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WEDNESDAY, MARCH 14, 2007
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Chef Frank Stitt at his restaurant Highlands Bar andGrill in Birmingham. Highlands is listed as No. 5 on Gourmet magazine's list of the 50 best restaurants in America. He also owns the Birmingham restaurants Bottega, Café Bottega and Chez Fonfon. Stitt will be speaking at the Princess Theatre in Decatur on Monday.
Courtesy photo by Karim Shamsi-Basha
Chef Frank Stitt at his restaurant Highlands Bar andGrill in Birmingham. Highlands is listed as No. 5 on Gourmet magazine's list of the 50 best restaurants in America. He also owns the Birmingham restaurants Bottega, Café Bottega and Chez Fonfon. Stitt will be speaking at the Princess Theatre in Decatur on Monday.

Totally organic experience
Culinary legend has tasted success by staying true to his Alabama roots, using local farm ingredients

By Patrice Stewart
pstewart@decaturdaily.com ˇ 340-2446

While preparing and savoring the foods of California, France and other regions, Frank Stitt III never forgot the lessons he learned on his grandparents' farm in Cullman.

He later rediscovered "how wonderful those fresh farm ingredients can be" and took pride in incorporating local and North Alabama ingredients into fine dining restaurants.

The culinary legend will share some insights at 7 p.m. Monday during a visit to Decatur as part of the lecture series co-sponsored by the Princess Theatre Center for the Performing Arts and Calhoun Community College.

In a telephone interview, Stitt, 52, talked about his journey from growing up in Cullman to studying political science at Tufts in Boston and then to the University of California at Berkeley to study philosophy. He quit his senior year and worked in restaurants in San Francisco, learning the food and restaurant business as an apprentice.

"Chez Panisse was an inspiration to me because they wanted to cook things that they were excited about. They liked to use local lettuce and local honey and wanted to know where their cheese came from," Stitt said.

"They were romantically swept away by the beauty of food, and that was an inspiration to me. But restaurants are businesses, too, and hopefully you will have enough people come in so that it can be profitable."

He opened Highlands Bar and Grill in 1982, followed by three other restaurants, near downtown Birmingham.

His father and one grandfather were doctors, while the other grandfather had a farm.

"That didn't really inspire me then, but my thinking now is that that's how I became a chef," Stitt said.

"There's something really wonderful about getting food that's fresh from the farm, like a farm egg that's been kept in a clean environment," he said, "but those types of simple pleasures are going to be a little more expensive than a factory-raised egg. You won't be getting farm eggs for 89 cents a dozen."

"I think we've been somewhat misguided in trying to produce the cheapest food possible, and we need to rethink that and how the land and animals are taken care of and reward those stewards by buying their products," he said.

Right now, it's important to him to work closely with local farmers to develop organic farming and humane animal husbandry so ingredients can be grown close by.

"I want to encourage a relationship with the farmer so that we know the origin of our food — that's something we've kind of lost sight of," he said.

He mentioned Goose Pond Farm near Hartselle, which raises chickens and more, as a good example, but said the lack of inspected slaughterhouses is a serious roadblock.

He helped start Pepper Place farmers' market in Birmingham and he buys produce from area farmers' markets to promote sustainable agriculture.

Stitt pays homage to the farmers of his home county by putting Cullman sweet potatoes on his menus and in his cookbook, whether in sweet potato hash browns, sweet potato tart with coconut crust, or ravioli stuffed with sweet potatoes and mixed with mustard greens and country ham.

Attention goes to the Alabama coast, too, and the fresh fish he orders to pair with produce grown nearby: flounder with lady pea succotash, tomato and crab towers, and baked oysters with slab bacon and wilted greens.

Stitt's wife and business partner, Pardis, helps oversee the restaurants "but relies on her husband to do the cooking," he said.

While he develops new dishes, decides on menu changes and helps with special events such as wine dinners, he spends a lot of time coaching and showing others "how I want things cut and plated."

The details pay off. Highlands is listed as No. 5 on Gourmet magazine's list of the 50 best restaurants in America.

The secret to running a good restaurant is "finding the greatest ingredients and cooking them with care and love and respect, and treating your staff with respect and your guests with genuine graciousness," Stitt said.

He could eat at a restaurant or take leftovers home. But after a long day focused on food, he often takes fresh fish home from one of his restaurants and cooks dinner at 10 or 11 p.m.

"I love the relaxation of being at home and at the stove," he said.

Stitt is author of a cookbook, "Frank Stitt's Southern Table: Recipes and Gracious Traditions from Highlands Bar and Grill," (Artisan, New York, 2004, $40). For the past year, he has been working on another, "Frank Stitt's Italian Table," with Bottega recipes.

If you go

What: Lecture by chef and author Frank Stitt, followed by a book signing

When: 7 p.m. Monday

Where: Princess Theatre Center for the Performing Arts

Cost: General admission at the door $10 for adults, $5 for students and teachers

For more info: visit www.princesstheatre.org or call 340-1778

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