Spotlight On: Chef Virginia Willis

Southern chef, cookbook author, award-winning food writer, blogger, and one of our Top Chefs to Follow On Instagram, Viriginia Willis is one of the most popular and respected faces in Southern cooking. We were able to catch up with one of the busiest women in the south, Chef Virginia Willis, to discuss how she got to where she is and what's next.

Hometown:

I divide my time between Atlanta and Western Massachusetts. My family is from Evans, GA.

How would you describe your cooking style?

Refined Southern Cuisine - it's bon appetit, y'all - that blend of French techniques and Southern ingredients.

Who is your role model?

I've been fortunate enough to work for some really amazing women - Martha Stewart, Anne Willan, Nathalie Dupree, Nora Pouillon. Martha is a marketing genius. Anne is one of the most dedicated workers I have ever met. Nathalie is revered for her "down-to-earth-ness", and Nora was instrumental in helping create the USDA organic standards and chef-owner of the first certified organic restaurant in the country. I've taken a bit from each of them as my role model.

You have traveled all over, which region or place do you think has the best food to offer and why? 

Well, I love France, there's no doubt about that since I've lived, worked, and traveled there often over the years. It's hard to choose one place! I think the part that I really love about travel is the exposure to different ingredients and cooking techniques. Every single bite I put in my mouth is part of my career, part of my vocation. This summer, in Alaska, we enjoyed freshly caught halibut topped with homemade togarashi made with sea weed collected from the adjacent cove.

Describe the best meal that you have ever eaten.

One of my most memorable meals happened when I was living and working in France. My friend and mentor Natalie Dupree was traveling in Europe and stopped by Chateau du Fey in Burgundy, home to Ecole de Cuisine LaVarenne, where I worked. She, her husband, and I spent the day touring about the gorgeous countryside and had lunch with Marc Meneau's L'Esperance in Saint-Pere-sous-Vezelay. It was, at the time, a Michelin three-star restaurant and the entire experience was beyond phenomenal. The food, the atmosphere, the company - just being at a restaurant of that caliber with Natalie was an absolute dream come true. It's a very special memory. 

If you could only eat one thing for the rest of your life what would it be?

Oh gosh! What a question! I think that it might have to be collard greens.

What is your favorite local Atlanta restaurant or bar?

Choosing one favorite place would very literally be like choosing one friend over the other. For fine dining I like Bacchanalia and Restaurant Eugene. I really enjoy what Steven does why vegetables at Miller Union. Todd Ginsburg's work at General Muir is outstanding. I recently ate at Sooban in Decatur and it was incredible. Jiyeon and Cody are very talented and innovative. There's so much great food in Atlanta. I really truly couldn't choose just one.

 

What do you feel are the most important factors when pulling together a complete dish?

Balance. Thoughtfulness. Intent. Technique. 

If you could cook for anyone, living or dead, who would it be?

I'd really like to cook at the Beard House, so I guess the answer to that is NYC foodies! I haven't yet and it's a goal, a goal that I am certain I will one day make happen. It's a bit more challenging for me because I am not a restaurant chef, but all the more reason for me to try!

What's next for you?

I'll have some big news to announce pretty soon, that I am not quite at liberty to share the details of just yet... I can say that I am in serious and significant talks with public broadcasting for a series that celebrates what Southern Food is and has become, a globally influenced, world-rich cuisine. 

If you could offer one piece of advice to aspiring chefs what would it be?

Raise your hand, volunteer, and always try to do more. Try to anticipate what needs to happen next and don't wait to be told what to do next.

The breakfast of this champion is:

Lately, I've been really enjoying yogurt with savory toppings for breakfast. So, a dollop of 2% Greek yogurt with chopped tomato, maybe some sautéed onions, or even vegetables left over from the night before. Then, a dusting of pepper or piment d'Espelette and a drizzle of olive oil and it's good to go. It's been an absolute revelation.

Follow Virginia: 

 
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Writer bio: Deana Panza writes about restaurant technology, tips, and trends for Split - a platform for mobile ordering, marketing, payments.