Even before she was a food dignitary, Southern chef and author Virginia Willis possessed the kind of star power that doesn’t remain behind the scenes for long.
The classically French-trained chef’s backstage gigs include an apprenticeship with mentor Nathalie Dupree for PBS, a job with the head of France’s Ecole de Cuisine LaVarenne and a stint as kitchen director for Martha Stewart’s TV series. But it’s her own Southern-meets-French cuisine that has earned her a place in the pantheon of acclaimed cookbook authors.
Where does her own star power originate?
“Undoubtedly, my mama and grandmother influenced me a great deal. I grew up in the kitchen. There are photos of me as young as 3 making biscuits with my grandmother. However, I feel that my friend and mentor Nathalie Dupree took me out of my mother’s kitchen,” says the Atlanta-based chef who will join the lineup of food stars at this year’s Palm Beach Food & Wine Festival in December. “I feel very fortunate to have worked for an incredible selection of super strong, really smart women.”
The author of the 2008 debut cookbook, “Bon Appetit, Y’all,” is putting the finishing touches on her next book, “Lighten Up, Y’all” (Ten Speed Press, March 2015), an ode to healthier Southern cooking.
“I’m super excited about it,” Willis told The Post via email. “It’s 100 recipes with 75 photographs, and is going to retail for under $25. Its’ a collection of recipes for classic Southern comfort food — including Smothered and Covered Chicken and Gravy, Braised Collard Greens, Macaroni and Cheese, and Chocolate Cream Cheese Brownies — made lighter, healthier, and still real food. I want to show that Southern food doesn’t have to be unhealthy!”
The book will reflect Willis’ French influences in recipes such as Bacon-Wilted Baby Kale with Pecan-Crusted Goat Cheese (“Different in that the warm goat cheese disk is served on a slice of apple, not baguette,” she says) and Red Snapper Provencal with Stone-ground Grits and Herbs.
“I’ve also modernized the new Southern kitchen a bit with recipes such as Collard Greens with Chipotle Potlikker, Sweet Tea Brined Turkey Tenderloin, and Peach and Tomato Gazpacho with Cucumber-Herb Yogurt,” says Willis, who confides she’s looking forward to the Palm Beach fest.
In fact, she calls Palm Beach County “one of my favorite places on earth.”
“One of my dearest friends ever lives in West Palm and I adore Palm Beach County. I’ve visited on a regular basis for over 15 years,” she says. “I love the nature. The beaches are absolutely beautiful. I’ve volunteered with sea turtle conservation work. Some folks might disagree with me, but I find it completely unpretentious! Yes, Palm Beach! It’s got a small-town feel that’s so admirable. And, yet, there’s this real big world mentality. It’s a wonderful place. I’m beyond thrilled to be a part of the Palm Beach Food & Wine Festival.”
We asked Willis to tell us about five favorite recent meals.
Here’s her “plate list.”
1. I divide my time between Atlanta and New England. I recently ate at Black Trumpet in Portsmouth, N.H. The Black Trumpet is located on Ceres Street, in one of the historical row of buildings overlooking the historic waterfront. Chef Evan Mallett’s food is inspired, fresh, and thoughtful. He’s very committed to sustainable, local meat, produce, and seafood. He forages in the rivers and woods, works directly with local farmers, and is unrestrained with his global influences. I absolutely love his food.
2. Atlanta is very multicultural and I love taking advantage of the different global cuisines. One of my most favorite recent meals was at a Korean barbecue restaurant called Honey Pig. Honey Pig utilizes the iron-cast lid (aka “Ssot-Dduk-Kung”) method of grilling. Shaped like an upside down wok with a cylindrical handle at the center, the lid is heated by a gas flame beneath and meats, kimchi, and bean sprouts are grilled directly on top. It was phenomenal. I love tasting and seeing new things.
3. I ate at Eleven Madison Park (New York City) last spring and it was amazing. The food was prepared perfectly and the service was excellent. However, it wasn’t just an amazing dinner, it was like being a part of an elaborate theater production from the hand-held antique irons used for the tablecloths to the sommelier who cut the end of the wine bottle off by heating the neck of the bottle to the molecular gastronomy dessert we were served in the kitchen.
4. Several months ago I paid a visit to Boston and ate at Sofra. Oh, my! Such intense flavors. Sofra is inspired by traditional themes from the Middle East and offers a wide array of shawarma, meze, falafel, and flatbread sandwiches. Their selection of pastries and sweets is deliciously exotic but always homespun; novel recreations of Middle Eastern desserts like baklava and ma’amoul are offered alongside more familiar treats like chocolate cookies, sesame-cashew bars and coconut macaroons.
5. I travel a great deal, so one of my favorite meals is a home-cooked meal. Some days just call for simple roast chicken. We buy an organic hen and roast it with garlic, lemon, and herbs. I most often serve it with crispy ratte potatoes from this one stand at the farmer’s market. I might serve it with greens or just a salad. It’s simple, delicious, and perfect meal. Roast chicken is actually my test meal at a restaurant. It’s fairly easy to prepare food hidden by sauces or sous vide sexiness, but if someone can’t roast a chicken, that’s a real problem in my book.
CHEF’S PLATE LIST: THE SERIES
Food stars of this year’s Palm Beach Food & Wine Festival will share their favorite meal memories, eateries and inspirations in this space during the next three months. We’ll feature their “plate lists” and insights in the weeks leading to the festival, which runs from Dec. 11-14.
For tickets and the full festival schedule, visit PBFoodWineFest.com.
Virginia Willis at the fest: The chef is appearing at the festival’s sold-out “Sustain” dinner at PB Catch on Dec. 11, and at the “Chef Welcome Party” at The Breakers on Friday, Dec. 12, from 7 to 10 p.m. ($125 per person). She is also scheduled to appear on a chefs’ trade panel offered for those in the food industry.