“Come on in; we’re so glad you’re here,” says Pardis Stitt, with a gracious and engaging smile. It’s that kind of welcome that Birmingham locals and foodies from across the country have come to appreciate when they flock to any of the four restaurants she owns with her husband, Frank, the much-lauded chef who put Birmingham on the culinary map more than 30 years ago with Highlands Bar and Grill. However, today’s arrivals are all close friends who have procured perhaps the most coveted “reservation” of all—an invitation to summer lunch at Paradise Farm, the Stitts’ property southeast of town in Harpersville, Alabama. With a tray of refreshing drinks in hand and Fiona, the couple’s amiable dog, by her side, Pardis waves everyone into the farmhouse.
Frank, not surprisingly, is in the kitchen, moving seamlessly from muddling more blackberries for the next round of cocktails to chopping peppers and tomatoes for the main course, all with the efficiency and precision of a true master at work. But today’s mood in the air is of the decidedly laid-back variety. When you’re accustomed to hosting and feeding well over a thousand guests every week at Highlands, Bottega and its adjacent cafe, and the charmingly named Chez Fonfon, well, entertaining a small party of six is a relative breeze—as welcome as the one that drifts from the fan on the screened porch, where they’ll be dining this afternoon.
“We’ve always appreciated and continue to support our area farmers, but when you actually out there doing the work, you’re less likely to be wasteful and are much more respectful of what they do and what you’re cooking with.”—Frank Stitt
While Frank attends to last-minute menu preparations, Pardis encourages everyone to hop on a utility vehicle for a quick tour of the farm and a walk through an allée of raised beds to see what vegetables and flowers are at their peak. The 55-acre property (with an additional 15 acres that surround their farmhouse just down the road) serves as much more than a getaway for the couple in their all-too-rare downtime. “About 15 years ago we started thinking about finding a place that would not only provide us with ingredients for the restaurants but would also be a laboratory of learning for us and for the staff,” explains Frank, whose cuisine is renowned for its marriage of freshly grown, Southern flavors with classic, European techniques.
Now, several days a week, you can find one of the Stitts or a member or two of the kitchen staff working alongside the farm’s caretakers to plant, tend, and ultimately harvest the herbs, tomatoes, okra, beans, greens, roses, nasturtiums, and such. No matter the season, it seems that something is always ripe and ready to fuel creative inspiration for the restaurants. “Being a part of the process changes you,” says Frank. “We’ve always appreciated and continue to support our area farmers, but when you’re actually out there doing the work, you’re less likely to be wasteful and are much more respectful of what they do and what you’re cooking with.”
Back on the porch, Pardis has laid a table that reflects her detail-oriented, sophisticated-but-unpretentious aesthetic. Handwritten menu cards announce the delectable meal to come; garden flowers nestled in soup bowls parade down the table; and antique silver mingles with striped linens and French bistro glasses, much of which has been collected with the help of Patrick Dunne, a friend and the proprietor of Lucullus, a New Orleans shop that specializes in culinary antiques.
“I’m a planner, a put-it-on-paper kind of person,” Pardis says, with a laugh. “I like the platters labeled with what will go on them, and as much done beforehand as we can. Frank is about à la minute. So we come at things a bit differently but ultimately make it work.”
The friends gathered around today’s table, not to mention anyone who has dined at their restaurants, would enthusiastically agree. From the first taste of a juicy fig paired with prosciutto to the last spoonful of cantaloupe sorbet, the Stitts make it work beautifully indeed.
Each guest leaves with a jar of honey from the farm’s beehives.
Chad Miller, who creates arrangements for the restaurants, amasses garden flowers in ceramic bowls most often used for soup. “I love using unexpected containers as vases,” says Pardis.
Produced and Written by Karen Carroll | Photography by Becky Luigart-Stayner