Fresh, in-season, local foods are at the heart of the cooking of legendary southern chef Frank Stitt. The chef likes to say that he has a "produce rolodex" in his head.
"The season defines what I want to cook," Chef Stitt said in an interview with FoodFit. "Foods are just so much better right when they are at their peak."
Chef Stitt's original union of southern ingredients and traditions with the sensibilities of rustic French provincial cooking has made his Highlands Bar and Grill in Birmingham, Alabama, a draw for food lovers ever since the doors opened over 20 years ago. Famed author Pat Conroy says he's the best chef in America.
Using the freshest fruits, vegetables and other foods imparts the finest flavors and allows anyone to cook simply, the chef explains.
"That's one of the greatest lessons from the people in the south of France and from Italy: When you have supreme ingredients you really don't need much," he said. "I think that is certainly where everybody evolves tocooking simply with the greatest ingredients.
In his first book, Frank Stitt's Southern Table, which came out recently, the chef tells a story about one fall evening when Highlands was serving cabbages, rutabagas and sweet potatoes, and a guest was overheard wondering why "good vegetables" like asparagus weren't on the menu.
"I must confess that I derive a great deal of pleasure from incorporating these less-glamorous, more-humble 'poor man's' vegetables vegetables into a dish. And once people try them, they become converts as well," Stitt writes.
Stitt was influenced by time spent on his grandparents' farm in Cullman, Alabama, as a boy, but he made up his culinary mind while picking grapes in the south of France as a budding chef.
There he was struck by how the farmers took incredible pride in ordinary vegetables. "That reminded me of my childhood growing up and being at the farm in Cullman and having the greatest butter beans, and the greatest pole beans and potatoes that were just dug. It took being in France to wake that up in me," he told FoodFit.
In his foreword to Stitt's book, author Conroy writes, "I would call Frank the best chef in America, but that would cause undo jealousy in the ranks of other chefs whose powers of cruelty are exceeded only by genocidal despots or serial killers with bad tattoos. So let me simply state that I think that Frank is the best chef in America and that America itself is starting to come around to my position."
Make fabulous food from superstar Chef Frank Stitt’s new book:
Butternut Squash and Dried Fig Risotto
Ham and Pumpkin Pirlau
Glazed Autumn Vegetables