How an Iowa-born Expat Taught Today’s Tastemakers the French Lessons of Being 'At Table'
Frank Stitt is standing over a farm sinkin the kitchen of his Birmingham home peeling tender red potatoes with a paring knife. He’s the proprietor of four restaurants in the city, including the acclaimed Highlands Bar & Grill, but tonight the chef is cooking at home, sipping a glass of Domaine Leflaive Mâcon-Verzé and talking to me about the infinite variety of composed salads. This late summer salad, for example, includes quartered hard-cooked eggs, leftover lamb, and six vegetables from Paradise Farm, his property outside of town. To make the vinaigrette, what he calls “one of the greatest of all sauces,” he drizzles not one but three vinegars—red wine, sherry, and honey vinegar—into a bowl with shallots, garlic, and thyme, adding deeper flavor and a more acidic balance before whisking in extra-virgin olive oil.
Then he remembers the gratin. Using a kitchen towel, he pulls the oval casserole out of the oven and brings it up to his nose to inhale the smell of bubbling tomatoes, garlic, and eggplant. All have melted, giving their juices to a ruddy pool at the bottom of the ceramic dish. Stitt exhales, “Oh, Lordy. Whooooo.”
We take the gratin and salad outside to a wooden table under an arbor. Around us, the smell of rosemary hangs heavy in the humidity. Pardis, Stitt’s gracious and elegant wife and business partner, joins us. She kids her husband about how uncomposed his composed salad looks. Stitt takes it in stride. He knows the feeling counts more than the presentation and pours us all glasses of Fleurie Poncié as the conversation shifts to the night’s dinner service at Bottega, their Italian restaurant.
In the six years that I have known him, I have often heard Stitt break into reveries about being “at table.” It’s an idea central to how he sees his work as a chef and restaurateur. As the evening gently unspools, I realize that this night is what he means: good food and wine that speak for themselves, conversation, and a little bit of beauty. It’s an aesthetic that the Stitts evoke nightly at their restaurants. And while for a guest that mood might seem like magic, in fact, Stitt tells me, you can trace it directly back to 1978 in Provence, to a month Stitt spent working for the late writer Richard Olney.
In the mid-1970s, Stitt was a philosophy major at the University of California, Berkeley, concerned with aesthetics, the creation of beauty, and the pursuit of authenticity. Where he found all that, though, was in kitchen work at Chez Panisse with Alice Waters. There, he traded Heidegger and Nietzsche for the sensual intellectualism of food writers Elizabeth David and, particularly, Olney.
What struck Stitt about Chez Panisse was its pursuit of Provençal food as “a medium to make art, to make beauty.” Olney’s The French Menu Cookbook was a touchstone for Waters, who had come to call Olney a mentor and friend. The philosophy at Chez Panisse was a radical departure from what was happening in other American cities, and Stitt wanted to go to the source of it, to meet Olney himself. So Waters helped broker a meeting.
Stitt met the 51-year-old Olney in the spring of 1978 in the Time-Life studios on Conduit Street in London, where Olney was producing The Good Cook, a groundbreaking series of 28 instructional cookbooks. Chef Jeremiah Tower was there, too. A few years prior, Tower had joined Olney in France on a jaunt from Paris to Provence to cook, eat, and visit wineries like Domaine Tempier. The two became lovers. Now he was back in Europe to help Olney shoulder the nightly, Champagne-fueled research and daily cooking load required to create the many step-by-step photographs that accompanied every recipe. The schedule was demanding—Olney had to deliver a book manuscript every few months. He needed an assistant.
A couple of months later, Stitt reported for duty in Solliès-Toucas, a small town in Provence northeast of Toulon. He carried a gift of fresh morels for his new boss up a path to Olney’s rustic cottage on seven hilly, arid acres. “I was going to the mountain to sit with Buddha,” Stitt says. “That month was one of the greatest highlights of my life.”
Olney was born in Marathon, Iowa, and had trained at the Brooklyn Museum Art School, waiting tables in Greenwich Village before moving to Paris in 1951 at the age of 24 to become a painter. He rolled with a bohemian set of artists and intellectuals, including the writer James Baldwin. But it was his pot-au-feu, not his portraits of people like Baldwin, that launched his career as a food and wine savant. Major wineries began inviting him to taste new vintages, and he cobbled together enough money to eat well and refine his palate. He built trust among French readers, including Michelin-starred chefs, with his columns in Cuisine et Vins de France. In 1961, he began splitting his time between the suburban clamor of Clamart and the open skies of Provence. He rebuilt a ruined shepherd’s cottage in Solliès-Toucas, digging a wine cellar and damming a rock trough on the hillside above the house to fashion a swimming pool. Before the advance from The French Menu Cookbook paid for a proper La Cornue stove, Olney and his brothers Byron and James built the great stone hearth in the kitchen to grill kidneys or slow-roast lamb while it rotated on a string tied to a nail above.
In May 1978, at the sun-bleached cottage overlooking the Gapeau river valley, writer and apprentice fell into a rhythm. Breakfast was fresh orange juice, toasted sourdough bread, butter from Normandy, marmalade, and bowls of café au lait. The clack of a typewriter broke the morning silence as Olney corresponded with Time-Life editors back in London while Stitt washed dishes from the night before in the shallow stone sink. Lunch might be a simple composed salad with special attention paid to how gently the eggs were cooked and the beans boiled and dressed.
In Olney’s company, the lyrical, fastidious lessons from The French Menu Cookbook came to life for Stitt daily, along with the more relaxed, earthy flavors from Olney’s Simple French Food. One day, Olney removed the backbone from a chicken and stuffed an embarrassment of zucchini and farmer’s cheese under the skin. He showered it with salt and crumbled dried herbs like marjoram, thyme, and savory from the terraced garden that Stitt was responsible for weeding. Olney didn’t drive, so Stitt took him into town to see the Moutton sisters, the local butchers. “They cackled at Richard, his audaciousness of trying to debone the oxtail” for one of the volumes of The Good Cook, Stitt says. But Olney was up to the task, Stitt remembers: “He held the knife like a very confident butcher, like a surgeon.”
It was at dinner that the main lessons took place. A pilgrimage to Olney’s meant four simple courses matched with a progression of wines of growing intensity. And Scotch. Tower recalls sitting under the arbor at 2 a.m. drinking Laphroaig and listening to an old portable phonograph: “Richard was saying, ‘Isn’t that just so sweet,’ while I was falling under the table.”
Waters credits Olney with inspiring her restaurant’s obsession with seasonal ingredients and set menus. During spring, Olney would present his guests a first course of fat, warm, perfectly tender asparagus spears in a linen towel and teach them to roll the spears on a plate pooling with homemade red wine vinegar, grassy green Provençal olive oil, and sea salt. “He taught us the way that cooking and serving and sitting at table go together,” Waters says.
At his table in Solliès-Toucas, Olney conjured a whole vision of how one might live a beautiful life, with food and drink at the center. Tower remembers Olney in his garden, shirtless and smoking Gauloises while clipping roses. A bottle of Krug sat chilling in a bucket on the table. “That was Richard,” Tower says, laughing.
After Stitt left Provence, he traveled across Europe chasing the magic of being at table. He harvested grapes and made wine, and eventually he came home to Alabama, where he opened Highlands in 1982. This past spring, almost 40 years to the day he walked up the path to Olney’s house, and 19 years after Olney died at his home in Solliès-Toucas, Stitt walked onstage to accept the James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Restaurant for Highlands. (Dolester Miles, who has worked with Stitt for more than 30 years, won Outstanding Pastry Chef.)
Stitt’s journey parallels that of American cuisine, an awakening that started in earnest four decades ago as the country slowly emerged from a post-war fog of convenience food and buffets of prime rib and bananas Foster. Olney had a profound, lasting influence on the vanguard of chefs who would change the way we eat and drink. He’s one vital root of the culinary family tree that extends upward to Chez Panisse, to Waters, and to the chefs who came through her California kitchen: Mark Miller, Jonathan Waxman, Suzanne Goin, and more—including Tower, who went on to open the glittering Stars in San Francisco in 1984. Thanks to Olney’s lessons at his table and in 34 cookbooks, you will find strains of his generous legacy—seasonal menus, good food made with local ingredients, and properly paired wines—in nearly every city in America.
One such city is Birmingham, where a framed photo of Richard Olney hangs on the wall of Chez Fonfon, Stitt’s bistro. Blink and you’ll miss it, but Olney’s values and the magic and beauty of being at table endure.