Middle Eastern

Meet The Persian Woman Who Runs 3 of Birmingham's Best Restaurants

March  9, 2017

In the genteel city of Birmingham, Alabama, Pardis Stitt and her chef husband Frank run three of the city’s most beloved restaurants: Highlands Bar and Grill, Chez Fonfon, and Bottega. Ms. Stitt, who oversees front-of-house and whose gracious manner has been referred to as her husband’s “secret weapon”, has been known to surprise a table of guests with a bowl of salty, roasted, bright green pistachios.

It’s all just part of this Southern native’s hospitable manners, except Pardis’ first language is Farsi, and the pistachios come from her mother’s orchard in Iran. (Hospitality is as important in the cultures across the Middle East as it is in the South, so it’s practically innate for Pardis.)

While her James Beard Award-nominated restaurants have been an essential part of Birmingham’s culinary scene since as far back as the 1980s, Pardis, as her name attests, has far-off roots. Her mother is from Sirjan, a city near the Persian Gulf famous for its excellent pistachios, and her father is from Kermanshah, a mostly Kurdish-speaking city near the border with Iraq that is rich with antiquity. They immigrated to the United States before the Islamic Revolution of 1979, which was the last year that Pardis visited Iran.

Pistachios Pardis serves guests at Highlands Bar and Grill in Birmingham, AL and pistachios at her mother’s orchard in Iran. Photos courtesy Pardis Stitt

Growing up, Pardis was “the only dark, thick eyebrow-ed person” in her school, but she was safely nestled in Birmingham’s tightly knit community of Iranian families. Once or twice a month, one family would make the drive to a farmer’s market an hour away to pick up locally grown fruits and vegetables used in Persian cooking like eggplant, zucchini, cucumbers, watermelon, cantaloupe, and peaches and bring them back for the other families to divvy up. Norooz, the Persian New Year that falls on the spring equinox (this year, March 21), was a special time. Her family would make a big ceremonial sofreh table decorated with the haft-sin, the seven foods that start with the letter “s” in Farsi: somagh (sumac), serkeh (vinegar), samanou (a sweet pudding made from sprouted wheat), sabzi (herbs), seeb (apple), seer (garlic), and senjed ( dried lotus fruit). Norooz always coincided with Birmingham’s dogwood festival in the nearby suburb of Vestavia Hills, when the whole city suddenly burst into fragrant bloom.

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“We would collect fresh flowers like daffodils, hyacinths, and dogwood blossoms to decorate the house, we would dye eggs like you do for Easter, and we’d always have a big party,” Pardis reminisced.

Pardis's youngest sister and her cousin at a pistachio farm in Iran in 2004. Photo courtesy Pardis Stitt

Food was love, and she and her sisters were the prep cooks when her mom, Parvin, would prepare intricate Persian recipes: carrot and pistachio-studded shirin polo rice, herbaceous ghormeh sabzi stew, gheimeh split pea stew whimsically topped with French fries, savory tahchin rice cake with chicken baked inside, crispy, bottom-of-the-pot rice tahdig, and of course, baklava with pistachios. Right outside their door, the family grew herbs for noon o panir, the bread and cheese platter eaten daily in Iranian homes, and Pardis would pick fresh tarragon, chives, parsley, dill, basil, and cilantro to go alongside the radishes, walnuts, and cucumbers that decorate the plate.

These days, Pardis and Frank have a farm 40 minutes from town where they grow enough food to supplement their restaurants, especially eggs from their 130 chickens. The family converges on the farm when her sisters come with their kids from New York City. She’s the only sister who stayed in Birmingham, but it works out because she’s finally ready for her mom to teach her how to cook now, especially khorsesht-e bademjan, a rich eggplant and tomato stew, but a vegetarian version, because Pardis has been a vegetarian for years. “My mom used to sneak meat into my food, but now I can tell,” she said, laughing.

Highlands Bar and Brill in Birmingham, AL, via Flickr. Photo by Bari Bookout

When asked about the recent crackdown on immigration and travel between countries deemed dangerous by the new White House administration, Pardis spoke about her Hispanic friends and employees. “It hurts me to my core that people are now afraid of being deported,” she said. “They’re such an important part of our community.” For her own family, the travel ban means her parents can’t travel back and forth to Iran to see relatives, and she can’t imagine when she’ll be able to go. “But we have to be hopeful,” she says, with a shrug and a smile.

Ever since the election, business at her restaurants has been booming, and Pardis has a theory: “Some people are feeling optimistic and spending money again because they’re excited to see what Trump will do, and others are out because they feel like the world is ending, so they may as well indulge!” Either way, Pardis will greet them with a warm smile and her impeccable Persian hospitality.

Louisa Shafia was our Writer in Residence in February—read how writing her cookbook brought her closer to her Iranian heritage, about the Middle Eastern origins of ice cream, about Nashville's Little Kurdistan, and the art of hospitality in the Middle East.

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My cookbook The New Persian Kitchen is a winner of Food52's Piglet award. I love cooking Iranian rice and hearing people crunch on the crispy tahdig from the bottom of the pot. I'm passionate about sharing the ingredients and techniques for making Persian food in my writing, cooking classes, and online store, Feast By Louisa where you can find my Persian Spice Set, Tahdig Kit, and other goodies.