For three decades, Frank Stitt has been charting his culinary course from the Highlands area of Birmingham, Ala.
Since opening Highlands Bar & Grill in 1982, Stitt has helped steer the South’s culinary scene by blending local ingredients and Southern sensibilities with the techniques of Italy and France. He and his wife Pardis now not only run the fine-dining Highlands Bar & Grill, but also the French-style café Fonfon next door, and Bottega, three blocks away, which is an Italian-style dining room and an adjacent café.
Stitt reflected on Birmingham’s dining scene in a recent interview with Nation's Restaurant News.
How different is the dining scene now than when Highlands opened 30 years ago?
I think American cooking has evolved so much. There was no Food Network. There were no celebrity chefs to speak of. What once was kind of an outsider profession is now one of the highest-profile jobs.
American food has been on an incredibly fast track. Thirty years ago, I found it essential to go to Europe and study to find out what was going on in food, and I think that’s no longer essential. That’s a real radical change.
And Southern regional food was not thought of in a positive light. It was mostly inferior ingredients that were sought after because they were cheap.
I just tasted a cheese from Sequatchie Cove [Farm] in Tennessee, and it was a great example of a Reblochon — from a biodynamic farm, using heritage breed cattle mixed with Jerseys. They’re making cheeses that rival French cheeses.
And the cooking has improved so much. America’s really a melting pot. We learned from traditional French and Italian cooking, and now we’re leaning from Latino and Asian cooking.
What are you working on these days?
My [culinary] base is France, Italy and Mediterranean, woven into my Southern heritage, so I might make a Basque-style stew of peppers and onions and tomatoes, but I use Benton’s bacon fat in it.
I have to constantly excite the staff about what we’re doing, because 23-year-old kids haven’t really thought about what smoked paprika tastes like when it’s cooked with onions and garlic. I’m doing that at Highlands and Bottega and Fonfon on a daily basis.
We’re farming vegetables and getting ready to plant some fruit trees this winter. I’d like that to be an ongoing education vehicle for our staff and also a source of fruit for our restaurant.
What kind of fruit trees are you planting?
We’ll be doing some heirloom varieties of apples and pears, pecan and mulberries, and will expand our figs. Peaches are hard to grow organically, so we probably won’t have those.
What are you cooking with this season?
We have asparagus and peas and all kinds of new potatoes. We’re getting in the first yellow squash and cucumbers, and we’re just getting in some peaches and plums. Things like field peas and butter beans are still coming from Florida. But we’re getting local cucumbers and yellow squash, mint, chives, marjoram and cilantro from our back yard.
Cilantro? Does that mean you’re incorporating that Latin influence into your food?
Certainly with staff meals. But cilantro to me is not just a Latino thing. My wife’s from Persia, and at Bottega we do what I call a Persian piadina. It’s with feta and walnuts and scallions and all of these herbs and yogurt. It’s kind of like a thin pizza that we make and fill with all of that, roll it over and make it into a sandwich.
What are some other dishes you’re excited about making?
We’re doing a wonderful Gulf triggerfish with fava bean, artichoke, grilled Vidalia onion and crabmeat with tender herbs. That’s terrific.
And we’re doing a lamb shoulder that’s served on grits with some carrots and fresh mint, and mint-and-lemon-zest oil.
How different are those items from what you might have served 30 years ago?
I think it’s all very close in spirit. We’ve gotten a little more complicated with our variety of different vegetables. The variety of vegetables is what sparks each season. We were kind of on the first wave of restaurants, 25 years ago, to acknowledge things like sweet potatoes from Cullman. [Our customers] kind of laughed at us. “You’re this fine dining restaurant and you’re mentioning the farm where your sweet potatoes come from?”
What are your plans going forward?
I’ve got enough balls up in the air. My wife and I run these restaurants, and it requires an incredible amount of time, energy and love just to make these restaurants as great as possible.