Celebrating Chef Stitt
As executive chef and owner of the James Beard Foundation award-winning restaurant, Highlands Bar & Grill, Frank Stitt has borne witness to the evolving Birmingham dining scene for more than 35 years. Along with his wife and partner, Pardis, the duo has done more than just define great food and fine dining in the Magic City, from the nascent to the thriving. Long before it was cool to note your farmer’s name on a menu, Chef Stitt was developing those relationships based upon a foundation of respect and admiration for the hard work farming demands. Then again, it is with this same commitment to gracious and intentional connections that define everything the Stitts undertake.
SHF: Thank you for sitting down with us and sharing part of your day with our readers. Chef, you recognized the importance of the chef / farmer relationship long before it was considered a movement. Would you say that it was your time in France under Richard Olney that influenced you in this way? Or was it growing up in the agriculturally-rich area of Cullman County?
FS: In France, I recognized the phenomenal ingredients at the market where pristine produce was picked early that morning—never refrigerated. Produce was grown with care and respect for the land, and for the flavor and texture of the vegetable. There was a reverence for the best ingredients and the connection to the farm. At boucheries, photographs of the farm where the lamb came from were displayed. At the weekly market, a solitary cheese monger would have goat cheeses—all the same kind and shape. The only difference: one was a few days old and the others were aged many more weeks and months. Part of me realized the butter beans, okra, or tomatoes I helped my grandparents pick were just as sublime as the somewhat exotic ingredients I had fallen in love with in France.
SHF: Are there special crops you need farmers to grow for you? Do you work with farmers before planting season to make any special requests?
FS: Yes, I meet with the farmers of the Pepper Place Market every January, and I have a “wish list” of vegetables and specific varieties. Snow’s Bend, Belle Meadow, Bois d’Arc, Michael Dean and Trent Boyd are a few of the most passionate farmers. We never have enough savoy-leaf or crinkled, dark green spinach. A few of our other favorites: Tuscan kale, Swiss chard, asparagus, sweet red and yellow onions, thin-skinned golden-fleshed potatoes, chervil, fresh dill, tarragon, fairy tale eggplant, rosa bianca eggplant, and jambalaya okra. I would like to see more white peaches, nectarines, and wild strawberries. We search for organically-grown produce, and some of the best farmers practice biodynamic protocol with great success.
SHF: Several years ago, y’all bought a farm – Paradise Farm, in nearby Harpersville. Tell us about the farm and what it means to you two.
FS: For Pardis, who is a much better gardener than I am, this has been a labor of love—from flowers to honey and free-range Araucana turquoise eggs to big, fat emerald green Fordhook lima beans. This farm is a bit of paradise for us and, of course, my horses are a huge part of it for me.
SHF: Right now, squash is in season. Is there something from the cucurbit family that guests are likely to see on the menus at Highlands Bar & Grill, and your two other restaurants, Bottega and Chez Fon Fon? What is your favorite way to prepare it? Do you have a recipe you can share with readers?
FS: Right now, we are making a variation on Richard Olney's zucchini gratin. We salt the slices and then dry them which allows us to build the gratin without precooking the zucchini. We add tons of chopped parsley, garlic parmesan breadcrumbs and a little cream. It is oh-so-good.
SHF: You both have a long history of giving back to the city of Birmingham in a variety of meaningful ways. Tell us about something you’re involved in right now that we should know more about.
FS: Jones Valley Urban Farm is one of the nonprofits we see as being a game-changer in our community. Their lessons on healthy food and honest farming build integrity and character in their students.
SHF: There are many who would argue that you are each rock stars in the competitive world of food, bringing a wealth of experience and passion to everything you touch. It is also worth noting that as with any ‘power duo’ you are even better, together! How do you guys make “Team Stitt” work while maintaining some semblance of normalcy in your life?
FS: Pardis is definitely the better half—the one who works the hardest and agonizes over millions of details. We are a bit of yin-and-yang; we could not do it without the other. We both love great design, great food, genuine hospitality, and we are on a quest to make our restaurants the best they can be. We want to create a truly great experience for our guests. For me, it starts with putting respect and love into the ingredients and cooking; for Pardis, it means making each guest feel special and important.
SHF: Okay, let’s have a little fun – are y’all up for a lightning round?
Alabama or Auburn?
FS: Both of my parents went to Alabama, so I grew up going to Alabama football games. We are very excited about Auburn’s upcoming culinary center.
Best music to cook to?
FS: R.L. Burnside, Dead Weather, Alt J, Van Morrison, Beck, Gorillaz, Rolling Stones, David Byrne, Jack White, Maria Callas, and Bach.
Best guilty pleasure (food-related) after service?
FS: Tortilla chips & salsa and spicy tomato sauce and pasta.
Favorite spice or herb?
FS: We pick herbs from outside our back door—basil, marjoram, dill, parsley, chives, thyme, savory, mint, rosemary. We could not live without them.
You can train someone to acquire a particular skill. What is one character trait you always seek in someone looking to work in the kitchen? In the front of the house?
FS: Enthusiasm, curiosity, a desire to learn, honesty, joyfulness, and kindness
What did you have for dinner on your most recent night off together?
FS: Curried butternut squash soup with chickpeas and extra spicy chili.
Recipes from Chef Stitt
We would like to share two recipes from Frank Stitt's Southern Table (2004, Artisan).
To purchase cookbook, click here.
Field Pea & Okra Soup
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 onions finely diced
2 carrots peeled and finely diced
2 celery stalks finely diced
1 leek, trimmed (green top reserved for bouquet garni), cleaned, and finely diced
1 red bell pepper, cored, seeded, and finely diced
2 ears corn, shucked and kernels removed
freshly ground black pepper
2 garlic cloves, 1 finely minced, 1 crushed
3 flat-leaf parsley sprigs, 3 thyme sprigs, 2 bay leaves, and reserved leek top, tied together to make a bouquet garni
2 cups field peas, such as crowders, pink-eyes, or lady peas, rinsed
6 cups chicken broth or canned low-sodium broth, or vegetable stock or water (preferably spring)
1 cup sliced okra (1- to 2-inch-thick slices)
2 tomatoes, seeded and diced
4 sprigs marjoram, savory, or basil, leaves removed and torn into little pieces
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
Heat the olive oil in a large casserole over medium heat. Add the onions, carrots, celery, leek, bell pepper, corn, season with pepper, and cook over medium-low heat for 5 minutes, or until the vegetables begin to soften. Add the minced garlic and cook for another 5 minutes, or until the garlic is fragrant and the vegetables are soft. Add the bouquet garni, peas, broth, and a good pinch of salt and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Skim any foam that rises to the surface and simmer gently, partially covered, for about 25 minutes. Add the okra and cook for 5 minutes more. Taste and adjust the seasoning. While the soup is simmering, combine the tomatoes, crushed garlic, herbs, and extra virgin olive oil in a small bowl and season with salt and pepper. Toss together and allow the flavors to marry for about 10 minutes. Ladle the soup into warm soup bowls and place a small spoonful of the tomatoes in the center of each one.
For The Crust
30 gingersnaps (to yield 11/2 cups crumbs)
1/2 cup pecans, toasted
1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
For The Filling
four 8-ounce packages cream cheese, at room temperature
4 large eggs
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups pumpkin puree, homemade (see Note) or canned unsweetened puree
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon allspice
Preheat the oven to 350°F. To prepare the crust, finely grind the cookies and pecans with the brown sugar in a food processor. Add the melted butter and pulse until incorporated. Press this mixture into the bottom and 2 3/4 inches up the sides of a 10-inch spring-form pan. Set aside. To prepare the filling, in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, combine the cream cheese, eggs, and sugar and beat at medium speed until light and smooth, about 8 minutes. Transfer 3/4 cup of this mixture to a small bowl, cover, and refrigerate to use for the topping. Add the pumpkin puree, cream, cinnamon, and allspice to the remaining cream cheese mixture and beat until well combined. Pour the filling into the prepared crust. Bake for about 1 hour and 15 minutes, until the cheesecake puffs, the top browns, and the center moves just a little when jiggled. Transfer the pan to a cooling rack and let cool for 10 minutes. Then run a knife between the sides of the pan and the cheesecake to release it from the sides and let cool completely on the rack. Remove the sides of the pan and set the cheesecake on a serving plate. Cover and refrigerate for at least several hours, or overnight. Before serving, spoon the reserved cream cheese mixture evenly over the top of the cheesecake. Serve with cups of dark roast coffee.
NOTE: To make your own pumpkin puree, quarter and seed a 3-pound pie pumpkin. Bake in a 350°F oven for 1 hour, or until very tender. Scoop out the seeds, then scoop out the flesh and mash with a fork while it is still warm.