“Authentic” is a word that gets tossed around much too easily these days—for people, experiences, and especially food.
Yet here we are, on the heels of a conversation with southern chef and author Virginia Willis, and there it is, looming large: Authentic.
There’s no glad-handing in her approach. Her joy in cooking, educating, and connecting is as obvious in conversation as it is in her cookbooks. For her latest, Lighten Up Y’all, the “authentic” is front and center, as she slims southern classics while also showcasing that the South is so much more than lard (and always has been).
“It’s really nice that there is this realization and perception that I have really stayed close to the truth and made some changes without becoming inauthentic,” she says. “I really tried not to just reduce fat and calories, but to also add. I wanted to make every bite full of flavor and texture but also more nutritionally dense.”
The result: Pimento cheese dip encased in cucumbers, Creole dirty rice loaded with veggies, and chicken salad with collards.
But when it is time to let go, like when asked about her ultimate day of eating for our Perfect Food Day series, Willis isn’t afraid to splurge on the extras, from her beloved South to the streets of Paris.
Breakfast: Some of my favorite breakfasts are having cheese grits with my momma. My momma has old-fashioned cheese grits for breakfast every morning. Every single morning. She puts a lil’ bacon on there and in the summertime she adds chopped tomato. It’s just fantastic. That’d be my favorite way to start my day.
Mid-morning Snack: In reality, my snack is often a can of V-8 but that doesn’t sound very exciting. What’s more exciting: I teach sometimes at Rancho La Puerta, a health spa in Tacate, Mexico. It’s beautiful. It’s a place that makes me feel like I can soar. A lot of times mid-morning they’ll serve a vegetable broth, which they call potassium broth. It’s not that different than my can of V-8 in a way. I know that’s an oversimplification, but it’s nutritious and easy. Gosh, how much better is it for you to have a cup of vegetable broth or bone broth with all those nutrients? That name bugs me though. What happened to “stock”? Stock is a perfectly good word.
Lunch: I’d have to go to Paris. Undoubtedly. One of my favorite places in Paris is called L’Ecume Saint-Honoré. It’s near the Tuilieries and it’s this crazy little seafood shop. It’s literally where Parisians go to buy their fish to take home and make for dinner. But they have a handful of tables. Everything is raw so you basically order off of the ice. It’s in insane. And of course they have the most beautiful oysters in the whole entire world; very precious oysters from Brittany. The man that owns it is just so happy. …The first time I was there, we were standing in line and there was Alain Ducasse! Fast-forward to the next year and I go [again] and Alain Ducasse was there. I’ve been there three times and every time Alain Ducasse has been there! It’s delicious, it’s beautiful, it’s amazing.
Dinner: I’m not gonna go out to eat because I haven’t cooked all day. I really love a simple, simple supper. I love a roast chicken. I mean it’s almost trite to say that, but it’s almost impossible to get a good roast chicken out. I think it really is one of those dinners that’s done best at home. I do high heat to start, then turn it down and cook it for an hour. I will often put in a couple garlic cloves and maybe some thyme and bay leaf in the center with salt and pepper, inside and out. I’d probably serve that with an arugula salad. I would put the greens on the bottom of a bowl, cut the chicken, and put [roasted] sweet potatoes and onions on top. Then drizzle over some of the [pan] juices and maybe splash it with a bit little of lemon. That’s made me starving! I want that right now!
Dessert: I might have to return to my southern roots for dessert. One of my favorite desserts is cobbler. My favorite is undoubtedly peach. It’s so easy. My family recipe is a batter cobbler. The [dough] is like pancake batter. As it cooks, the batter rises and sort of swells up around the fruit. It’s very homey, not chef-fy.