Bucking family tradition, Alabama son Frank Stitt III didn’t become a doctor like his father, or his grandfather before him. He chose the skillet over the scalpel. But anyone visiting the chef’s Birmingham restaurants can see that Stitt dispenses his own kind of medicine. Treating his guests to impeccable ingredients cooked with skillful dedication, and served with grace and enthusiasm, Stitt delivers a feel-good experience like no other in the city. And he’s done so, with the help of loyal staff, for almost 25 years—not bad for a globetrotting philosophy major who began with a shoestring budget and the dubious dream of serving French Provençal-influenced southern food in a Dixie steel town.
Faith in Food
Since November 21, 1982, when Stitt sent out his first plate of food at Highlands Bar and Grill, his cooking has been hailed as more than a success—it’s practically a ministry, spreading revelations about what modern Southern food can be. “The reviews read as if a savior had come to town,” Stitt gratefully writes of that Birmingham opening night in his anecdotal cookbook (Frank Stitt’s Southern Table [Artisan]). “We are very fortunate that our community needed us.” Not that anyone other than Stitt would have predicted such a need in the early 1980s. Starting a counterculture restaurant in an undeveloped part of Birmingham at a time when interest rates were high and entrepreneurs were avoiding the south side of the city, seemed at least a risky idea, if not a foolish one. “The bankers of Birmingham refused to give me a loan based on my original business plan,” Stitt recalls. “I was forced to ask my mother to mortgage her house…with a few additional investors, we came up with a total of $150,000 to open Highlands. I am happy to say that at a time of 18 percent interest rates, I was able to pay off my investors and the bank within four years.” Stitt put any profits and all his time back into the fledgling restaurant, working “pretty much around the clock…I was the only one who could sign the checks, the only one doing the ordering, and I was practically the only one doing the cooking.”
Creating the inspired food that would keep his tables bustling was a craft that Stitt learned almost by chance. On his way to a degree in philosophy at Berkeley, California in the early 1970s, Stitt remembers that instead of being drawn to the texts of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, he became captivated by the work of food writers Richard Olney and Elizabeth David. “I was eager to try my hand and learn to create the wonders I had read about,” he writes, “but one after another, the classic French kitchen doors were slammed in my face.” Stitt persisted, however, and finally a Swiss chef took him in, “and showed me how to chop an onion.” With more dogged persistence, Stitt eventually gained entry to the hallowed kitchen of Alice Waters at nearby Chez Panisse. There he was driven toward a deeper authenticity in his cooking, which led to his next destination: Provence, France. Through Alice’s introduction, Stitt lived and worked alongside the venerable Olney. “That experience honed my culinary knowledge and cooking skills,” he writes. The The handpicked wine list at Highlands, featuring more than 300 labels, primarily French Rhônes and Burgundies, reflects the favorites that Stitt has discovered in his travels or through friends. “Early on,” says Highlands General Manager David Parker, “Frank influenced and trained many of the suppliers in the area.”
More Mouths to Feed
Six years after firstborn Highlands Bar and Grill began its robust growth, Stitt was encouraged to conceive another healthy concept. In 1988, he opened the elegant Bottega restaurant, just blocks away from Highland, prompted by his zeal for true Mediterranean flavors, as well as a desire to create more opportunity for his staff. “We needed to expand to keep good people,” reports Bottega’s General Manager and Partner Dean Robb, a 15-year veteran of Stitt’s operations who has worked both the back and front of the house. In an act of self-preservation, Stitt and his team expanded again just two years later, opening the bright, casual Bottega Café adjacent to its sophisticated sibling. “The landlord threatened to put an Atlanta-style nightclub next door,” Stitt explains, so the chef took the space himself and carved out a more relaxed setting, with an outdoor patio, for informal presentations of the same flavors served at Bottega proper.
A rustic Roast Pork with Polenta and Tomato Chutney ($17.75), for example, is served in the Café, whereas Bottega offers Pork Tenderloin with White Asparagus and Roast Mushrooms ($25). Both places change menus twice each season, with dishes that Stitt and his chefs “mine from the archives of great Mediterranean tradition,” he notes. “This is not fusion…really I’m more like an editor than an author of the Bottega food.” The Bottega wine list, also available in the Café, reflects the same European sensibility, with about 300 offerings, many Italian. An aggressive by-the-glass program features 14 to 15 choices, and the bar also creates a menu of seven to nine seasonal specialty drinks ($7.50 to $9 each).
Robb, a self-described “numbers cruncher,” reels off his treasured stats for Bottega restaurant and Café: “Our food costs are 30 to 31 percent; labor costs range between 22 and 23 percent; beer cost is 32 percent…wine averages 38 percent.” With 90 to 100 employees working 18 different shifts, the manager keeps a daily watch on numbers and conducts a full inventory each month. Noting that a “point of labor is worth more than a point of food,” he’s careful to analyze the tallies. Across the avenues at Highlands, Parker admits that he doesn’t share the same “math brain activity.” A former theatre major, Parker favors a more intuitive approach to overseeing costs, based on what he observes. “I would see, for example, how the kitchen uses every part of a whole fish,” he explains, adding, “We constantly work on waste control.”
A tight rein on trash is practiced in all of Stitt kitchens, including the newest one at Chez FonFon, Stitt’s faithful reproduction of a classic French bistro opened in 2000 next door to Highlands. Cooks in each kitchen are zealous about waste not only for cost control, but also to “show respect for the foods themselves,” the chef remarks. From time spent on his grandparents Alabama farm and thrifty French country kitchens, Stitt developed an innate esteem for even the humblest ingredients and a “seat-of-the-pants, common sense approach to frugality…when I worked in hotel kitchens earlier in my career, I saw so much waste caused by over-prepping and overcooking. It was gross, even painful. But keeping a small sense of scale, as we do here, everything can be utilized. We make every effort to purchase only what we need for the night.” According to Stitt, “This is an old-fashioned European way of running a restaurant…that continues to work [for us] today.”
Passion and Performance
Reflecting another old-fashioned operating model, Stitt’s wife, Pardis, is at the center of this restaurant menagerie. A co-owner, she joined the business in 1991 at Bottega, overseeing the wine list and front of the house. She modestly states that now her work includes “a little bit of everything…I’m the style police, manner police, and the human spell-check.” In fact, Pardis Stitt is also a public relations dynamo who manages an on-going schedule of local and national charity events and fundraisers that her husband passionately supports. “I’m adamant that we must play an active, positive role in our community,” the chef declares, referring to Birmingham and the world at large. Because Highlands does little if any advertising or promotions, relying instead on word-of-mouth, charity events also serve to give the business exposure in many markets. As partners on and off the job, the Stitts are aligned by a sense of purpose that has less to do with making money per se, yet much to do with success—defined more by spiritual accounts than bank statements. Stitt once told a gathering of business leaders, “My studies of philosophy taught me that if one is committed to authenticity and has knowledge and passion, then the business side will work itself out.”
Such high ideals, combined with Stitt’s religion of respect for all employees, distinguish the workplace at each of the chef’s Birmingham restaurants. “Most restaurants do not encourage or educate their staff the way we do,” Stitt states. “We expect the same courtesy and grace from our cooks as we do our servers. We expect the same food and wine knowledge of our servers as we do our cooks. We continually have tests, seminars, and tastings to keep their knowledge fresh.” At predinner meetings with staff, Parker concentrates on a specific service technique each day. “One time it might be about how they should carry themselves deftly through the room…like dancers.” Using his former stage managing experience, Parker also obliges servers to tell him something about “the scene” at each table. “Everyone has to pay attention to the stories,” he explains. “ If a couple has driven three hours from Mississippi to celebrate their anniversary, I want to know that.” Such details also get entered in the “manager’s log” each day.
Stitt has a long list of veteran employees in his operation, several who have been with him for more than 20 years and many more who have passed their 10-year mark. Goren Avery is a waiter at Highlands who has been on the floor since opening night. “It’s great to have someone like Goren,” Parker comments, “to show the younger staff a kind of old-school professionalism.” Wayne Russell, a bartender at Chez FonFon who opened Highlands and then Bottega, explains his longevity in Stitt’s operation: “I was a bartender at the Hyatt before, and knew what I was doing, but Frank polished me. I take real pride in this job.” According to Robb, prospective employees go through at least three lengthy interviews and a thorough reference check before hiring. “I look for people that need a job more than those who say they ‘love’ the business,” Robb says, “because those who have bills to pay and family to support are more likely to be reliable.” Nonetheless, Stitt stresses that the hourly rate shouldn’t be an applicant’s primary concern. “There has to be an understanding that we’re here not just to make money.”
Although admittedly autocratic at times, Stitt believes, “My people don’t so much work for me, as much as they work with me. We have to care about the same things.” Stitt cultivates the same “team” relationship with his suppliers, several of whom are named on his menus, in such items as “Alecia’s Tomato Chutney,” or “Michael Dean’s Greens.” The chef considers the search for wonderful ingredients one of the most important aspects of his job; his relationship with those who supply the goods is no less valuable. “We use the carrot instead of the stick when dealing with suppliers,” the chef explains. For Stitt, that means paying the bills promptly. “It sounds simplistic,” he comments, “ but it shows respect for what they do, and they respond to that. That’s how you build loyalty.” Being considerate, however, does not preclude being demanding. Stitt wants the best, and at a competitive price. “We do comparative shopping all the time to see who has the best deal,” the chef adds. “It’s a fun game…part of the puzzle that happens every day to keep us striving.”