Virginia Willis does two things really well in her new cookbook, Lighten up, ya’ll. She is an advocate of the glories of the Southern table and approaches the traditional foods of the South with native appreciation and French-trained skill. She is also an advocate of healthy eating and has written this book to present lighter alternatives to some traditionally heavy dishes. She has not written a diet cookbook (the kind where calories are the bottom line) but a cookbook about delicious food that’s good for you.
Willis says that, “people don’t want to eat food if it doesn’t taste good.” She is also sensitive to the issues of obesity or, as she bluntly states from her own experience, “being fat.” She refers to this gently as a “complex, sensitive, deeply psychological topic.” Her sensitivity on the topic informs her writing. Nowhere in the book is anyone scolded for their appetite or told they shouldn’t ever have a treat. She takes another direction entirely.
Willis says we are fortunate in Georgia to have fresh food nearly all year round and believes when the body is fed whole foods rather than “nutritionally bereft processed food” it is a happy body. She says her approach to diet “is really about balance.” She describes her new book as “the most accessible I’ve ever written.” And it includes not only her signature recipes but healthy eating tips and culinary helpful hints like how to choose the right potato for the right dish.
Growing up on a red dirt road outside of Montezuma in Macon County, Willis had both her mother’s and her grandmother’s kitchens as her childhood playrooms. She remembers her grandmother had a double steel sink and would put her on one side while she shelled peas on the other. By 10, Willis was making cakes for school bake sales. She said she was always happiest in the kitchen.
She attended the University of Georgia and majored in history. Her degree did not prepare her for a career and so she began working in retail at Rich’s. She found herself miserable at 25 and decided she was not supposed to be so unhappy at such an early age.
Willis’ love of cooking led her to ask famous Southern chef Nathalie Dupree if she could be an unpaid apprentice for Dupree’s cooking show on PBS. A year later she was in culinary school in Maryland and then on to Ecole du Cuisine Lavarenne, at Chateau du Fey a Michelin two star restaurant and cooking school led by Anne Willan. She stayed there for three years working along side Willan, Dupree and the chef of chefs, Julia Child. In Burgundy she “saw things she had never seen and tasted things she had never tasted.” She adds that “the longer I stayed in France, the more I knew I had at home in Georgia ingredients that are just as good.”
Willis has written five cookbooks now. One on grits, another on okra and two compendiums of Southern recipes, Bon Appetite, Ya’ll and Basic to Brilliant, Ya’ll. In addition to writing cookbooks she has been developing commercial recipes for Martha McMillan’s Preserving Place. Her Georgia Peach Chili Jam is a favorite and her Onion Confit has won prizes. She applies the same diligence whether she is developing a commercial recipe or one for one of her cookbooks. She types out the recipe and tests it as written. She makes notes and modifications to find a recipe that is the best it can possibly be. If she can’t get it right – Grade A for Willis – in three tries, the recipe won’t be used.
Testing recipes and writing cookbooks have been some of the least of Willis’ adventures. After working with her mentor Dupree on a cooking show, she had similar jobs working with Martha Stewart and Bobby Flay. She calls Stewart, “an amazing business person” and says she learned a lot from working on her celebrity studded show (a highlight was hearing special guest Aretha Franklin sing “Silent Night.”) Willis also cooked lunch for President Clinton and catered a bowling party for Jane Fonda. Even so her favorite celebrity moment was cooking with Julia Child in France where, “we were just two people in the kitchen.” She adds she pinched herself to see if she might be dreaming. She describes Child as always polite and always asking questions. Willis says that “not all culinary superstars are as gracious as Julia.”
For Willis food is about much more than cooking, it is about giving back. As a member of the board of the Atlanta Community Food Bank, one of the premier food banks in the country, she is committed to helping people who are “food insecure.” She says, “People would be shocked to know 1 in 4 children in Georgia are food insecure — they don’t have enough to eat when they go home from school.” Willis does her utmost to get the message out to raise funds and food donations.” She believes that food insecurity is linked to obesity and poor health because fast and processed foods are cheap. She is also active in Les Dames d’Escoffier, a sisterhood of chefs that supports the food bank, organic farming and has raised over $100,000 in scholarship moneys for women who aspire to become chefs (Willis herself once received a scholarship from this group.)
Virginia Willis, whose food blog has received widespread praise, has also been designated a Georgia Grown Chef by GPB and is currently in negotiations for her on cooking show with another PBS affiliate. She will bring her book to this year’s Decatur Book Festival where she will appear with her friend Rebecca Lang on Saturday, Sept. 5, at 5:30-6:15 p.m. on the Food & Cooking stage presented by Springer Mountain Farms.
Franklin Abbott is an Atlanta psychotherapist, poet and consultant. For more, visit franklinabbott.com.