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Local Chefs Are Putting Birmingham On The Food Map

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Local Chefs Are Putting Birmingham On The Food Map

Food

Local Chefs Are Putting Birmingham On The Food Map

Local Chefs Are Putting Birmingham On The Food Map

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Birmingham has become renowned for its restaurants. NPR's Scott Simon talks with local chefs Frank Stitt and Clayton Sherrod about contemporary Southern cooking.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Food and politics in Alabama are both local pastimes that can run deep and make you reach for the Pepto-Bismo - in the nicest way. Talk to anybody in Birmingham for more than a minute, which isn't hard by the way, and they'll tell you about their favorite spots for barbecue and the white tablecloth place that they first took their mother-in-law. There is a whole revival of Southern food going on - say hallelujah somebody.

UNIDENTIFIED AUDIENCE MEMBERS: Hallelujah.

SIMON: And Birmingham is in the middle of it.

Hi, chef. I'm Scott Simon.

FRANK STITT: Hey. Frank Stitt.

SIMON: Nice to meet you.

We found chef Frank Stitt at his French bistro in the Five Points South neighborhood, where folks dawdled over a late lunch. It's called Chez Fonfon.

STITT: I used to kid about things that were very, very French. And I would say - oh, that's so fon, fon, fon...

SIMON: Hence the name.

STITT: ...And so hence the name.

SIMON: Frank trained in elite kitchens in France and Northern California, but he grew up in Cullman, Ala., and wanted to come back.

STITT: To my people, to my family - that's when it kind of hit me. Well, let's take this - you know, what we've learned from California, from France, from Europe - and bring it back to Alabama, to Birmingham, close to my home.

SIMON: He did come back in 1982 and started Highlands.

STITT: So this is the secret passage...

SIMON: Oh, all right.

STITT: ...Between Chez Fonfon and Highlands.

SIMON: We walk out through a shaded courtyard and into a small, steel kitchen where prep chefs chopped, minced and went through the several stages of making one of Frank's signature dishes, baked grits like you've never seen.

STITT: Cooking them, adding butter and parmesan and lots of eggs and then putting them in a souffle mold and baking them and then unmolding them and serving them with a variety of mushrooms and prosciutto, country ham, fresh thyme and a sherry butter sauce. And so...

SIMON: (Laughter).

STITT: ...That's (inaudible).

SIMON: So truly not your grandmother's grits.

STITT: Not your grandmother's grits.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Not at all.

SIMON: We tried them. No, we shoveled them in with trowels. These grits were fluffy, light and airy. I heard Hank Williams sing along with a chorus of angels. Frank Stitt is considered the chef who first put Birmingham on food maps by making downhome ingredients into haute cuisine.

STITT: The butter beans and the field peas, lady peas and - those humble - kind of poor food of the South. Once we've kind of realized that we can be proud of those things - that we can create something that is unique but has a lot of soul.

CLAYTON SHERROD: Thank God for Frank Stitt.

SIMON: That's chef Clayton Sherrod, another Birmingham celebrity chef. His background is different than Frank Stitt's, but they have the same feel for what works on a plate.

SHERROD: You take what's here that your mother taught you. And Frank's mother taught him how to cook. My mother taught me how to cook. Do those basics and expound on that, and that is one of the secrets to the food scene in Birmingham, the reason it just really started changing. But it wasn't a secret. It was something that was already here.

SIMON: Chef Sherrod was in the eighth grade when his father died. He left school to take a job as a caddie at the local segregated country club to help pay the bills. But Clayton Sherrod was ambitious and wanted to work in the kitchen.

Now, let me point out in 2017, you know, one of these things that, I guess, was taken for granted at the time. You could cook food for the white people who were members of the country club.

SHERROD: Yeah.

SIMON: But you couldn't have lunch with them.

SHERROD: Could not have if - I remember one time. We were doing this party for an insurance company. They had one black guy on there who was of - on a certain level, like a vice president or whatever. And quite naturally, so you know, we had to feed them dinner. And man, word spread across that darn country club, like (whispering) there's a black person in the dining room. Say what? What is he doing in there? What? No. He's going to have dinner. I said, no way.

So the manager, L.J. Griffiths (ph), he got involved. And he called everybody together, the dining room staff. And what he did was have my waiters to go and get some room dividers and put the black person over in the right-hand corner. I will never forget the area. It was like a six-top or something. They set him up over in that right-hand corner and then got about four room dividers and blocked that darn six-top off...

SIMON: My God.

SHERROD: ...So that the other members couldn't be walking down the hallway and see that person eating in the dining room.

SIMON: My God.

SHERROD: It was - I mean, we went through a hell of a lot.

SIMON: Working hard and quiet was something chef Sherrod learned from his father. He remembers a terrible day when his father was pulled over in his car near their house for no reason and threatened with violence. His mother talked the police out of whatever they were about to do. His father returned to their house with great dignity but said nothing.

SHERROD: That was a change in time of my life, when Daddy got out of the car and went into the bedroom there, the front bedroom. And I was wondering, like, what? Why Daddy go in there and close the door? You know, he usually going to go out in the yard and do something, sit on the front porch. So I went - I opened the door. Daddy was in there trying to get him another pair of pants. He had peed on himself.

SIMON: Jesus.

SHERROD: That's what changed me. He knew that if he had said something, we wouldn't have been able to eat for quite a while.

SIMON: Yeah.

SHERROD: He wouldn't have been able to work. So that taught me something right then. Now, you got to come up with a reason to keep working. Don't let people intimidate you. That's how I made it at that country club.

SIMON: Clayton Sherrod became the first black executive chef at that segregated country club, just six years after he started as a dishwasher. Now he's got a catering company, appears on TV as much as any cable news pundit and just started a culinary school at Lawson State Community College.

What's the key to understanding food here?

SHERROD: To me, the key to food, especially in - let me just say this part of the country...

SIMON: Yeah.

SHERROD: ...Is realizing and recognizing the basics. While I was at the country club, I always cooked French, Italian. My first restaurant I opened was a French restaurant. Cooking things that was from somewhere else made me realize - here in Birmingham, we were good with doing what was - you know, cooking what's already here, what's being grown right around the corner, extremely fresh...

SIMON: I got to tell you, chef.

SHERROD: Mm-hm?

SIMON: I haven't seen a salad here yet that doesn't have pork in it.

SHERROD: (Laughter) You are in the South, man.

SIMON: (Laughter).

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Chefs Clayton Sherrod and Frank Stitt, just two of the great chefs of Birmingham.

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