Alabama Chef Up For 'Oscar' Of The Food World

Alabama may not be known for fine cuisine, but native son Frank Stitt is in the running for a 2010 James Beard Award for outstanding chef. The prestigious awards will be announced Monday. Debbie Elliott

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The nation's foodies will be gathering in New York on Sunday and Monday for the James Beard Foundation Awards, the Oscars of the food world. And as usual, some of the finest eateries in New York, San Francisco and Chicago are up for Outstanding Restaurant, but this year, so is a restaurant far away from the culinary capitals: Highlands Bar & Grill in Birmingham, Alabama. NPR's Debbie Elliott has this profile of the man behind it.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: Chef Frank Stitt starts his day surveying the fresh deliveries in Highlands' kitchen chef de cuisine J.T. McIzak(ph) fills him in on what's new.

Mr. J.T. McIZAK (Chef de Cuisine, Highlands Bar & Grill): We got some (unintelligible) out today.

Mr. FRANK STITT (Chef): Are they any good?

Mr. McIZAK: It's a mixed batch.

ELLIOTT: Stitt peels one open and has a taste.

Mr. STITT: It's still a little bit chalky, aren't they? I dont think they're even going to fine. We'll send these back.

ELLIOTT: Only the freshest seasonal fare makes it to the table at Highlands Bar & Grill. The kitchen is full of spring's first crop of strawberries, Vidalia bulb onions and baby turnips.

Frank Stitt is one of the stars of Southern cooking who for decades has been spreading the gospel that fresh, regional food grown close to home is important. He gets some of his ingredients right in the heart of downtown Birmingham, at the Jones Valley Urban Farm.

Mr. STITT: Here we are. The old train station used to be over there. The exchange between I-65 and I-20 is right here, and to think that this just beautiful little garden is right in the center of Birmingham I just think is wonderful.

ELLIOTT: He leans down to inspect a row of colorful, leafy greens.

Mr. STITT: Oh, good. This Swiss chard has gotten to be one of my favorite vegetables, and I just adore it. And these are the rainbow chard and so yellow and red and orange stems.

ELLIOTT: There are even chickens.

Mr. STITT: Aren't these neat-looking? You know, and what's so great is that the chickens, when you get to move them around the farm, they get to eat the bugs and worms and fertilize the soil, and so it's just -every urban area needs to really be supplied with local chickens.

(Soundbite of chicken)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STITT: Yeah, you second that emotion.

ELLIOTT: Stitt came of age in the '70s and, as he tells it, left Alabama as soon as he could. He studied in Boston and then Berkeley. It was there, in California, that he worked under chef Alice Waters.

Mr. STITT: I was swept away by the excitement of food and cooking and wine and restaurants, and that kind of athletic quality of being in the kitchen and just working hard, long hours. But there was also this intellectual side that I experienced at Chez Panisse that was, it was about aesthetics, and it was about harmony and history.

ELLIOTT: He then spent time with the food writer Richard Olney in France. It reminded him of growing up in rural Coleman, Alabama, where his grandmother grew her own vegetables and even churned her own butter. Now, he draws on that regional history for Highlands' menu.

Mr. STITT: Beans and peas and corn and tomatoes, cornbread, and then I see the Louisiana influence, the Creole and Cajun, the French influence that came through Mobile. And then it's the Low Country of South Carolina primarily, Georgia, that area, you know, again 18th-century inspiration for the cooking that was going on there.

ELLIOTT: Stitt also has an Italian-inspired restaurant and a French bistro, but it all started with Highlands Bar & Grill, which he opened at a time when Birmingham was mostly a decaying industrial city struggling to overcome a tarnished image from the civil rights era. There wasn't much to be proud of.

John T. Edge is director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi. He says opening a place like Highlands at the time was revolutionary.

Mr. JOHN T. EDGE (Director, Southern Foodways Alliance, University of Mississippi): When he opened in '82, there were not many Southern restaurants that had pride in place. There were not many Southern chefs that had pride in place. There were not many Southern chefs that were willing to put cornbread on a white tablecloth and say that's it, that's what you're getting. I believe in it. I love it.

ELLIOTT: Over the years, Stitt and his restaurants have won all kinds of accolades, but the Beard Foundation medal would be the biggest. Frank Stitt's wife and partner, Pardis, runs the front of the house while he's in the kitchen. She says the recognition would be great for Birmingham.

Ms. PARDIS STITT: People think we have a gun rack in the back of our pickup trucks, and we don't wear shoes. That's part of the beauty, I think, of what our restaurants have also done in putting Birmingham on the cultural map.

ELLIOTT: Today, the city has a vibrant restaurant scene, many of them run by chefs who came through Frank Stitt's kitchen. Stitt is proud that locals can now gather where, he calls, at tables.

Mr. STITT: It's a French term, (French spoken), like time stops and that you're breaking bread, and you're drinking wine. And you're telling stories, and you're talking, and you're sharing. You know, I think back on Thanksgiving memories and how that brought the family together and cousins. And in a little way, that's what we do is that we bring people together, and it's almost like a little Thanksgiving dinner and that just sensual joy of eating and drinking really good things.

ELLIOTT: The Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurant will be announced Monday night in New York.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News.

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