Atlanta's Virginia Willis and Her South

The world tugged at her apron strings, but the South controlled her heart.

Photo by: Scott M. Porush The Georgia native takes her culinary skills all over the world, but the South will always be home. 

Though she honed her culinary skills in France and lived in New York City for a good portion of her career, Chef Virginia Willis is unmistakably all about the South. The Georgia native and University of Georgia graduate speaks with an accent as sweet as molasses and her hospitality knows no rivals. All graciousness aside, this woman is hell in the kitchen and soon to be a household name.

Willis not only authored two outstanding cookbooks, Bon Appétit, Y'all! and Basic to Brilliant, Y'all, but The Chicago Tribune recently named her as one of “Seven Food Writers You Need to Know.” We concur. She’s stood shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Bobby Flay, Julia Child, Martha Stewart and mentor Nathalie Dupree. Her impressive credentials and television appearances are too many to list and only continue to grow.

And though she travels the world teaching, lecturing and, of course, cooking, Chef Willis once again makes Atlanta her home base. We caught up with her to find out her favorite things about our city and why she will always bleed red clay.

Q: Why did you decide to come back to Georgia after France and New York?

Bon Appétit, Y'all: Recipes and Stories from Three Generations of Southern Cooking pays homage to the women and the region that made Willis the chef she is. 

A: The decision to return to Georgia was very much a part of Sept. 11. In the economic aftermath I lost my job. I had also been injured on a shoot for the Discovery Channel and my physical therapy wasn't going well. Living in New York was hard and horrible. Months after the 9/11 attacks I was walking down the West Side Highway listening to the sound of sirens racing up from Ground Zero with tears running down my cheeks. I realized I wanted to go home. I had been away for nearly 10 years and I just wanted to go home. I love the South. Atlanta is the perfect amount of city for me and with Hartsfield-Jackson I can go anywhere, anytime.

Q: What are your favorite places to food shop, eat and drink in Atlanta?

A: I love the Cook's Warehouse for kitchenware and Star Provisions is a piece of heaven for me. In terms of farmer's markets, I'm thrilled to have them all thriving everywhere in town, but I think the Grant Park Farmer's Market is really special. The setting is beautiful and there are lots of families of all shapes, sizes and colors. The kids are playing in the park instead of on a handheld electronic game. For my day-to-day shopping, I am a Whole Foods fanatic and appreciate their support of local, sustainable and organic. I find that for the quality and quantity of choices, it's my go-to grocery.

There are so many great restaurants to choose from in Atlanta. A great deal depends on my mood, what I want to taste and the overall experience. Many of the restaurant chefs are my friends as well. So, I guess the short version of this answer is that I am not going to answer! I like chef-driven, privately owned restaurants that exemplify food that has a place. I like seeing Will Harris' White Oak Pastures beef and Riverview Farms pork on these menus. I like knowing that I not only know the chef, but I also know the farmer. I appreciate attention to detail and fine technique. I appreciate kitchens and chefs that are respectful of the food.

I honestly cannot tell you the last time I went to an out-and-out bar! Canoe is right around the corner from me and it's a beautiful setting for a glass of wine when the weather is right. I am somewhat of a purist and don't try many of the offerings from the mixologists about town, but JCT. Kitchen & Bar has a nice area for cocktails and conversation. I also like the Ritz-Carlton in Buckhead or the St. Regis for an exceptionally civilized evening. Sometimes what really makes the perfect drink is residential furniture.

The subtitle of Chef Willis' second cookbook explains it all: 150 Refined Southern Recipes and Ways to Dress Them Up for Company. 

Q: Tell us about why cooking and food is an important part of your life.

A: I have a very firm belief that everything that we touch in life and how we react to it involves the food we eat. Politics, art, education, culture -- everything is reflected in the food we put in our mouths. I am thrilled to be able to make a living from work that I love to do. It's intensely gratifying. My personal life and professional life are very much intertwined. Cooking allows me to soar and grounds me at the same time. I cannot imagine doing anything else.

Q: What do you love most about Georgia?

A: I think one of my favorite parts about Georgia is our long growing season, which has created a strong and vibrant food culture that includes old-fashioned Southern, new white tablecloth Southern, and multi-cultural Southern. We've got biscuits and authentic banh mi, peanuts and real Italian pizza, fried chicken and steak frites. I am proud to be from Georgia and embrace both the challenges and advantages of living in the South.

Q: Who is your Southern hero or mentor?

A: Nathalie Dupree is my mentor in the Southern kitchen. She's a very important part of my life and has been for 20 years. My mother and my grandmother instilled the love of food and cooking in me. Nathalie took me out of their kitchens and exposed me to food, techniques and experiences I had never seen or experienced. She helped me choose L'Academie de Cuisine for culinary school, shepherded me to France to work for Anne Willan at Ecole de Cuisine LaVarenne, and even helped me get my foot in the door at Martha Stewart in New York. Our relationship has grown and evolved, and I am no longer an apprentice or junior colleague, but I will always be one of her "little chickens."

Learn more about Chef Virginia Willis at her website where you can download recipes, read her blog and purchase cookbooks. 










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