I am excited to share this special interview with Chef Virginia Willis. As the new kid on social media food block it’s especially exciting to meet Super Hero Chefs. It’s even more of a thrill when they turn out to be as gracious and kind as they are talented in the kitchen … as is Chef Virginia Willis.
In our interview Chef Willis takes us into her world of working with some of the best chefs like Julia Child, Martha Stewart, Bobby Flay and Natalie Dupree. She shares her views about social media for chefs, the changing world of food TV and her vision of where southern cooking is headed. And gives us an extra special treat … a recipe from her soon to be published cookbook Lighten up y’all.
Photo credit of Chef Virgina Willis: Angie Mosier
Diva Foodies: Chef Willis, your commitment to follow your passion for food has taken you down many roads. You trained as a chef at L’Academie de Cuisine and LaVarenne; however, instead of life as a restaurant chef, you went the direction of TV Kitchen Producer/Director. Why?
Chef Virginia Willis: My first job cooking was as an apprentice on a cooking show for Nathalie Dupree. After the taping, I asked Nathalie if I could continue to apprentice and did so both before and after culinary school. I have worked in restaurants – I worked for Nora Pouillon in Washington DC as well as at the Michelin-starred L’Essentiel for Jean Michel Bouvier in France. However, from the very beginning, I have worked more in the media and writing side of the culinary profession.
Chef Virginia Willis:
- I like to say that Nathalie took me out of my mother’s kitchen. She exposed me to so much more in classic French cooking and indeed, global cooking.
- My position as kitchen director for Bobby Flay’s TV show was my first job in television outside of Nathalie. It was in NYC and therefore a big jump in my career.
- Working for Martha was hugely instrumental in my career. She’s phenomenal and has so many talented people working for her. I learned just how important it is to be as good as you possibly can be, to do the very best job you possibly can.
Diva Foodies: In life we learn from each other. What do you think these chefs learned from you?
Chef Virginia Willis: Ha! I have never thought about that – I hope that you are indeed correct!
- Perhaps Nathalie learned about dedication. She saw just how determined I was to learn.
- Bobby was just starting out with television and I think he learned how to work with a different kind of kitchen team.
- Martha has continued to be a huge supporter. With her, it was more practical. She’s very smart and really does like to learn something new everyday. I was able to teach her more about real Southern cooking.
Diva Foodies: I love reading cookbooks. The very best ones, at least for me, combine elements of storytelling. Your cookbooks beautifully incorporate tales from your childhood. Why was it important for you to build your books this way?
Chef Virginia Willis: All along my desire for my first book, Bon Appetit, Y’all was that it was to be the recipes from the three generations – my grandmother, mother, and myself. It was only organic and natural to me to share the stories, as well. My exposure to homemade food, fresh ingredients, and good cooking shaped my palate and indeed, eventually shaped my career and entire life.
Diva Foodies: In general, how important is it for a writer-chef to weave personal experiences into her cookbook? How do you think it impacts sales?
Chef Virginia Willis:
Each writer has to find their own path.
For some, it makes sense to tell those personal stories. I am a cook and a storyteller. Those personal stories have everything to do with me actually being a culinary professional. I personally find the stories behind the food and how that food is a part of the greater world very interesting and intriguing. It’s clear my readers do, as well. However, it’s not right for every author or every cookbook.
Photo Credit: Instagram. Chef Willis Cooks Warehouse cooking demonstration
Diva Foodies: If we promise not to tell, what do you think is the secret of being a Southern Chef?
Chef Virginia Willis: I am not sure the secret of being a Southern chef, specifically or how that might be different from any other geographical region! And, what I do as a cook, writer, and content creator is quite different than a restaurateur. What I personally try to do is continue to explore, learn, and taste. I read, I study, and I cook. I am dedicated to what I do; food and cooking are at the very center of my life. It’s important to do a good job and stay focused.
I believe in good ingredients, sound technique, and respect of the discipline of cooking and hope to show that in all aspects of my work.
Diva Foodies: Prime time programming on the Food Network has change from what we’d call the Julia Child style shows to contests and competitions. What would it take for a chef to pull high ratings in prime time without the game? Think it will ever happen?
Chef Virginia Willis: Oh, it’s one of my loudest laments!! I was a contestant on Chopped and am very glad that I participated. I just don’t think I will choose to compete in any other shows. Having said that, I’m not sure a non-competitive show will ever be as successful as something like Top Chef, or even Chopped. Top Chef is a soap opera as much as it is a competition.
Diva Foodies: What we’re call the “new digital food networks” are gaining traction and taking away viewers from broadcast TV food shows. What are your thoughts of channels like Munchies, from Vice Media, where the chefs are edgier and spicier than mainstream media Food-TV?
Chef Virginia Willis: I firmly believe that a rising tide floats all boats and think it’s great that there are more avenues for good content. It’s really, really hard an/or very expensive to have a TV cooking show. And, most of the networks are primarily interested in competition cooking shows.
The internet allows for more people to share their wisdom and ideas to educate, or their humor to entertain. And, just like on TV, some content on the web is good and some is not.
Diva Foodies: With young chefs doing innovative work, Atlanta is turning into an interesting food town. Where do you see the Atlanta Food Scene heading?
Chef Virginia Willis: Atlanta has a thriving food scene. The connection between farm to fork is very strong. We have a food community that works very well together. The “new Southern” kitchen is firmly in place and celebrated. I think what is next is the exploration of the global South. Atlanta is both Korean bulogi and BBQ, it’s catfish and kimchee, and it’s cornbread and chapatti.
I think that what will happen next is there will be more global Southern cuisine.
Diva Foodies: To say your life is busy is an understatement. However, you use social media including blogs, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest to market your brand. As we know social media is extremely time consuming. How important is social media in creating awareness and building community for your brand including your cookbooks?
Chef Virginia Willis: Social media allows me to be in touch, it allows me to share the fun things I get to do. My brand, my writing, my work is all very personal. I keep my social media keenly focused on only food-related things. No politics and no cat videos. Or, that’s not exactly true. I travel and lot and occasionally post about my sightings of questionable airport apparel!
I am often not sure what the “return on investment is” for social media. Just because I have 36K Twitter fans, does that mean that 36K will buy my book or read my blog? It’s highly unlikely, but it does allow for me to at least communicate with potential buyers and viewers. It’s become incredible important criteria for publishers.
In terms of companies that might want to hire me for spokesperson work, recipe development work, and writing it’s a major piece, too. The package might include an agreement to post on social media the article they pay me to write or to post about the recipe I develop for them.
Social media has become part of our world and our work.
— Food Network (@FoodNetwork) October 16, 2014
Sidebar: Chef Willis’ Brown Sugar Apple Crisp has become one of my favorites!
Diva Foodies: For other chefs who maybe thinking of going in that direction, how do you fit social media into your schedule without it consuming your life?
Chef Virginia Willis: It’s on my phone and I do a lot there. When I am on deadline I log out and take it off my favorites bar on my computer. I do all my social media myself so it remains authentic. Once again, it goes back to return – Facebook doesn’t directly pay me, nor Instagram or Pinterest or any other social media platform.
It can lead to a false sense of worth, I think and it’s important to keep things in perspective. I recognize the value, but if I am “goofing off” on Facebook, I am actually not directly working increase revenue.
Diva Foodies: I tried really hard not to ask this question, but I’m afraid of the virtual tomatoes thrown from our community if I don’t ask. Would you tell us one Julia Child story, please?
Chef Virginia Willis: Julia Child was very dear friends with Anne Willan. (Anne opened LaVarenne at the urging of Julia and James Beard.) Julia would come to visit and spend a few weeks at a time at Chateau du Fey in Northern Burgundy where I lived and worked. It was completely surreal. Some moments it would be just another person in the room and moments later it was the knee-knocking, faint-inducing, and incredibly humbling realization I was cooking with Julia Child herself in a kitchen in France. She was one of the very reasons I was cooking to begin with and indeed, why I had travelled to France. It was beyond amazing.
She was always very inquisitive and nice to everyone – especially the folks in the kitchen. She wasn’t conceited and it taught me a lot to see her kindness.
Diva Foodies: What’s next for Virginia Willis? Any thoughts about stepping out from behind the camera and computer to perhaps a digital food show? We’d support you!
Chef Virginia Willis: Thank you for your kind words! I would love to spend more time in front of the camera. I love to learn, teach, and explore. I think that there are plenty of people that would watch. I’m working on the right opportunity, either online or on television. I’m not convinced all people want to watch is competitive cooking shows.
And, I firmly believe that education and entertainment are not mutually exclusive. I think there is a place for both.
DivaFoodies: A very important question … where can we buy your buy your cookbooks?
Sidebar: Chef Willis’ new cookbook Lighten up y’all will be ready to ship 3-3-15 but you can preorder now! It would make a wonderful holiday gift. Print the cover graphic, put it in a pretty wrapped box. Vola! a present now and your friend will have something to look forward to during the dreary end of winter.
Reprinted with permission from Lighten Up, Y’all by Virginia Willis, copyright (c) 2015.Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc. Photography (c) 2015 by Angie Mosier.
Special Treat From Chef Willis For The Diva Foodies Community!
Chef Willis kindly gave us a receipe from her new cookbook Lighten up y’all to post long with her interview.
Braised Collards in Tomato-Onion Gravy
A few years ago, I was visiting my cousin Gene and his wife, Kathy, in Fort Valley, Georgia, and teaching a class at a local cooking school. We needed collard greens, so I told the owner I needed two bunches. She drove down the street to a pickup truck parked nearby and came back with two “bunches.” Well, these bunches easily contained two or three monster-size bundles, so big that I had to hug them with both hands. We laughed for hours about the size of Fort Valley collards.
Traditional Southern collards are cooked with fatback, ham hock, or bacon grease. There’s a lot of flavor in that fat, so when you eliminate it, you need to bump up the flavor elsewhere. Charring the tomatoes before adding them to the gravy is a great way to add a smoky, umami-rich note without adding fat or calories.
4 ripe, medium Roma tomatoes, cored
2 teaspoons canola oil
1 sweet onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves
Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
16 cups chopped collard greens (1 pound)
Heat a medium skillet over high heat. Add the cored tomatoes and cook until they are charred on all sides, about 5 minutes. Remove to the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade.
Let the skillet cool slightly by taking it off the heat or decreasing the heat, depending on how smoking-hot your skillet is. Have the heat at low and add the oil (the skillet will still hold a great deal of heat). Add the onion and garlic, and sauté, stirring occasionally, until both are a deep golden-brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and let them cool slightly. Transfer to the food processor bowl containing the reserved charred tomato, and process until smooth. Transfer the mixture to a large saucepan. Cook over medium-low heat until thickened, 5 to 7 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
Add the chopped collards and cook until just tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Serve warm.
Calories 72 Fat 2 g Carbs 11 g Fiber 5 g Protein 4 g
Reprinted with permission from Lighten Up, Y’all by Virginia Willis, copyright (c) 2015. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc.
DivaFoodies: We’d like to toss the virtual mic back to you to wrap up in any way you’d like.
Chef Virginia Willis: Thanks so much for your interest! It’s a pleasure to be on DivaFoodies.