Frank Stitt comes across as a pretty unassuming guy. Maybe that’s because of his roots in Cullman, Alabama. Maybe it’s the connection he feels to food and the farms it comes from.
It’s hard to tell by speaking with him that he’s one of the most honored and renowned chefs in the country. He’s the winner of the prestigious James Beard Award—considered the Oscars of the food world—for Best Chef in the Southeast in 2001, was a finalist in 2008 for Outstanding Chef and was inducted into the James Beard Foundation's Who's Who of Food and Beverage in 2011. His Highlands Bar and Grill has been nominated nine years straight as the nation’s Outstanding Restaurant.
In addition to Highlands, he also owns and operates celebrated eateries Bottega, Bottega Café and Chez Fonfon on Birmingham’s Southside. He sat down with Á la Carte Alabama and talked about his culinary roots, what makes his restaurants different from each other and what is his guilty pleasure. Here is an edited excerpt.
How did you get from Cullman, Alabama to being at the top of the food world, especially here in Alabama?
That was a great beginning in Cullman, being close to my grandparents’ farm and picking strawberries and asparagus, beans and tomatoes made me, from an early age, see that connection the farmer has to the kitchen and to the restaurant. And so, after moving and cooking in San Francisco and France and Europe and the Caribbean and then coming back home, it was kind of a natural evolution for me to fall in love with food and incorporate some of the French techniques and skills, but embracing those Alabama country ingredients.
Why is Birmingham becoming such a special place for food?
Well, Birmingham, I think, is fortunate because it’s not so overwhelmed with people and traffic and congestion like I’d say Atlanta is. It’s really easy to get around so, I think a lot of people are moving back to Birmingham right now and opening businesses downtown and Avondale and Woodlawn. There is an energy. But I think the people of Birmingham appreciate quality. They appreciate genuine hospitality. And they’re not just racing to go to the newest, trendiest place. They want to go to a place that feels good. And so, I attribute a lot to the people of Birmingham. They know what they like, they know what’s good and they support the places that they enjoy. I think the community as a whole is kind of pulling for Birmingham. I just think about the regulars who come here every Tuesday to the bar and they’ll have a beer and maybe have some oysters. There’s a sense of community that happens at these restaurants. And restaurants can provide that. It’s that third place. It’s not home, it’s not work, but it’s a place where you come together as a community.
And there’s a pursuit of quality that I think is inspiring people to open up their own businesses, so millennials and the next generation will be able to say, “Wow, you know, I live in Birmingham. I just opened up this little café downtown and we have really good food and really good ingredients and we care about it.” I think that’s going to continue to grow.
You own Highlands, Bottega and Chez Fonfon. What are the differences among them?
Let me just tell you a little bit about these restaurants. So, Highlands we opened in 1982 and what I had in mind was a restaurant that would be about Southern foods but with French techniques and with a menu that would change and evolve with the seasons. And a place that is a little bit dressy but it’s not required. A bar that’s bustling and a place that you would come often, not just for special occasions. Our service, I think, really sets us apart because there’s a real genuine care and knowledge. Bottega, that beautiful building, we wanted to do our love for Italian food. Bottega Café, a more casual Italian with big brick wood-burning pizza oven where we roast everything. And so, you’ve got Italian, a casual Italian, you’ve got this funky southern French and then right next door you’ve got Chez Fonfon which is a French bistro through and through. There’s this fun attitude. You’ve got rails behind the banquettes. You throw you r jackets or your hat, you sit down, you have some good wine, you have steak frites or mussels or an omelet. It’s food, it’s not the most creative in the world, but it’s just heartwarming food. I love Chez Fonfon.
What is your best advice for the home cook?
You need to have a game plan. And you need to have, what we call as a French term, is “mise en place.” You have to have everything in its place and organized. (Cooking something complex) makes the kitchen a little bit of a mess, but if you’re organized it’s not too much. So often people only resort to what is the simplest and the easiest and if you would go ahead and get a few dishes that are things that you’ll have infinite combinations on but there is a procedure, you can do that and not feel like you’re running around crazy. Be calm in the kitchen.
What is the one kitchen item that you can’t live without?
Well, for me, knives, a sharp knife, a good knife that is not too thick, not too thin, that you keep a really great edge on it, using a (sharpening) steel. One of the key things is that, after you use a knife, wash it, you wipe it off, you never leave it in a sink, you never let it get banged around to protect that edge. I love a good cutting board, a wooden cutting board, that you maintain and that’s easier on your knife than hard plastic. We always have a bowl of kosher salt that I can grab a pinch to season. I always have a good pepper mill to grind at the last second. I always have good oils, olive oil, close by, a variety of different vinegars. Those to me are essentials and you can just do all kinds of things once you have those essentials.
What is your guilty pleasure?
I’ve been known to over-consume ice cream in the freezer. And so, that may be one of my weaknesses. Right now, there’s this salted caramel ice cream that we finish with some chopped peanuts. It’s really delicious.