Southern Masters: Frank Stitt

William Hereford
by Charles Gaines - Alabama - August/September 2013

To understand the genius of the godfather of Southern cuisine, you need to spend a day in the kitchen with him

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10:00 a.m. Guadalupe Castillio has already been in the kitchen at Highlands Bar and Grill, in Birmingham, Alabama, for two hours, cleaning by hand each of the five hundred crab claws he will serve that evening from the oyster bar. He is also in charge of checking the quality of the deliveries coming in a steady stream to the restaurant’s back door—local farm eggs and vegetables, seafood from the Gulf Coast, freshly baked breads—and he has just admitted a large order of chives, chard, and baby lettuces harvested earlier that morning by a local supplier. The first pleasant kitchen job of many today for Highlands owner and executive chef Frank Stitt is to handle, smell, and taste these still-wet-with-dew greens.

Outside the walk-in refrigerator are trays of fat, precisely ripe strawberries. “Picked this morning on a farm near Cullman,” Stitt says, handing me one. Not much of a strawberry fan, I could be made one by these: The berry is a little flash of sweet neon on the palate.

Highlands chef de cuisine Zack Redes hands Stitt a menu from the night before, with handwritten numbers beside each appetizer and main course indicating how many times someone ordered it. Greg Abrams Black Grouper with Marinated Crawfish tops the list at thirty-seven. Then the two chefs discuss the menu for tonight: the merits of blueberries in a fish sauce; pairing batter-dipped onion rings with the rib eye. The kitchen is already filling in around them with staff, though Highlands—the flagship of Frank Stitt’s four-restaurant fleet—will not open for business for seven more hours. A few of these people have worked here since Stitt opened the restaurant, thirty years ago. Not one of them—now tying on their aprons and snugging down their Highlands caps—looks anything less than thrilled to be here now. 

At 10:30, Stitt walks next door to Chez Fonfon, his tone-perfect riff on a French bistro. Housed with Highlands in a 1925 Spanish-style building on a leafy street in Birmingham’s party-down neighborhood of Five Points South, Fonfon is the youngest of Stitt’s restaurants (opened in 2000) and, with sixty seats, the smallest. With its art deco detailing and French lithographs; its rustic wood tables and leather banquettes; its cheese and dessert table and wall of wines, velvet drapes, and tall windows fronting the street; and its white marble bar and rose-arbored dining patio out back with a boules court, it is also his most charming. The place feels airlifted from Montparnasse.

A half dozen men and women servers, dressed in white shirts and aprons and black vests, sit at the bar being briefed on the specials and fish dishes du jour by Adam Grusin, the chef de cuisine here. The mood among them is scholarly; most take notes. During the week Fonfon serves meals from 11:00 a.m. until 10:00 at night from a menu featuring classic bistro dishes such as moules et frites, escargot, country pâté, and frog legs. Accompanying this menu is a much celebrated wine list, and Grusin is followed by Gray Maddox, Fonfon’s sommelier, who goes over with the servers the virtues of a new Saint-Bris white, a new Côtes du Rhône rosé…

The meeting is over precisely at 11:00. At 11:01 the first eaters walk in and are seated at a sun-dappled table by the window. Stitt and I watch them from the bar as they are handed menus, on their faces an expression of delighted expectancy that I will see on hundreds of other faces today.

11:45 a.m. After a visit to his cookbook-crowded office above Highlands to check e-mails and counsel with his assistant, Nikki Hallmark, Stitt drives about a mile to the elegant white limestone 1920s Beaux Arts building that contains his other two restaurants—Bottega, which he opened in 1988, and Bottega Café (1990). 

On the Café side, the four cooks working the open kitchen and big wood-fired brick oven are “in the weeds”—literally covered up in order tickets. Moving around each other with choreographed celerity, to shouts of “One minute out!” and “Plating!” they ladle a fennel sausage pizza into the brick oven, tong a pork loin chop onto a bed of polenta.

Stitt stands at the “pass,” the counter where waiters pick up finished plates, talking to the café’s chef de cuisine, Scott Cohen, about the day’s menu and inspecting each order as it comes out. The trattoria-style Café is one of Birmingham’s most popular hangouts, and every table is full both in the dining room and on the outside patio.

Next door is Bottega, which Mario Batali has called “one of the best Italian restaurants outside of Italy.” It is open only for dinner, so the refined, walnut-paneled dining room is empty, but the kitchen is bustling with eight or nine people prepping for the evening under the supervision of chef de cuisine John Rolen. A sous-chef trims fresh redfish fillets. Another watches over a tall pot of octopus simmering in a stock of dried and fresh peppers, fennel, onion, thyme, coriander, and…three wine corks? “They say it helps tenderize the octopus,” says Rolen with a shrug. Later this octopus will be grilled, sliced over a porchetta di testa of pork head meat that takes two days to prepare, and served with fava beans and pea shoots. I have a taste of it that night: It is a dish to make you want to fall down on your knees and thank God you have a tongue.