Frank Stitt III (1954- ) is an award-winning chef from northern Alabama whose restaurants in Birmingham, Jefferson County, have been hailed as showcases of the farm-to-table and Slow Food movements. His use of local, organic, and seasonal ingredients in dishes that blend traditional southern flavors with French culinary techniques has earned Stitt the title "the Godfather of southern cuisine" from food writers. Since he opened his first restaurant, Highlands Bar and Grill, in 1982, Stitt's restaurants have garnered national acclaim and have helped to turn Birmingham into a city of culinary distinction.
Stitt was born on August 4, 1954, in Cullman, Cullman County, to Frankand Marie Stitt; he has two full siblings and a half-brother. His mother was an avid cook and his father was a surgeon whose work enabled the family to travel and eat at nationally acclaimed restaurants in places such as New Orleans and New York. Stitt descends from a line of doctors on his father's side, and his maternal grandparents owned a farm where they milked their own Jersey cows and tended a large vegetable garden. He credits his grandparents with teaching him to appreciate the significance of freshly grown produce, and he cites his childhood passion for football as the source of his tireless work ethic. Stitt married Pardis Sooudi in 1995, and they have two children.
Stitt attended Cullman High School and graduated in 1972. He went on to pursue a bachelor's degree in political science at Tufts University in Massachusetts, but transferred to the University of California, Berkeley to major in philosophy in the hopes of one day practicing law. During his time there, Stitt became interested in the region's culinary community, restaurants and bars, wineries, and farmers' markets. His attention quickly turned from his academic pursuits to learning all he could about cooking. Stitt was particularly inspired by local chef Alice Waters' groundbreaking farm-to-table philosophy, which promoted a diet based on seasonal, organic, and locally available produce and evolved alongside the Slow Food movement's mission to promote traditional cooking techniques and ingredients. In 1977, after leaving UC Berkeley to work at Waters' famous Chez Panisse restaurant in San Francisco, he travelled to London, England, and the Provence region of France to intern with well-known chefs and food writers such as Jeremiah Tower, Richard Olney, and Elizabeth David.
In the late 1970s, Stitt returned to Birmingham and briefly worked for the restaurant at the Hyatt Hotel, where he oversaw food and labor budgets and learned about the business side of restaurant management. With dreams of starting his own restaurant, Stitt approached local banks but was unable to secure a loan. Opening a fine-dining establishment in an undeveloped part of the city at a time when European cuisine was relatively unknown in Alabama seemed a risky venture, and Stitt was forced to seek out investors among family and friends.
Finally, in 1982, Stitt opened his first restaurant, Highlands Bar and Grill. Located in the Five Points neighborhood of Birmingham's Southside area Highlands combined southern ingredients with French cooking techniques and offered an extensive list of European wines. Like the chefs who originally inspired him, Stitt bases the ever-changing Highlands menu on the availability of seasonal ingredients from local purveyors. To complement the evolving fare, Stitt also features signature regional dishes, such as menu favorite organic stone-ground grits. Reinvented as a French timbale, the grits are slowly cooked, enhanced with parmesan cheese and egg, and then baked in small ramekins to a custard-like consistency and served with sauce made of white wine, mushrooms, and country ham. (The baked grits made the Alabama Tourism Department's "Famous Dishes" list and the "100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama Before You Die" promotion.)
After the restaurant's debut, the city's diners and critics quickly took notice of Stitt's culinary innovations, and national press attention soon followed. Esquire magazine named Highlands one of its "Best New Restaurants in America" in 1984. Stitt's second restaurant, Bottega, opened in 1988 and focused on Mediterranean flavors for its seasonal menu; it was quickly followed in 1990 by Bottega Café, a casual Italian dining establishment. In 2000, Stitt opened Chez Fonfon, a cafe modeled on a Parisian bistro that features a patio where patrons may play the French yard game boules; it is located adjacent to Highlands.
In addition to his attention to cooking and food preparation, Stitt is also known for the excellence of his wait staff and detailed attention to all aspects of the dining experience in his restaurants. Together with his wife and business partner Pardis who oversees the service, Stitt has been recognized by the Newcomen Society and other national business organizations for his engaged and attentive management style. Stitt has served as a mentor and employer for many of the region's most acclaimed chefs, several of whom have opened their own restaurants. The couple's support of local charitable and performing arts organizations also has demonstrated their ongoing investment in the Birmingham community. The Stitts own Paradise Farm, where more than 100 chickens lay eggs for his restaurants and a greenhouse yields some of their fresh produce. Like all his suppliers, Stitt's farm adheres to methods of humane and sustainable animal husbandry and agriculture.
The James Beard Foundation named Stitt the best chef in the Southeast in 2001, nominated him for national outstanding chef in 2008, and named Highlands a finalist as the country's most outstanding restaurant for five years in a row. The Southern Foodways Alliance honored Stitt with its Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006. Gourmet magazine named Highlands the fifth best restaurant in the country in 2007, and Stitt was inducted into the Alabama Academy of Honor in 2009. In 2011, the James Beard Foundation inducted Stitt into the organization's "Who's Who of Food and Beverage," and Esquire listed Highlands in the magazine's Restaurant Hall of Fame. At the 2013 Charleston Wine and Food Festival, a group of Stitt's former protégés presented him with the first annual Frank Stitt National Chef Award in honor of his influence on southern cuisine.
Selected writings by Stitt
Frank Stitt's Southern Table (2004)
Highlands Bar and Grill: On the Southside of Birmingham (2005)
Frank Stitt's Bottega Favorita (2008)
Published May 6, 2014
Last updated July 11, 2014