Frank Stitt’s Secret: Eating from the Earth

Katie Rogers

Katie Rogers is a Birmingham-based writer, feng shui consultant, and filmmaker. You can watch her documentary “CarLess in LA” currently on YouTube). She was happy to attend the E.O. Wilson Lecture with Harvard alumna Gasp Board Member Karen Shepard (who happens to be a climate change expert and Huffington Post writer) and Gasp Outreach Director Kirsten Bryant. Together,  they collectively gushed over the environmental slant of Frank Stitt’s lecture (AND the olive oil cake).

When a friend asked me to be her guest at the Harvard Club’s annual E.O. Wilson Distinguished Lecture Series, where there would be a “Conversation with Chef Frank Stitt,” I was all in. After all, everyone in Birmingham knows the name Frank Stitt. He’s the head chef and owner of four of Birmingham’s most beloved restaurants: Chez Fon Fon, Bottega, Bottega Café, and the now legendary, Highlands Bar and Grill. I thought it would be fun to hear what he had to say, and of course, there was the lure of good food, wine, and an interesting crowd.

Coincidentally, just days after the invitation, Highlands Bar and Grill won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurant. Highlands beat out competition in New York, San Francisco, Houston, Los Angeles, and Chicago for this prestigious honor as the best restaurant in the United States.  Score for Highlands. Score for Birmingham. Score for Alabama.

Being somewhat of foodie, I was now especially excited to hear him speak. However, the last thing I expected to hear from him is that his stance on food is actually a profound environmental message.

What I gathered from the lively dialogue between he and Catherine Sloss Jones is that his secret to great cuisine is the integrity of the ingredients. Furthermore, he suggested that where there are great ingredients, there is healthy earth.

Images: (1) Katie Rogers, Frank Stitt, Pardis Stitt, Karen Shepard and Kirsten Bryant; (2) Gasp Board Member, Karen Shepard and Outreach Director, Kirsten Bryant, discuss the connection between food and a healthy planet with Chef Frank Stitt; and (3) Strawberry and mascarpone olive oil cake made by James Beard award-winning pastry chef Dolester Miles.

He mentioned how pesticides and herbicides and other chemicals were adversely affecting the “vitality” of the soil and therefore the taste and texture of food. He mused about farming “going back to a time before the 1950s” and the importance of farmer’s markets. When asked a question about where he sees the culinary experience going in the next fifty to sixty years, he commented that he sees people eating more grains and vegetables and less protein.

To summarize: he believes in eating from the Earth. He also believes that to eat (well) from the Earth, the Earth must be not only intact, but thriving.

Delightfully, Frank Stitt’s commentary was far from preachy. In actuality, I’m not sure he would even call himself an environmentalist; his environmentalism is more a means to an end. He sincerely wants the best of the best on the table. He wants to provide a dining experience that has the potential to be a thing of “beauty.” His love of cooking is evident; his passion is food, plain and simple. One could almost feel a tear coming to his eye when he talked about the “best green bean.”

His success in the culinary world doesn’t come from science experiments or performance art in the kitchen, but can be boiled down to good, old-fashioned farming and a good, old-fashioned respect for the Earth.

What interests me in Stitt’s farm-to-table comments is that it could and should inspire foodies and environmentalists alike to the importance of taking a holistic view when it comes to considering the state of our planet. Food is plant life. And plants depend on air, water, soil, and the sun to grow and thrive. Yet the rise in the planet’s temperatures and the severity of today’s natural disasters are changing our watersheds, impacting how soil releases and traps carbon dioxide, therefore tipping the quality of our air, which of course in turn, traps more greenhouse gases so that the cycle perpetuates itself.   It’s safe to state bluntly that food – and food culture — is at the mercy of climate change and how the Earth’s systems interact with each other.

Sure, Frank Stitt is all about the ironed linens and the perfectly plated meals, but beyond that, he is really and truly interested in dirt. I wonder — could Frank Stitt’s message have the potential to reach an audience that may have turned the other cheek to the notion of climate change?

While my environmentalist self wants to shout out, “Duh, taking care of the planet means better food. Jeez!” my foodie self wants to say between mouthfuls of dessert, “Well, if caring for the environment means maintaining the awesomeness of strawberry and mascarpone olive oil cake from Dolester Miles [pastry chef at Highlands and winner of the 2018 James Beard award for most outstanding pastry chef in America], then well, yeah, please, I’m absolutely for it.”

Because, YUM.

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