30 years of dining with Frank

Dec 19, 2012

Restaurants come and go these days. But, in Birmingham, Highlands Bar & Grill just turned thirty years old. It’s here that veteran chef Frank Stitt won the prestigious James Beard award for best southern chef in the year 2000. But, don’t talk to him about hitting the three decade mark. “I don’t really, kind of knowledge or comprehend this ten year, twenty year, thirty year,” says Stitt. “I just feel engaged day to day.” But, people inside and outside of the restaurant industry say Stitt influence is widespread. The Cullman native, who studied cooking in France before returning to Alabama, won praise for supporting gulf coast fishermen whose market dried up following the gulf oil spill in 2010. Stitt is also known for championing the use of local produce. In the kitchen at Highlands, in Birmingham’s five points district, racks of kumquats and leeks from Chilton County sit ready to be dished up on tonight’s menu. His influence can also be seen in other restaurants, like Gramercy Tavern in New York City, which won a James Beard of its own this year. Manager Dave Goodwin once worked as a server for Stitt in Birmingham back in 2006. “Our managing partner who hired me here (at Gramercy) definitely knew about Highlands. And to have that on my resume was a huge part in my getting the job here.” Fans of fine dining who don’t want to travel to New York or Highlands, can taste food influenced by Stitt by another route in Birmingham. All they have to do is get sick. The hospital at the University of Alabama in approached Stitt about developing menu items for patients to eat during their recovery. The result was his version of chicken soup and a heart-healthy frittata, cooked up by UAB hospital chefs. “We have people from out of State, and know Frank,” says UAB Vice President Jordan Demoss, who’s in charge of UAB’s food division. “His name is known throughout the country, and they’re impressed that we have that kind of partnership in the community.” But, even Stitt admits thirty years is a long time in his industry. His friend and colleague Charlie Trotter announced this year that he’s closing his famous steak house in Chicago after three decades in the business. “it really is kinda of…there are only a few restaurants that can keep that momentum, that energy, that excitement,” Stitt admits. The restaurateur is looking at perhaps convincing his two children to join the family business. For now, Stitt will press on with day to day work at Highlands, and leave talk of retirement for another day.