The Gentleman Chef
Frank Stitt talks with Moreton Neal about polo, pork shoulders and Nietzsche
Before my pilgrimage to Birmingham to interview Frank Stitt, I had seen the handsome chef from across a crowded room. The occasion was a publishing party at a nondescript hotel during a southeastern booksellers’ trade show in Atlanta. As fate would have it, his spectacular tome, Frank Stitt’s Southern Table, was being released at the same time as my first book, Remembering Bill Neal. I was assigned to sit near him in a corral of authors instructed to sign and give away boxes and boxes of our hot-off-the-press books.
Pat Conroy happened to be there, too, promoting his own charming new cookbook, which devotes an entire chapter to his buddy Stitt: “I think that Frank Stitt is one of the best chefs in America and America is coming around to my position,” he writes. Even with such big name writers as Conroy, and his wife, Cassandra King, that night Stitt and his magnificent book were clearly the objects of desire. Those wanting his autograph spilled out into the lobby. Occasionally, a fan would tire of waiting and join my little queue. I confess I may have even signed his name once or twice.
I had another brief but impressive encounter with the man a year or so later, in Chapel Hill, when he taught a class at A Southern Season’s cooking school. He flat-out charmed my twenty-something daughter, Madeline, by graciously paying homage to her dad, telling the class that Bill Neal’s Southern Cooking was a significant influence, and then having his way with a watercress salad with shaved mushrooms and radishes, flounder with sauce gribiche, then a bourbon panna cotta.
So I looked forward to getting to know Frank Stitt for all kinds of reasons. In many ways his life paralleled that of my late husband, Bill. Both charismatic, talented young Southerners, they chose a maverick career at a time — the 1970s — when being a chef in the South was pretty much the equivalent of being a servant. Both went to prestigious universities — Bill to Duke, Frank to the University of California at Berkeley —and could easily have followed a more traditional — and lucrative — career path. I believe each had a similar sense of destiny, a “calling,” perhaps more Dionysian than Christian, inspired by similar epiphanies in France. Both young men would cite Simple French Cooking by Richard Olney as an eye-opening cookbook; but while Bill Neal only dreamed of going to France for more than just a vacation, Frank Stitt met Olney at the Time-Life cookbook kitchens in London and was promptly asked to work as his assistant at his home in Provence.
After a year of immersion in French cooking and life, Frank returned to the States. Surely the kitchen doors of the best restaurants in the country would have opened to the talented young cook, including Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse, back in Berkeley, where he had interned alongside many future culinary stars: Mark Miller, Jonathon Waxman, and Jeremiah Tower — among other Waters friends and protégées. This generation of brilliant chefs would soon spread the gospel of American regional cuisine in their own revolutionary restaurants around the country. Stitt chose to pioneer in his home state, betting that the sophisticated diners of Birmingham would support his vision. His gamble paid off: Birmingham embraced his first endeavor with open mouth. As Pat Conroy claims, “The Highlands Bar and Grill changed the way people in Alabama thought about food.”
Stitt gambled again on Bottega, and once more on Chez FonFon. Both attracted as much national attention as the Grill. Because of Stitt, and later his own protégées’ restaurants, Birmingham is now considered a major food destination, the Deep South’s Lyon.
Stitt’s natural elegance is evident in all three restaurants, each situated in historic buildings, lovingly restored and subtly decorated. Flamboyant artifice is not his style. He allows the fine bones of the buildings to shine through, just as natural ingredients do on his plates. Servers exude a confident graciousness, as if they belong to an aristocratic family; and, in a way, they do. Stitt carefully nurtures and educates his staff, requiring attendance at biweekly wine seminars at each restaurant. “Frank really cares about his people,” a bartender told me. Many of his staff have stuck with him through the years: his kitchen manager, Doll, has been by his side for more than two decades. And, true to his generous character, he maintains cordial relationships with former employees, several of whom have opened their own eateries in Birmingham.