Chef Frank Stitt revolutionizes Southern cookingBack in 1982, back when the only good restaurant towns in the South were (grudgingly) considered to be New Orleans and perhaps Charleston, Frank Stitt opened the Highlands Bar and Grill in Birmingham, Alabama. It set out Stitt's personal culinary mission to blend Southern ingredients and traditions with French provincial style and technique and showcased the sort of truck-farm seasonal produce the fast-food generation had almost forgotten. It was a quiet revolution, but one all the same, and it didn't stay quiet long. By 2001, Stitt had won the James Beard award as best chef in the Southeast, opened two other restaurants and begun work on a much-anticipated cookbook.
At last, Frank Stitt's Southern Table: Recipes and Gracious Traditions from Highlands Bar and Grill is in print, and it's a beaut, warmly and generously written, with more than 150 recipes and many gorgeous photographs all shot in natural light, and with unbelievably seductive texture by former Saveur and Metropolitan Home editor Christopher Hirscheimer. The recipes run the gamut from fried green tomatoes and real pimiento cheese spread and grits (a fabulously rich version guaranteed to knock the polenta pretensions out of anyone) to roast quail with apples and pecans and guinea hen with onions and truffles. They are not essentially fancy, not unnecessarily frilly, but their freshness almost leaps off the page. And the less traditional combinations smoked trout salad with blood oranges, avocado and frisÅ½e; warm cabbage soup with goat cheese and cornbread crostini; grilled grouper with artichoke-charred onion relish display a stunning grasp of texture and interplay.
I'm very much influenced by my time in California and Boston and London and France and in the markets, Stitt says in an interview with BookPage, but I wanted to bring all that back to a very solid home base. I do not subscribe to fusion cooking. I'm really dedicated to authentic cultural roots. I think that's what makes Southern writers and artists so distinctive; they grow up on the farm but then they leave for years to travel and explore and gain that sophistication, and then they come back to enrich the culture. When I was in France, I realized that the food on my grandmother's table those butter beans and baby peas and okra and cornbread it wasn't Ã”fine food,' but the devotion to and the reverence for those ingredients really moved me. Like many Southerners born in the '50s and '60s, Stitt fled north as soon as he could, first to Europe for a summer, then to Tufts University and then to Berkeley to study philosophy. But there the lure of fine food, in a city where Alice Waters' Chez Panisse was already fueling the green food movement, began to take hold. He talked his way into a series of basic kitchen jobs, eventually getting a job (with no pay) working for Waters at Chez Panisse, and then, with her help, becoming assistant to Richard Olney, the respected editor of the Time-Life Good Cook series, and later Olney's personal assistant in France.
It all really came together for Stitt when, 10 days into a wine-picking stint in the south of France, he had what he calls an Alabama epiphany. He began to contemplate the cycle of planting and harvest, the rhythm of exhausting work and spiritual satisfaction, and to feel a nostalgic regret for the old farmer's markets and county fairs that showcased home preserving and perfect peaches a process of seasonal recreation that seemed both noble and familiar. And so he returned to Birmingham, to transform a daily task into a glorious event. (This writer admits to a personal peeve: Southern regional food keeps getting rediscovered not because it's obscure, but because it's not cuisine : it's cooking. All those fancy food magazines that tout New York as the nation's restaurant capital may have a point, but it's a misleading one, because Southerners know how to cook for themselves. Who cooks at home in New York? The only recipes with Manhattan in the title are a cocktail and cheap clam chowder. So when the big-name chefs cook homestyle, they can't just admit it, they have to turn it into some sort of trend call it comfort food, or modern American or something. So a cookbook like this, with its seemingly effortless blend of simplicity and sophistication, is especially welcome.)For Stitt, who describes himself as definitely a seat-of-the-pants, instinctual kind of chef, the strict measurement and formulation of recipes was a little uncomfortable. I never make the same thing the same way. I'm much better at being inspired by what's in the cooler and trying to combine ingredients into the most complementary way. But having survived the process, he says he is amazed by the book, a little intimidated by it, astonished by it, gratified by it. I think it captures a lot of our spirit. We want it to be charming, kind, intelligent, and we want people to really use it. With his love of fresh ingredients, it's no surprise that Stitt actively promotes sustainable and humane agriculture (he is active in both the Chef's Collaborative and Slow Food) and hopes his cookbook will encourage more people to purchase local produce whenever possible. Almost his first words in the cookbook ring a near-sacred chord of memory for real food lovers: The seasons define [the restaurant menu]. If it's springtime, we talk asparagus, favas, baby artichokes, sweet baby Vidalias, little sweet peas, spring lettuces. The cobia season is winding down, the Apalachicola flounder have been fat and iridescent, the occasional speckled trout shiny and firm . . . . and so on. It's impossible to read such passages without seeing, and smelling, the bounties of the nation.
Stitt says he loves his other two restaurants the regional Italian Bottega, with its wood-fired pizza oven and Beaux Arts limestone facade; and Chef Fonfon, the French bistro of my dreams, which offers mussels and steak frites and croque monsieur but Highlands is still the first child, the one that demands the most attention, the one where I start my morning. He can just begin to contemplate another book, but right now, he says, it's like contemplating having another child or falling in love again; I just want to savor the energy of this one. Eve Zibart is a restaurant reviewer for the Washington Post and author of The Ethnic Food Lover's Companion.