Frank Stitt's Southern Table: recipes and gracious traditions from highlands bar and grill, Frank Stitt

Monday 29th November 2004 19:14
Frank Stitt's Southern Table is written by American chef-patron Stitt and is a celebration of his philosophy of food and wine. The book focuses on the cuisine from his Highlands Bar and Grill restaurant in Birmingham, Alabama, where his dishes are based on Proven‡al-influenced Southern food. At more than 2kg it certainly has the feel of a heavyweight publication, but for me, ultimately, the book promised more than it delivered.

In the book's foreword, Stitt is not only compared to Alain Ducasse but it is suggested that he will surpass him as a chef. Naturally, I therefore looked forward to something very special. However, chapter after chapter failed to deliver anything like the quality you are led to expect from these claims. The book is laid out in large type and double spacing with many half-empty pages, all of which gives a sense of grandeur but which, in reality, simply makes it far bulkier than necessary.

On the plus side, the recipes do work and are simple to follow. The green tomato and peach relish, and the ravioli with sweet potato, mustard greens and country ham, in particular, were both easy to make and had excellent flavours. Photography is crisp and well composed, though, frustratingly, many of the photos do not have captions.

Most positively, Frank Stitt's Southern Table has an ever-important mantra: the need to use absolutely first-class ingredients and the commitment to adhere to their correct season. Stitt has spent time with one of cookery's all-time great writers, Richard Olney, and the one thing evident from this association is his ability to produce introductions evocative of the season, ingredient and place which he describes. For instance, he celebrates the arrival and specialist culinary use of different tomato varieties. One successful dish at Highlands Bar and Grill was given the brilliant name of "white truck salad", simply because this was where the best tomatoes in the local market were being sold from.

Unfortunately, in the end I just wasn't inspired by recipe after recipe from the South. For me, they all looked a bit too relaxed and simple. I know we want "simple" these days, but if you asked me whether I got excited and wanted to cook Stitt's dishes in the same way that I would those of chef-authors such as Simon Hopkinson - then the answer would have to be no.

You don't have to look to hard to find out that, long ago, chefs such as Dean Fearing, from the Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas, championed southern American ingredients, merging them with other cuisines to good effect while at the same time putting their own original stamp on southern food. However, Stitt's endeavours to merge Proven‡al cuisine with his own native dishes just doesn't leap out from the pages: the dishes lack identity and authority.

I think when you read this book you will be left with the sense of someone - Stitt - striving to find the very best in all he does. It's an admirable quality and made me really want to enjoy this man's thoughts and experiences when I first picked up the book. Unfortunately, the philosophy just doesn't translate into inspiring ideas or dishes. There are far too many good books around to buy before this one, especially at a hard-earned £30: books that will fill you with dreams and good recipes. n

Chris Galvin, executive chef, the Wolseley, London

Frank Stitt's Southern Table: recipes and gracious traditions from highlands bar and grill
Frank Stitt
Workman Publishing
£30
ISBN 1-57965-246-8

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