Frank Stitt's restaurant, Highlands Bar & Grill, is a finalist in this year's James Beard award for best restaurant in America. This is Stitt's fifth year in a row to be a finalist, and while I know that may make him seem like the Susan Lucci of the restaurant world, it is, as they say at the Oscars: "an honor to be nominated... ."
In my book, Highlands deserves to win, but I am biased because I live in Birmingham, and we need all the good press we can get. But more importantly, Highlands is a truly great restaurant. It is the whole package—the food is pitch-perfect and the staff, informative, with just the right amount of attentiveness. (If you ever get the chance to go there, I recommend Patrick as your server--you will not be disappointed.)
Stitt, a French-trained chef, has made Highlands a successful restaurant by not just being emulous of French cuisine, but rather making it his own and merging its techniques and philosophies with the unique flavors and foods of his native South (Stitt is from Culman, Alabama).
In a real sense, what Stitt has done is so American and should not be surprising. After all, we are a nation of immigrants as the cliché goes. But don't forget that Americans eat a wide-variety of cuisines in any given week. Italian on Monday, Thai on Tuesday, Indian on Thursday, and Mexican on Friday. Now of course, these are but distant relatives to their counterparts back home, but the point is that Americans are exposed to so many different flavors. This makes them willing test subjects for chefs who want to experiment.
The French, it has been said, are very set in their ways when it comes to cooking—constrained by rigid rules of what is "right" and what is "wrong." I think that is changing (if it was ever really true to begin with). French cuisine is more innovative and creative than it has been in some time. And here is where Americans could make a real difference to French cuisine—to give back so to speak.
I plan to find out first hand.
This Wednesday, I am taking my twin, eleven-year-old boys to Paris for spring break. From a food perspective, this will be an interesting trip. One of my boys is a budding foodie, freely giving advice on his old man's sole meuniere. The other one, alas, is a diehard chicken-finger-french-fries-ketchup-on-everything junkie! But because majority rules on this trip, he's outvoted, and we will be eating a lot of good food sans ketchup. Of course, I will expose my boys to the classics. We plan a trip to Bistrot Paul Bert, where I may channel my inner Julia Child, as well as some of the newer trends in Paris, which seem to be concentrated these days in the 10th Arrondissement.
One restaurant that is on my "to-do" list for gastronomic Paris is Verjus. What is interesting about this restaurant, however, is that it is owned by two American chefs: New Orleans—born, Boston-bred chef Braden Perkins, 32, and his partner in work and life, Saint Paul native Laura Adrian, 27. (Saveur has good article about Verjus here at http://www.saveur.com/article/Travels/Restaurant-Review-Verjus-Paris).
So, stay tuned dear readers. I will be reporting from Paris for ten days starting Wednesday. I'll let you know if Americans are giving back to France. Heck, maybe one day, the French will be combining "American" flavors with French techniques instead of the other way around.