After 40 years, Dolester Miles, famous Birmingham pastry chef, is retiring. And after?

Dolester Miles won the James Beard Award in his third year as a nominee. (Cary Norton/Stitt Restaurant Group)
By Bob Carlton | [email protected]

Dolester Miles was one of the first people Frank Stitt hired when the celebrity Birmingham chef opened the Highlands Bar and Grill, his Southern-inspired French restaurant, in 1982.

Miles and his sister Diane George even helped sew the original curtains that hung from the restaurant’s front windows.

Now, after nearly 40 years working alongside Stitt and his wife, Pardis, at their four Birmingham restaurants — Highlands, At Fonfon, Bottega and Bottega Café – self-taught James Beard Award-winning pastry chef has put away the mixing bowls and cake pans and is ready to start working on her to-do list.

“You know, my to-do list is so long,” Miles said, spreading his arms wide. “If I get to one of them, I don’t know. (There are) many different places I want to go.

Miles quietly retired at the end of December, and his extended family in Stitt Restaurant Group said their goodbyes.

“I just feel like I’ve worked in the greatest restaurant for the greatest chef, and I appreciate everything Frank has done for me,” Miles says. “I couldn’t ask for a better job.

“I guess that’s why I stayed so long because we get along. I don’t think I could have gone anywhere else and worked. Everything was top notch. And it was just an experience that I will never forget.

Miles – more affectionately known as “Dol” – will never be forgotten either.

“Dol has brightened up thousands of festive occasions with its fabulous desserts,” says Pardis Stitt. “With her calm and gracious manner, she set a delicious standard of excellence that has become the hallmark of our dining experience.”

“Fun time to be in the kitchen”

Sitting together at a table on the patio outside Bottega, Miles and Frank Stitt tease and praise each other as they reflect on their nearly four decades together.

“I think we were a good team,” Stitt said. “I think maybe that’s something that people have a hard time understanding is how much of what we’ve done in the last almost 40 years was because we were a team.”

“How can it be 40 (years old) and I’m only 27?” Miles adds with a laugh. “It’s hard to believe.”

The youngest of five children, Miles grew up in Bessemer, where she was educated in dessert making while helping her mother, Cora Mae Miles, and aunt, Queen Ester Harris, bake potato pies. German sweets and chocolate cakes.

“My aunt could cook everything, but I would rather be in the kitchen when they were making something sweet,” Miles recalled. “They were sisters, and that’s what brought them together, especially on holidays and Sundays. And it was just a fun time being in the kitchen.

After graduating from Wenonah High School in 1975, Miles studied computer science at Alabama A&M University and Lawson State Community College.

She found her true passion, however, when she went to work in the pastry kitchen at Vincent’s restaurant in Riverchase.

“That’s when I realized what I really wanted to do” she said in a previous interview with “Take butter and flour and make something good and everyone loves it – it’s just exciting.”

In 1982, when she came to work for Stitt in Highlands, she started as a pantry, or pantry chef, and was responsible for preparing salads and cold entrees.

Highlands might be in its infancy, but she could already feel that she was part of something special.

“Those were the best days for me,” Miles says. “We all got along well, and it was exciting because I had never (worked) a pantry before, to tell you the truth.

“I don’t know if you ever knew this, but you taught me all this,” she adds, glancing at Stitt across the table. “And half the food, I didn’t know what it was. It was just a learning experience. We had a good group of people.

“A talent for baking”

During those early years, Highlands outsourced most of its desserts – including cheesecakes from Stitt’s mother, Marie – but later Miles and his cousin Verba Ford started making them.

“It was clear Dol had a knack for pastry and baking,” Stitt says. “I would travel and get dessert somewhere. . . and we would figure out how to do it.

So in 1988, when Stitt opened his Italian-inspired restaurant Bottega, he made Miles his pastry chef for Highlands and Bottega. (Chez Fonfon, his French bistro, opened next door to Highlands in 2000.)

His scrumptious and lovely desserts, including his Lemon Meringue Pie, Strawberry Cobbler and Pot of Chocolate Cream, quickly became legendary in Birmingham and beyond.

Because Miles and his pasta team usually arrived at 5:30 a.m. to start their work day, however, they were long gone by the time guests indulged in their after-dinner desserts.

“A lot of the time when I walked in and saw the servers, they were telling me how much the customers were appreciating something,” says Miles. “But you could kind of tell when you walk in and it’s all gone.”

However, none of his creations reached the status of his Coconut Pecan Cake, a majestic confection of finely ground toasted coconut and pecans served with custard. It was, is and always will be his signature dessert.

In his cookbook “Bottega Favorita”, Stitt called it a cake for “indulgent occasions”, but it really is a cake for all occasions – weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter.

Miles estimates she’s baked thousands over the years.

“People tell me they don’t even like coconut and they like this cake,” she says. “I would like to know how many I made.”

“Paying Off a Pleasure Debt”

Miles did her job without fanfare, but the rest of the country finally began to notice her talent for taking traditional Southern desserts and elevating them to something extraordinary when, in 2016, she was named one of six finalists for the James Beard. Nation’s Most Outstanding Pastry Chef Award.

“Ms. Miles is a prime example of a hardworking kitchen professional who for three decades kept her head down, did her job, and didn’t seek recognition,” John T. Edge of the Southern Foodways Alliance, a long-time champion of Miles and her cooking artistry, said at the time.

“With this appointment, it is as if a long-overdue debt has been paid. . . . It’s like we’re finally repaying a pleasure debt we owe Dolester Miles.

Two years later, in 2018, that debt was fully paid when Miles won the James Beard Award in his third year as a nominee. That same year, Highlands Bar and Grill was also selected America’s Most Outstanding Restaurant after being a finalist for 10 consecutive years.

“I’m just sitting here all laid back, and then I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, did I hear that right? “” she said after the ceremony. “Frank was like, ‘Get up, Dol, get up.’

“I couldn’t move a minute there,” she added. “I was so in shock because I didn’t expect them to call my name.”

Cards and letters started pouring in, so much so that Pardis Stitt joked that Miles needed to be given a separate mailbox. Many were from people Miles had never met.

“It’s amazing,” she said at the time. “I get so much mail. I get flowers, phone calls. Everywhere I go, (people say), ‘Aren’t you that lady?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, that’s me.’ And no one’s gonna let me pay for lunch. They say, ‘No, I got you.’ »

Almost four years later, she says she is still in disbelief.

“I still have to pinch myself,” she said. “Did I dream? »

“Passing the Torch”

As she wanders into Bottega’s kitchen before lunch one morning, Miles exchanges hellos and misses with some of the restaurant family she hasn’t seen since she finally hung up her jacket. chief a few months ago.

“(It) almost brought me to tears,” she says. “I mean, that was my team there. Most of us have been together for a long time, and we share ideas and stuff. And I miss them. I miss everybody.

Miles may be retired, but his cakes, pies and cobblers will live on – at Bottega and Bottega Café, Chez Fonfon and when it will reopenat the Highlands Bar and Grill, where it all started.

“Dol recipes, they can be stained, and they can be worn and torn,” Stitt says, “but . . . ”

“They’re still here,” Miles said, finishing his reflection.

And they are in good hands. The Stitt Restaurant Group’s pastry team has learned from the best, after all.

“I’m passing the torch,” Miles said. “They can handle it. They’re great.”

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