As a boy growing up in Cullman in the 1960s, Frank Stitt had no particular interest in learning to cook. “My major interest was football back then, ” says the award-winning Birmingham chef, restaurateur, cookbook author and locally grown food advocate. But he did like to eat.
Luckily his mother was a phenomenal cook and hostess, always happy to pull out another plate to feed a guest. While she had grown up with traditional Southern cooking, she had studied dietetics in college and learned to cook a variety of international dishes. “She lived to make people happy through her cooking, ” he says.
Her parents had a nearby farm, so Stitt’s mother had a steady source of fresh produce to cook with. He grew up eating juicy, vine-ripened tomatoes and other tasty seasonal fruits and vegetables, both at home and at his grandparents’ house.
Stitt’s father, a surgeon, often took the family on trips to major cities, such as New York, Chicago and New Orleans, where they visited great restaurants like the Four Seasons, the Pump Room, Brennan’s and Antoine’s. “I remember being fascinated by the air of excitement and pageantry of a really fine restaurant.” Stitt says.
After high school and spending the summer of 1972 in Europe, Stitt tried Boston’s Tufts University before transferring to the University of California at Berkeley to study philosophy. While a student there, he discovered the books of food writers Richard Olney and Elizabeth David. The words of those authors ignited a passion and started his lifelong quest to learn more about good food and wine.
Stitt began approaching the top French chefs in the area so he could learn the finer points of food preparation. None were interested in taking on the beginner. Finally a Swiss chef, Fritz Luenberger, let Stitt volunteer in his kitchen at Casablanca. “Back in those days, culinary schools weren’t what they are today so you had to get your start working in a restaurant with a chef, ” he says.
After gaining more experience Stitt was able to work at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. Owned by Chef Alice Waters, a founder of California cuisine, the restaurant was at the cutting edge of what was to become the slow food movement. Stitt was greatly influenced by Water’s philosophy of using organic, locally grown ingredients. “I had grown up eating locally produced foods, so it made perfect sense to me, ” Stitt says.
Stitt decided he needed to go to France to continue his culinary education. Waters, who had studied in France and adopted country French cooking techniques, introduced Stitt to food writer Richard Olney via a letter. At the time Olney, an American based in France, was working on his extensive 28-volume Time-Life book series “The Good Cook.” Olney ended up hiring Stitt to work as his assistant in Provence. “While working with him I began to think about how I could combine country French cooking with Southern ingredients and traditional dishes, ” Stitt says.
Stitt also met Julia Child while he was in France and worked with Simone Beck, who co-authored Child’s first cookbook. “I’ve always felt that if you want to do something well, you should seek out the people who are the best in the field and learn from them, ” Stitt says.
Stitt embraced the rural culture of Provence to the point that he took such jobs as harvesting grapes. After his time in France, Stitt worked as a chef in the Caribbean, thinking he might eventually open his own restaurant there. But the lure of friends and family in the Birmingham area brought Stitt back home to Alabama. “At that time, Birmingham wasn’t known as a great food city, but I believed it had the potential to become one, ” Stitt says.
First Stitt worked as a sommelier at a local wine shop and a chef at the Hyatt, as well as teaching cooking classes. When he decided the time was right to open a restaurant, he approached a number of Birmingham banks for a loan. “Nobody was interested enough in my concept for a restaurant to give me a loan, ” Stitt says.
Finally thanks to several investors, including his mother who mortgaged her house, Stitt was able to get just enough money to open Highland’s Bar and Grill in 1982.
Early on the restaurant was praised and began winning honors both locally and on a national level. Highlands became a popular Southside fixture. “We were able to pay our investors back within four years, ” Stitt says.
Since then, Stitt and his wife, Pardis, who he met when she came to work at Highlands, have opened several other successful Birmingham restaurants, Chez Fonfon, Bottega Restaurant, and Bottega Café. “She’s my partner as well as my wife and has played a major role in the success of our restaurants, ” Stitt says.
The couple bought a farm in Harpersville a number of years ago to help supply their restaurants with organic produce. The farm also produces fresh eggs thanks to 60 chickens. Stitt hopes to continue to expand the farm over time.
What’s his vision for the future? “I’d like to think I’ll influence people to eat more local seasonal vegetables, ” he says. “If people enjoy eating beets and turnip greens in our restaurant, maybe they’ll try preparing them at home.”
Kathy Hagood is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Homewood.
By Kathy Hagood