-the-house talents—Frank Stitt has honed a gastronomic empire. Out of his kitchens (and her dining rooms) a generation of restaurant talent has emerged. People like Goren Avery, who has worked the Highlands floor more than 25 years. And Drew Robinson, onetime Highlands chef de cuisine, who now directs culinary operations at Jim 'N Nick's, an innovative Birmingham-based family of barbecue restaurants.
"I see our restaurants as showcases of what's possible here in Alabama," says the man who, on a recent menu, featured brook trout poached in ham broth with field peas, and pork belly braised in Bourbon with dandelion greens. "I'm proud of the relationships we nurture and the food we cook."