On a journey to visit all of this year's nominees for the James Beard Outstanding Restaurant Award, we head to Birmingham
Few awards mean more to a chef than a James Beard Foundation Award. But it can be particularly meaningful for those chefs who have grown with a restaurant for more than 10 years — an accolade saved for the Outstanding Restaurant Award, presented by Acqua Panna Natural Spring Water.
This year’s nominees run the spectrum of location and cuisine: August in New Orleans; Blue Hill in New York City; Highlands Bar and Grill in Birmingham, Ala.; The Slanted Door in San Francisco; and Spiaggia in Chicago. We teamed up with Acqua Panna to go to each restaurant, share a meal, and discuss with each chef how their restaurants have maintained their quality and continually evolved over the years.
After sampling the fare and talking to the chefs at Blue Hill, Spiaggia, and August, we next made our way to Birmingham to visit Frank Stitt's Highlands Bar and Grill. The legendary French-inspired restaurant was focusing on local and sustainable ingredients before anyone had even coined the phrase locavore. The restaurant put the Birmingham dining scene on the map when it opened in 1982 and Stitt has already been inducted into the James Beard Foundation "Who's Who of Food & Beverage." The restaurant has been nominated for Outstanding Restaurant four previous times.
At my recent meal I fell in love with both the classics and the seasonally inspired dishes. The baked grits made with Parmesan, ham, and sherry vinegar were incredibly flavorful and lived up to their reputation as a stalwart on the menu. But lighter items like the tuna tartare tower with crawfish also made me want to order a second helping.
We sat down with Stitt to discuss the restaurant he has called home for more than three decades. He acknowledged that some things can never change, but that by focusing on the products he has always been able to change and remain innovative. "I get excited about the spring flavors right now," he said. "So that is the juice, that is the stuff that keeps it all fresh...There's not this real sense of time that we've been doing it for a long time. This is not my work, this is my life. This is what I love doing."
For more from Stitt, watch the video above! And make sure to look out later this week for our trip to San Francisco to visit Charles Phan's The Slanted Door.