Andrew Zimmern: Birmingham the ‘hottest small food city in America right now’

Andrew Zimmern: Birmingham the ‘hottest small food city in America right now’
Andrew Zimmern samples some sweet potato pie from a vendor at Pepper Place as Highlands Bar & Grill owner and chef Frank Stitt looks on. (Erin Harney/Alabama NewsCenter)

Andrew Zimmern knows about eating. And at this moment in America, he says Birmingham’s the place to do it.

“I think if you’re not eating in Birmingham these days, you’re missing out on something really unique and special,” the noted chef and TV food personality said in an exclusive interview with Alabama NewsCenter. “I think Birmingham has solidified itself as the hottest small food city in America right now.”

Watch Andrew Zimmern rave about Frank Stitt and Birmingham’s dynamic food scene from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Zimmern spoke to Alabama NewsCenter after strolling the food and vegetable stalls at Pepper Place with local chef Frank Stitt, whose Highlands Bar & Grill was named the outstanding restaurant in America last month by the James Beard Foundation. Not only that – the same night, the Beard Foundation named Highlands’ Dolester Miles the nation’s outstanding pastry chef. Last week, Miles was featured in a full-page spread in The New York Times. Another of this year’s Beard winners – South Carolina barbecue pitmaster Rodney Scott, best chef Southeast – has announced plans to open a restaurant in downtown Birmingham.

Highlands was a finalist for 10 years running, which Zimmern said is far more significant than the restaurant ultimately taking home the top prize.

“I think to be nominated is its own reward. Because when you’re nominated for restaurant of the year, in America, and there’s four or five other nominees, that’s amazing,” Zimmern said.

“The way I look at it is the inverse: Frank and Pardis were nominated umpteen times for that award,” he said, recognizing the team of Stitt and his wife, Pardis, who manages the operation. “That says more than the people who were nominated once or twice. To be that relevant for so many years, everyone knew – at least I knew – that eventually they were going to win that thing.”

Zimmern admitted he’s become “kinda addicted” to Birmingham. It was his third trip to the city to tape episodes for his TV empire. But this time he made the most of it, taping for two separate shows – The Zimmern List, broadcast on the Travel Channel, and a yet-to-be-named show coming this fall to the Food Network. It will focus on food entrepreneurs aspiring for culinary greatness. Three Alabama enterprises were interviewed in Birmingham for the new show: Chubbfathers, which has a food truck as well as a bricks-and-mortar place in Alabaster; Granny’s Fish ‘N Grits, a food truck usually found near Birmingham Daiquiris on Ninth Street North at Third Avenue North, and Highway Kabobery, a Huntsville-based food truck. It’s the first time Zimmern has filmed two shows for two separate networks at the same time in one city.

Zimmern was downright gushy about Birmingham and the hospitality it shows every time he’s in town. He went so far as to proclaim that the people of Birmingham are on par – possibly even nicer – than folks in his hometown of Minneapolis, who are known for their welcoming ways.

Andrew Zimmern, right, pictured with Highlands owner and chef Frank Stitt, loves to eat in Birmingham these days. (Erin Harney/Alabama NewsCenter)

He tweeted his affection for the Magic City: “I’m on the road, 230 days a year at minimum, 40/50 cities in USA. I never get as nice a welcome as I do in Birmingham. People stop their cars, pause on the street or use social and actually say ‘nice to have you back.’ It’s amazing. Love the B’ham people! Thank you for the love.”

Nor did Zimmern temper his deep affection for the Stitts, longtime friends whose restaurants have spawned numerous chefs who have launched their own restaurants in Birmingham, and beyond.

“Birmingham is extremely blessed to have someone who is as talented as Frank. But more importantly, who is as inclusive, gracious and as civic-minded as Frank is.

“Frank is a great chef. Pardis is an incredible businesswoman and hostess. But they’re better people,’’ Zimmern said.

“I think when you look at the history of restaurants in America, 50 years from now, Highlands is going to be written about. It’s 35 years old, and it’s better now than it’s ever been. I mean, how many restaurants can say that?”

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