Monday, March 4

Charleston Wine + Food Festival Honors Frank Stitt

Chef Frank Stitt was honored at this weekend's Charleston Wine + Food Festival with a tribute dinner and the Festival's inaugural "Frank Stitt National Chef Award." Stitt is the chef-owner of Highlands Bar & Grill in Birmingham, which he opened in 1982 at age 28. He is a founding member of the SFA and received our Craig Claiborne Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006. 

Watch the Charleston Wine + Food Festival's video tribute to Stitt, and then read the speech that Harry Root gave at the dinner on Saturday night. Root is the owner of Grassroots Wine, based in Charleston, SC, and a member of the SFA's Board of Directors. 

What were you doing in 1978? I’m going to drop a few names here if you don’t mind. Had you spent the last few years in Berkeley, California working for Alice Waters at Chez Panisse? Were you living in the South of France helping Richard Olney write his iconic Time-Life series on French Cooking? I am talking about THE Richard Olney- the original Bohemian American Expat who inspired a legion of American chefs and wine professionals- including introducing Kermit Lynch to many of his first producers. Were you dining at Vieux Telegraph, exploring French markets with Jeremiah Tower, or prepping meals at Richard’s home in Provence?  

Thirty- four years ago, Frank Stitt left his employ with Richard and returned from France with the goal of turning his inspiration into the finest restaurant in Alabama. And with the opening of Highlands Bar and Grill in 1982, did he ever succeed. Winner of the 2001 James Beard Award for best chef in the Southeast as well as finalist for the past 4 years for the James Beard national award for best restaurant; founding member of the Southern Foodways Alliance as well as recipient of the SFA’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006; and for much of the 1980’s holder of the unofficial title of best restaurant in Atlanta (did I mention Highlands is 150 miles away in Birmingham?), I am here today to honor Frank Stitt and his gifts to Southern cuisine.

Frank's national renown is certainly a tribute to all things southern and good about our incredible food culture. His impact to his home community in Birmingham and the entire state of Alabama is where his version of food heroism has had the biggest influence. Indeed life changing impact, as Frank's early commitment to seeking better local produce, fish and meats helped create real businesses and even developed entire community economies.

Take, for example, Greg Abrams. Twenty-two years ago, Greg showed up at Frank’s back door with a fresh catch of gulf fish that he drove up from his own boat in Panama City that day. At the time—and still today—most commercial fishermen sold their fish to brokers; who send them to warehouses in Atlanta; where they are processed and warehoused and distributed around the Southeast and beyond.  Greg felt that no fish should be warehoused and that the best of his catch deserved better. He found his first customer 5 hours away when he found Frank. Today, Greg owns 13 boats and supports 20 others. He has built an empire based on how Frank inspired him to think: that it’s worthwhile, financially and otherwise, to pursue the right foods; caught or raised close to home; and celebrated with a nod to family and community. I talked to Greg about this earlier this week, and his only lament about his relationship with Frank is that he lost his original receipts from that first sale—scratched on a scrap of notebook paper.  He had intended to frame them, but they were destroyed in Hurricane Katrina.

Frank has also tremendously inspired me.  I own a small wine company, and it is and is my times spent tasting and traveling with Frank, that I have cherished the most about my job.  Not many folks know that in addition to running three of the best kitchens in the Southeast (Highlands, Bottega, and Chez Fon Fon), Frank also oversees the wine programs in each of his restaurants—from selecting, to training, and service. As my company has grown into its name, Grassroots Wine, it is Frank Stitt who has inspired me that it is possible to make a huge difference in farming communities globally by the way we act locally. Along the way, he has pioneered exciting new wine movements that just make sense with everything we love about the South. From Grower Champagne to exciting new wines from California, Frank Stitt has led the way.

If you have never been to Highlands, one of my favorite things about it is how easy it is to describe: simply sublime. From the atmosphere, the bar, to the service, the wine list, and of course the food- everything is perfect. There is no foam, gastro-trickery, or gimmicks—simply perfectly crafted, classic Southern and French-inspired dishes prepared and served seamlessly as if by a long-lost best friend who you haven't seen in years somehow became one of the world’s great chefs and is serving you dinner.  That’s all. This is in large part because of Frank’s commitment to excellence and also his lovely wife, Pardis, whom I really can’t say enough about. She, like Frank, is a true southern gem, and I am among the legions of folks who appreciate her and her contributions to the South.

If Highlands, Bottega, and Chez Fon Fon were his only accomplishments, I would be proud to stand in front of you and honor the man responsible for converting the Southside of Birmingham into a Southern Dining Mecca. However, his restaurants are not the pinnacle of Frank's success. I argue that his greatest achievement has been his influence on our entire region and indeed the entire country. Let's go back to my comment about being the best chef in Atlanta. Happily for all of us, Frank lost that title years ago to the likes of Anne Quatrano, Linton Hopkins, Hugh Acheson, Steven Satterfield and others, all of whom are not just inspired by Frank, but challenged by him to this day. We also see his regional influence here in Charleston as well, in literally all of our city's top restaurants.

Frank's influence reaches out nationally as well. New York and California: Have you heard that Southern Food Culture is hot? Of course you have! The excellence of our food culture—the original American cuisine—is a huge part of the movement in our country to eat more better and local food. To appreciate the local farmer, fisherman, and rancher. To thoughtfully employee our local cultures onto our tables every day. Frank recognized this 30 years ago and has supported and inspired every aspect of our food culture—from fishermen, to farmers, inspiring chefs, and certainly at least one wine purveyor. In researching this discussion, my favorite quote was not from one of the legions of chefs who have worked in his kitchens, but from Rob McDaniel at Spring House in Alexander City, Alabama. When I asked if he had worked, for Frank, Rob replied: “I have not, but like every other young Southern cook, I have read his books and followed him for many years.”

Southern food culture is changing the way we think and act about our communities in the Southeast.  Whether it is directly by supporting local fishermen and farmers like Greg Abrams or Mark Marhefka and or revitalizing our communities like Birmingham’s Southside or Ashley Christensen’s projects in Raleigh. For most of the South, the impact and influence of our food culture is steeped in history, yet relatively new. But in Alabama, Frank has been braising this stew for 30 years.

Thirty years ago, the Southern food culture was an afterthought in the nation's food intelligentsia’s eyes. Today, I argue it's the most relevant and original of the cuisines of America. We owe this in large part to the passion and influence of our standard bearer, Frank Stitt.

Frank has been to all but one of the 8 Charleston Wine + Food Festivals in some capacity or another- mostly cooking, but also as an author and as a wine personality.  His mere presence lent the Festival credibility in its early days, but his engaged involvement and gentlemanly criticism has been integral in pushing the festival toward more and better chefs and wine personalities. In that course, he has helped this Festival become the defining Wine + Food Festival of the South.

I am pleased and proud to present the Frank Stitt National Chef Award to my friend and mentor, Frank Stitt.