By Patrick Yeagle
He served three presidents, catered three gubernatorial inaugurations and met entertainers ranging from Ted Nugent to the Stone Temple Pilots. He’s credited with serving more than one million meals in his lifetime, but more than any of that, Brown Hitt was most proud of his family.
“He loved being a dad, a grandfather and an uncle,” says Collin Hitt, the elder Hitt’s son. “There are so many kids in this town today for a whole generation who think of him as an uncle. That was him at his best.”
James Brown Hitt III died Feb. 26 at the age of 63. He was a prominent caterer, chef and restaurant consultant around Springfield, loved by many for his sense of humor and heralded for his self-taught skills in the kitchen.
Hitt, known to many people in Springfield simply as Brown, was born on Fathers Day in 1953. He grew up in New Berlin on a farm settled by his family in the 1830s. Hitt started his career in the food service industry as a bartender during college at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. He left school and returned to Springfield, where he started working for Ed McHenry at The Barrel Head pub in the mid-1970s.
McHenry, who owns Amber Jack Ale House with his wife Kitty, remembers Hitt’s consistent wit and intelligence.
“There was really never a dull moment with him,” McHenry said. “Brown always said what was on his mind, and I always liked that about him. He didn’t know how to beat around the bush.”
McHenry says Hitt’s cooking was always on point, even if it was, as McHenry puts it, “by the seat of his pants.”
“He knew more about cooking than anybody I ever knew,” he said. “The best thing was he knew how to blend different tastes and seasonings to come up with a unique flavor or something that would make it better. I always marveled at that.”
Hitt cut his teeth at several legacy Springfield eateries, including the former Opera House and former Pepe Giuseppe’s restaurants in Vinegar Hill Mall. He also managed the cafeteria in the State of Illinois’ Stratton Building and the former Rathskeller cafeteria in the basement of the Illinois Capitol Building in the 1980s.
Springfield entrepreneur Bill Stokes remembers Hitt’s collection of exotic spices and his unique ability to make any menu gourmet.
“He was a gourmet in everything he did,” Stokes recalled. “Nothing he did could be duplicated by anyone very easily.”
Stokes first met Hitt in the 1990s, when Hitt was working for Arena Food Service, a Springfield-based catering business. Hitt catered some of Stokes’ parties, and the two became friends outside of business.
“He was the type of guy who when you had something to talk about that was interesting or sophisticated, he had an opinion, and it was always spot on,” Stokes said. “The memory I have of him makes him alive in my mind and spirit.”
Hitt worked for a short time as chef at Illini Country Club and eventually became a restaurant consultant, says his son, Collin Hitt. The younger Hitt estimates that his father served as many as one million meals and cocktails during his career, and his love for cooking was fueled by the enjoyment of making people happy.
“It was a craft and a calling to him, and he was good at it,” Collin Hitt said. “He had a perfect sense of the role that food should play at any given moment.”
Although Brown Hitt often served dignitaries and famous figures, his favorite functions were weddings and funerals.
“Those are such personal moments in peoples’ lives, where food could make people happy or help them with what they’re going through,” Collin Hitt said. “He knew when the food was supposed to be front and center or off to the side, and it always had to be good.”
Brown Hitt had a great sense of humor, his son says, and he never stopped joking.
“You could never find a moment where Dad wasn’t trying to say something funny,” Collin Hitt said. “He wasn’t always successful, but with reward comes risk.”
However, the kitchen was the one place Brown Hitt was serious.
“He thought it was important to get things right,” Collin Hitt said.
Family was so important to Brown Hitt that every vacation was spent visiting relatives, says the younger Hitt, noting that being a grandfather was his father’s “best role.”
“He loved his family,” Collin Hitt said. “He was excellent at food, and people loved him as a bartender, but once he became a grandpa, it was a perfect fit. He loved being a grandfather and was so good at it.”
Contact Patrick Yeagle at firstname.lastname@example.org.