Georgia-born chef Virginia Willis reclaims the South’s agrarian roots. Photography by Jade + Matthew Take Pictures.
It’s not often the universe conspires to bring the pages of this magazine to life in such unexpected ways. Yet, that’s just what happened when our May/June culinary muse Libbie Summers partnered with the renewed Smith Brothers Butcher Shop—and the subject of our Covered Dish profile—to host an urban farm dinner with guest chef and Georgia native Virginia Willis.
Amid the sparkling cases of properly cut meats, gourmet to-go readymades, freshly cut bouquets, Walker Organics produce, wine-laden shelves and a cookbook library—a cookbook library!—diners feasted family-style on a menu Libbie selected from Virginia’s latest release, Lighten Up, Y’all, giving some of the dishes her own sweet and vicious twist.
“Whenever I’m a guest in someone’s kitchen like this, I send them a book and let them choose,” says Virginia after a day of sharing kitchen duties with her pal, Libbie, and her new friend, Smith Brothers’ Chef Abby. “I guide them, but I let them choose the recipes they’re most interested in trying. Of course, Libbie’s fantastic and she designed a brilliant menu. She originally just wanted me to show up and be a guest of honor, but finally said, ‘Okay, you can come and be in the kitchen at noon.’ I love being in the kitchen; it’s my favorite place.”
The third in Virginia’s trilogy of cookbooks with Ten Speed Press celebrating her Southern heritage was inspired by her own personal journey to lose weight and live healthier. But, she doesn’t feel as if Lighten Up, Y’all is rescuing Southern food.
“I feel like it more completes the picture, this return to vegetables,” she explains, sharing that she lost 40 pounds while working on the cookbook. “We have a 10-month growing season. That’s what I tried to incorporate more of into this book.”
As she toured with her first two cookbooks, Bon Apetit, Y’all and Basic to Brilliant, Y’all, she got tired of people telling her Southern food was unhealthy. “All Southern food is not unhealthy! Fresh black-eyed peas or butter beans with just an ounce of bacon or fat back? For instance, the cover of the book—it’s macaroni and cheese, but I took out half the pasta and replaced it with broccoli. When in doubt, add okra.”
Okra punctuated the vegetable cornbread, expertly paired with an asparagus salad (upon which I crumbled the cornbread into savory croutons). It was the second course to a meal that began with a crisply chilled peach-tomato gazpacho charmingly served in stubby glass jars and with a clean, effervescent prosecco. A silken beef tenderloin wrapped around spinach and parmesan cheese came out next, along with smoky collards and a pear-sweet potato-bleu cheese gratin—the sleeper hit of the meal.
When the strawberry-rhubarb compote served with brown sugar shortcakes arrived, guest Jade McCully declared, “I have a separate stomach for dessert,” and we all laughed, knowing it’s a happy affliction shared by the food-obsessed.
“It’s not about giving up or going without,” says Virginia. “It’s about changing the way you think. Food that’s good and good for you can still be delicious.”