Renowned southern chef, author wows JSL
By LEILA CASE
AMERICUS — Georgia native Virginia Willis, cookbook author and chef, has cooked her way around the world.
Having worked with some of the more notables in the profession, Willis has remained grounded in her southern roots, and today is an accomplished southern food writer, culinary consultant, recipe developer, television producer and author of five cookbooks.
“I feel blessed and fortunate to do what I do for a living,” Willis told members of the Junior Service League (JSL) at its annual spring luncheon held recently, where she was guest speaker. Introduced by Christie Umbleby, JSL president, Willis kept everyone entertained with candid stories and anecdotes about her professional career that began in her mid-20s.
“My love of cooking began when I was a child, making biscuits in my grandmother’s kitchen in Augusta. I was so small, I had to stand in a chair to reach the counter top,” revealed Willis, speaking to the large gathering at the John M. Pope Center on the campus of South Georgia Technical College.
Although she has lived, worked and studied in such places as Atlanta, New York and France, she is not a stranger to southwest Georgia.
“We moved to Montezuma when I was seven and I studied my freshman year at Georgia Southwestern [College],” said Willis, elaborating on how much she admired the beauty of the countryside on the drive to Americus. “This is one of the prettiest sections of Georgia; you have to leave a place to appreciate what you have.”
Additionally, she told members how impressed she is with the major impact the organization makes through their volunteer efforts in the community to make it a better place to live.
“I am really amazed that active members devoted more than 4,000 volunteer hours to various service programs last year,” she said.
Willis, 49, has enjoyed a storied career doing what she loves most: cooking. A graduate of the University of Georgia, Athens, and history major, but she didn’t enter into that career field, opting instead to devote her professional life to her love of cooking.
Focusing her talk on what food means, Willis’ warm personality and enthusiasm reflects her southern roots.
“Food does more than nourish, and to me it gives me my place in the world,” she said, elaborating: “You reflect what is at the end of your fork: art, education, culture, and religion because what we eat is how people interact at the table.”
She pointed out, “Cooking in the kitchen is a sensory experience: sight, sound, smell — I love the smells of the kitchen, the central part of the house where everyone gathers. My grandmother, Meme, the love of my life and mentor, taught me how to love your life and the rich history of southern food. One of the important things about living in the South is that we have a rich agriculture industry and have something growing almost year round.”
Willis’ first professional job was as an apprentice for Natalie Dupree’s TV cooking show on PBS.
“She took me out of my grandmother’s kitchen and she exposed me to a world I didn’t know nor had seen,” said Willis. “I knew that meringue was the topping for lemon pie Meme made, but I didn’t know how to beat the egg whites in a big copper bowl until they are so stiff that if you turned the bowl upside down the meringue wouldn’t fall out!”
Dupree encouraged Willis to study at L’Academie de Cuisine near Washington, D.C., and then Ecole de Cuisine LaVareene, training under Anne Willen at the school in Chateau du Fey in Burgundy, France. She pointed out Willen founded the first English speaking cooking school in France.
“I was to be there for three months but I was so homesick,” said Willis. “My southern accent and French accent don’t go together. Fortunately, I overcame my homesickness and the three months turned into three years. It was a wonderful experience and through Ms. Willen I met the renowned chef, cookbook author, Julia Child, and was her assistant for a week. It was awesome.”
Willis returned to the states and to New York where she landed the job as kitchen director for Bobby Fey on Food Network TV and later worked at that same position with Martha Stewart in the late 1990s when the show was at its height.
“Working for Martha was an amazing, incredible but intense experience,” says Willis. “She’s surrounded by many intelligent people — she has every cooking tool we needed. I learned a lot from her and she has continued to be very supportive of me.”
After three years Willis found the two-hour, one-way commute from her home in New York to Stewart’s studio too wearing, and returned to the city where she landed what she called the “jackpot” job as the producer of Epicurious on The Discovery Channel, an experience that took her to places around the world. However, following the horrendous 9/11 attack on the city, she decided to move to Atlanta and continued to work in television for Turner Studios.
“I love working in television — it provides an opportunity for me to entertain,” said Willis.
Then in 2008 she wrote her first cookbook, “Bon Appetit, Y’all,” an experience she points out changed her life. “The publisher sent me on a national book tour that increased my exposure. It was wonderful and I met so many people through my travels.
“I love southern cooking — I know all about it but it doesn’t have to all be unhealthy and full of fat, butter and sugar. Through cooking, I have learned a lot about life: faith that there is a higher power; seasoning and knowing when to adjust is important in food as well as in life; laissez-faire, sometimes you have to know when to keep hands off and leave something alone; patience that things will come in time, and lastly dedication.”
Willis said she is currently developing a series called “Secrets of the Southern Table: A Food Lover’s Tour of the Global South” to air nationally on public television stations. She recently signed with Southern Living magazine as a columnist, revealing her first column will appear in the September issue, and she has an array of business clients that range from Whole Foods to Coca Cola.
Following the luncheon, Willis graciously signed huge stacks of copies of her cookbooks for those who purchased them. It was a successful venture — the cookbooks sold out in short time.