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Being Frank: Birmingham, Alabama’s most famous chef shares his story

After four decades at the helm of Birmingham’s, and some of the South’s best-known restaurants, his biography is probably as well-known as anyone in the Magic City.

Cullman-born and raised, college years at Tufts and Berkeley. Working in the kitchen of Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse, and as an assistant to author Richard Olney. Working at the Hyatt House in downtown Birmingham and borrowing family money to open his first restaurant in Five Points South in 1982: Highlands Bar & Grill.

Frank Stitt took a circuitous but short-lived path before coming home to practice a craft, build a business and lead a renaissance that brought Birmingham to an exciting level of prominence as a Southern food town. BF (before Frank) the city in most people’s memories had a questionable food culture. But Stitt doesn’t see it that way.

“I remember coming to Birmingham as a child and going to Joy Young’s and The Club and Dale’s Cellar, John’s Seafood and the Bright Star. I think about those experiences at Joy Young’s as just being amazingly good and very high quality, both in ingredients and in technique and service. So you know I see it from a different angle.

“I think that what really changed things is when some of my former cooks and folks went down and opened on Second Avenue, El Barrio. And I think that when that happened, that really changed things about people going back downtown, along with all of the other excitement with Helen and La Fresca, and Aviné, I think that really has been a real significant game-changer and has brought a lot more energy and life to downtown,” Stitt says.

“I started cooking in San Francisco, and to me, San Francisco was a food town – with the markets, Chinatown, the Mexican restaurants, the Asian restaurants, the French restaurants, the German restaurants and so on. And before that, I lived in Boston, and Boston had a wonderful history of restaurants and food and food culture. And so, you know, living in Paris and in Florence and spending a lot of time in Venice and in Barcelona, to me, those cities are where markets and restaurants and cafés and bars are things that are taken with incredible pride and tradition and knowledge in a pursuit of great ingredients,” he says.

What has contributed mightily to the cause of food in Birmingham was the creation of the Pepper Place Market. “It was a real game-changer. And I think that places like Jones Valley Teaching Farm have been really great at bringing people together and focusing on food and food culture. And teaching people where food comes from.”

Chez Fonfon. The restaurant was almost a nightclub before Frank Stitt rescued the space. (Beau Gustafson)

Origin stories have become a staple for the business media to explore and to become a slice of modern folklore. What was the vision that gave rise to this successful enterprise, or was there a vision at all?

“I had a vision of wanting to incorporate my love of country, provincial French food and cooking with restaurants with the excitement of a Tadich Grill from San Francisco or Galatoire’s from New Orleans. And so that was Highlands. And then as I got more and more into the Southern traditions and ingredients and food, you know, Highlands kind of went along those twin paths of the South and of a provincial French restaurant,” Stitt says.

“And so that’s all I wanted … just to make that as good as possible.”

As a few years went by and Stitt traveled extensively in Italy, he knew he loved and wanted to explore those traditions, but not by mixing it in with the Highlands formula.

But it was happenstance that he came upon the building where Bottega is now housed. “This was the architecture I thought that could make a true Italian restaurant and where I could explore the different regions of Italy,” Stitt says.

The café next door came about when the landlord was looking at renting the space to a nightclub out of Atlanta. “And I said, ‘no, no, no, don’t do that.’ We’ll take it and we’ll do a casual place based on a wood-burning pizza oven.”

Then the landlord at Highlands told me he was thinking about renting out the building next door to an Atlanta night club. “So I said, ‘no, no, no.’ I’ll do a French bistro there.

“It was happenstance, I certainly did not envision this at the beginning.”

Stitt remembers the first major restaurant he worked at all those years ago in California. “Chez Panisse really was the center for artistic and creative people that wanted to share their love of great simple food with the community. And so, I do think that our restaurants have that sense that the community has really supported us; and we’ve been a part of the community,” Stitt says.

One community the restaurants have engaged with has been the local farming community. “When Cathy Jones and I started the Pepper Place Market, you know, the farmers were going out of business. It was mostly all older farmers. And now the next generation and the next generation are going into farming. And it’s really encouraging.

“We do have to continue to support that, because in governmental circles there is still a preference for very large farms. But we need small farms, small slaughterhouses and processing facilities, and government needs to work together on that.”

Part of the magic of a great restaurant, Stitt says, lies in the front of the house. That is the domain of Pardis, Stitt’s spouse and partner.

“Every detail about the restaurants – the paint, the fabric, tablecloths, the lighting, the flowers and music, the uniforms – she wakes up in the middle of the night thinking of something she did not do on her infinite list of things to do for the restaurants.

“She really has that magic of making people feel special and cared for. That certainly is the magic of the front of the house,” Stitt says.

Frank Stitt was the catalyst for Birmingham’s growing reputation as a food city. And he’s still going strong. (Beau Gustafson)

In its finest iteration, a great restaurant is like theater. “We create this image in this world, and Pardis really sprinkles the fairy dust out in the dining room to get our team operating at the highest level. She works tirelessly and is so, so important to our success.”

Stitt is concerned about the future of restaurants. But he also has hope. He was recently at the Tony and Libba Rane Culinary Science Center at Auburn, and saw hospitality training with an almost European state of mind of being gracious and proper.

“When you are greeted, you are welcomed by someone who is articulate in a well-appointed uniform and can make you feel truly welcomed. But so much of the dining world has gone more and more casual. To me, when you walk into Bottega dining room, there is an elegance and an excitement. You want to put on your nice clothes. There is a certain formality that maybe some people don’t appreciate, but when you go to the trouble of getting out of your casual workout clothes, it creates a buzz and energy that this is exciting and fun, and I want to be a part of this.

“The way Pardis and I run these restaurants is that we are here, present with our energy, our spirit, love, excitement. And in that is the Holy Grail. The magic of restaurants is when they become more than the sum of their parts. It’s the energy, and love; it’s the care.

“It’s the respect that you almost subconsciously feel when you go into a dining room. And the food is way better than it has to be because somebody really cares.

“I’ve always been mesmerized by the magic of a great restaurant.”

This story orginally appeared in B-Metro magazine.