Pardis Stitt never imagined a life in the restaurant industry, but a random favor for a friend proved she had found her passion. She still revels in the shape-shifting beauty and vibrancy of the dining room, and the seemingly magical dance between servers, chefs and guests that takes place each night. Her husband and business partner is the renowned Chef Frank Stitt, also known as the “Godfather of Southern Cuisine.” The culinary duo helms Birmingham hotspots Bottega Cafe and Restaurant, Chez Fonfon and Highlands Bar & Grill, which won the 2018 James Beard Foundation Award for Most Outstanding Restaurant in America — an honor for which the Stitts and their talented Highlands team were nominated for 10 consecutive years. We sat down with Pardis to talk about restaurant life, the afterglow of the James Beard award, her love of gardening and more. Meet today’s FACE of the South, Pardis Stitt!
Tell us about your professional journey. Were your sights always set on the culinary world?
The restaurant industry was not on my radar as a career when I was in college. I wanted to be a counselor. A friend of mine who was managing a restaurant asked me to help by filling in as a host one weekend. I enjoyed it so much, I was delighted when she asked me to fill in again the following weekend. The restaurant bug had bitten me, and I’ve loved this crazy business ever since.
Describe your typical day.
My day begins with Frank bringing me a cup of coffee in bed. I check emails, and we catch up on events from the previous day and discuss the current one. I try to get some type of exercise (most days) before I go into work, but sometimes I opt for a second cup of coffee instead. Then I arrive at one of the restaurants by mid-morning and check in with the team — kitchen, front of house and office staff. Typically, my to-do list is unrealistic, with way too many items, so if I can mark off three to five, the day has been a success. From the moment I enter one of the restaurants, and often before I arrive, I’m fielding questions from staff, guests and vendors. This continues for the next 10 to 12 hours. During the day, I’m often conducting employment interviews, planning events, discussing scheduling with managers, proofing menus, and consulting on planting and harvesting at our farm. Then it’s time for service meetings before the restaurants open for dinner. We review menu changes, special notes or requests from guests coming in that night and service points. Afterward, I tie up loose ends in the office then work through dinner service.
What is most challenging about your role? Most rewarding?
The most challenging and most rewarding aspects of my role are often the same. With 170 people on our team, I am a supervisor, mama, coach and teacher — guiding our crew through best practices and following through on our vision for the restaurants.
What do you love most about what you do?
What I love most is seeing all the parts come together for service. It’s like a ballet where everything flows seamlessly and effortlessly, while the reality is it takes every individual — from the reservationist and business manager to the valets, cooks, porters, floor managers, servers, assistants and bartenders — all contributing to the whole to make this come to life. When all the parts fall into place, it’s a beautiful moment. Then we start over and try it again.
After nine consecutive years as a finalist for the James Beard Foundation Award for Most Outstanding Restaurant in America, Highlands Bar & Grill won the prestigious award, in its 10th year as a finalist, last May. What was that like?
I could not believe it and truly did not think we would win. When Highlands was announced, I could not feel my legs at first, and Frank was saying, “Come on, we need to go …” I finally stood up. As we approached the stage, the whole experience was surreal. Even now, I have to remind myself it happened. It’s been 17 months, and we are still receiving congratulatory notes.
How have things changed since receiving the award?
There was concern, on my part, that guests traveling from across the country to dine with us may have unrealistic expectations. Most of the previous winners were a little more fancy, pricier and served tasting menus. We had no plans of changing our course and remained true to ourselves and our core values. Ultimately, for us to be nominated 10 years in a row is the grandest compliment and acknowledgment of our work. We still push ourselves to be the best we can be.
What do you like to do when you are not at the restaurants?
I enjoy traveling and tinkering in the garden. There are always flowers, herbs and vegetables growing at home, and also at our larger garden at the farm where we grow for the restaurants. I read seed catalogs, especially those with historical information on heirloom seeds, and all types of books — there are typically three or four bookmarked at a time.
Do you have a mentor or role model, and if so, why do you admire them or what have they taught you?
Maguy Le Coze, one of the owners of Le Bernardin in New York City. She is intelligent, stylish, detail-oriented and works her dining room with incredible grace. I also admire Jean-Claude Vrinat, the former owner of Taillevent in Paris. He epitomized what a great restaurateur could and should be.
What advice would you give your younger self?
The advice I would give my younger self (as cliché as it sounds) is to seize the day. Do not wait to study another language, to learn flamenco or to take a trip — do it now. I poured myself into work but did not always take time for myself. I am getting better at it now.
Take on the role of culinary travel host. What are your favorite local cheap eats, hidden culinary gems and can’t-miss epicurean experiences in Birmingham?
I go to the Pepper Place Farmers Market every Saturday. Jones Valley Teaching Farm is a must on my list when I want to share the beauty of Birmingham — not as a place to eat but where food is grown. I love El Barrio, Woodlawn Cycle Café, Taj India, Mexico Lindo, downtown Brick & Tin … Golden Age is a new wine bar with an incredible selection of wines.
What is your proudest accomplishment?
Being aunt to my nephews and niece, and being stepmother to Marie and Weston Stitt
What is something people might be surprised to learn about you?
I speak fluent Farsi.
What are your must-have style staples?
Heels, mints, sticky notes, my monthly planner (old-school paper) and Fiona the dog
Any guilty pleasures?
Chips and salsa
What is your best piece of advice?
Name three frivolous or lighthearted things that you can’t live without.
Freshly cut flowers, music and coffee
Thank you, Pardis! And thank you to Eric and Jamie Gay of Eric & Jamie Photography, for these gorgeous images of Pardis at Bottega.
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