Virginia Willis, award-winning chef, cookbook author got start in kitchen in Evans



With a PBS series in the works, a prestigious culinary award and a forthcoming monthly column in Southern Living Magazine, Virginia Willis is renowned in the culinary world, and she can trace her cooking roots to her grandmother’s kitchen on Fury’s Ferry Road in Evans.

“We were always in that kitchen. I have a photo of me when I was 3 or 4 making biscuits with her. She had tremendous gardens in the front and back of the house. I remember canning and freezing. She had scuppernong vines, and we made jelly,” said Willis, whose newest book, Lighten Up Y’all: Classic Southern Recipes Made Healthy and Wholesome, recently received the 2016 James Beard Foundation Award for Excellence in the Focus on Health category.

Willis was born in the area but moved away at an early age. Despite living in Louisiana and southern Georgia, she spent numerous summers at the home of her grandparents, Sam and Louise Baston. Her mother, Virginia “Jenny” Willis, and her sister, Jona Willis, currently live in Evans, and Willis’ mom also greatly influenced her daughter’s cooking.

On Willis’ journey to becoming a chef, she has lived in various parts of the world including apprenticing with Anne Willan in Burgundy, France, where Willis met Julia Child. She’s a former TV kitchen director for Martha Stewart Living, Bobby Flay and Nathalie Dupree. She’s appeared on numerous shows including Chopped, Martha Stewart Living and Paula’s (Deen) Best Dishes. She served as a judge on Throwdown with Bobby Flay.

She’s currently working on a PBS series called Secrets of the Southern Table: A Food Lover’s Tour of the Global South with WGBH in Boston, and her Southern Living column will begin in the fall.

While all of Willis’ cookbooks have a Southern flair, her current book brought her back to her Columbia County roots and some of those Southern comfort foods she grew up eating.

In her travels, Willis has found that many people equate Southern food with fatty and unhealthy foods; however, she said that’s not completely accurate.

Thinking of Southern food in terms of only fried chicken is the same as thinking of Italian food as only spaghetti and Mexican food as only burritos, she said.

She remembers those summers of fresh fruits and vegetables pulled from her grandparents’ gardens, and how those items were the main focus of the table. How they’ve been prepared in Southern kitchens hasn’t always been healthy however.

She looked at her own eating habits and decided to lighten up some recipes. In the process, she lost 40 pounds and wrote her newest book. What she didn’t want to do was lose the flavor. Butter and other fats are often the source of flavor in Southern foods.

“I wanted to maximize flavors not make radical changes – trim a little here and there,” she said. “If you want to have fried chicken, have fried chicken, but don’t have it every day.”

Lighten Up Y’all joins her other books, Bon Appetit, Y’all and Basic to Brilliant, Y’all, Okra: A Savor the South Cookbook and Grits.

Lighten Up Y’all has a wide assortment of revamped Southern recipes in every category. Calorie cutting options include a yogurt pie crust, a made over macaroni and cheese and biscuits with turkey sausage gravy.

There’s also a section of vegetable recipes including creamed corn-stuffed tomatoes, summer squash casserole and summer squash lasagna. And speaking of fried chicken, there’s a recipe for “oven-fried chicken-on-a-stick with Vidalia honey mustard dipping sauce” on page 125. The new book also features this recipe for Basil-Peach Chicken Breasts.




3 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (1½ pounds)

Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon pure olive oil

1 shallot, thinly sliced

1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger

2 garlic cloves, very finely chopped

12 basil leaves, finely chopped, plus more whole leaves for garnish

1 cup homemade chicken stock or reduced-fat, low-sodium chicken broth

4 large peaches, peeled, pitted, and sliced ¼-inch thick (about 2 cups)

Georgia produces over 130 million pounds of peaches a year. Some states may grow more, including South Carolina and California, but Georgia is deservedly known as “The Peach State,” the result of the efforts of a farmer in Marshallville, Georgia, who bred the Elberta peach from the seed of a Chinese cling peach in the late 1800s. I am loyal to Georgia peaches. My high school was located in Marshallville, Georgia – in the middle of the state, with school breaks dictated by peach season, and with many of my classmates being the sons and daughters of Georgia farmers. The red clay and the hot sun create a taste unlike no other.

Bright and slightly sweet, peaches and basil are a great flavor combination. The technique of starting the chicken on the stovetop and finishing in the oven helps prevent dry, overcooked chicken. The flavorful jus is fresh and clean, much lighter than a flour-thickened gravy.

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Pat the chicken dry on both sides with paper towels. Season the chicken on both sides with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a large ovenproof nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add the chicken and cook until browned, about 2 minutes per side. Remove to a plate and set aside.

Decrease the heat. Add the shallot and cook until translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the ginger and garlic to the pan and cook until fragrant, stirring constantly, 45 to 60 seconds. Add the chopped basil, chicken stock, and peaches. Return the chicken to the pan and turn to coat. Transfer to the oven. Bake until the juices run clear when the chicken is pierced with the point of a knife, about 15 minutes. Serve immediately.

Calories 169 Fat 5 g Carbs 6 g Fiber .9 g Protein 24 g