$20 Dinner with Virginia Willis

Soon after publishing her fifth cookbook, the Southern chef and author prepares a healthful feast in her Vinings home



PRO TOOLS: Renowned Southern chef and cookbook author Virigina Willis’ trusty knife bag

Cabbage: $1.20
Collard greens: $2
Lemons: 50 cents
Chicken breast: $7.67
Peaches: $1.20
Ginger: 50 cents
Garlic: 63 cents
Buttermilk: 55 cents*
Greek yogurt: $1.49
Confectioners sugar: 27 cents**
Strawberries: $3.99
Total: $20

  • 6.9 cents per ounce
    • 17.9 cents per ounce

Pantry items: Olive oil, salt, pepper, rice, onions, flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, butter, vanilla extract

When you’ve written five cookbooks, graduated from two world-class culinary schools, worked with food professionally for more than 20 years, and your former bosses include people like Martha Stewart and Bobby Flay, people tend to ask you a lot of questions. They ask for recipes, they ask for interviews, they ask for cooking and entertaining advice, they ask you to speak or cook (or both) at their fancy events. Food writer, chef, and renowned cookbook author Virginia Willis gets these kinds of questions all the time. But because she was born and raised in the South, there’s one question Willis is asked more often than any other: What is Southern food?

“I always reply that Southern food is agrarian-based cuisine,” she says. “We have a 12-month growing season, so I feel like it’s very dependent on agriculture. And then the other thing that I say is that Southern food, by and large, is a cuisine that was born out of poverty.”

At a time when Southern culture is fetishized from sea to shining sea, the South’s inherent diversity, depth, and nuance often get lost in translation. Just look at most reality television shows set in the region, Willis says. “I would love there to be one TV show about the South that didn’t require subtitles. I mean, my gosh, seriously. Every show has got a subtitle. We’re educated people, you know!”

For the Georgia-born chef, the over-simplification of Southern culture is frustrating; its modern portrayal — our seemingly hereditary devotion to deep-frying, for example — is almost cartoon-like.

“We eat more than pork. The South is more than fried chicken. And I’ve never had deep-fried macaroni and cheese wrapped in bacon in my life,” Willis says. “There is a lot of fried, sure. It’s not all misrepresentation. It’s the truth, but it’s not the only truth.”

Today, Willis will attempt to make $20 Dinner history by creating a meal big enough to feed four and that’s composed of items procured from the notoriously pricey grocery store Whole Foods, for 20 bucks or less. She’s decided to build a menu around fresh, nourishing ingredients: a chilled collard green salad with sweet onion, braised cabbage spiked with red pepper flakes, herb-peach chicken served over brown rice pilaf, and brown sugar-strawberry shortcake for dessert. It’s an ambitious plan, and, to be fair, one whose success relies on having a pantry routinely stocked with essentials like baking powder, vanilla extract, and basic aromatics.

Inside Willis’ cozy Vinings townhome white space isn’t really a thing. The walls are packed with funky folk art pieces, such as a seven-foot-long Greyhound cutout or a framed family tree illustrating the evolution of cookbooks. In Willis’ galley kitchen, a faded cupboard door hangs on the wall. Her grandmother, she explains, used to tape up recipes on the inside of her cabinet for easy access. Eventually she started transcribing them directly onto the wood.

Willis ties an apron around her waist and prepares her workspace, a butcher block-topped island on wheels. Unrolling a distressed leather knife bag, she reveals her tools. There is a chef’s knife and a serrated knife, a sharpening steel, a can opener, a thermometer, tweezers, and a wine tool. “And I can’t really go anywhere without a microplane, a whisk, a spoon — and band-aids,” she says with a laugh.



SOUTHERN HOSPITALITY: Willis prepares the shortcakes (top row) and slices strawberries for dessert; she twists and folds leaves of collard greens into a cylinder before shredding them with a long, shiny chef’s blade (middle); Willis sautés cabbage (bottom) and cooks chicken and peaches in a 125-year-old cast iron pan that belonged to her grandmother.

Starting with dessert first, Willis whips up a dough from scratch and rolls it out over a granite slab. She sinks a flour-dusted biscuit cutter into the dough creating eight identical shortcakes. Lovingly, Willis arranges them on a baking sheet. If the sides are touching, she explains, the edges will be softer. If there’s space between each one, they’ll be crisper.

“Biscuits are like people,” she says. “If you touch your neighbor you’ll be soft. If you don’t touch your neighbor, you won’t be.”

Willis is one of James Beard award-winning cookbook author Nathalie Dupree’s many successful protégés. Willis, however, got her start in food years before ever meeting the inimitable Dupree. While studying history at the University of Georgia, Willis worked at a little joint called Pizza Pronto. And yes, she did (and still can) toss dough. When it was time to look for a job after graduation, Willis did what many folks with history degrees do: She worked in retail. Her eventual apprenticeship under Dupree, who was based in Atlanta at the time, turned out to be life-changing. Following Dupree’s advice, Willis attended L’Academie de Cuisine in Maryland. Later, she lived and worked in France, training at world-renowned chef Anne Willan’s Ecole de Cuisine LaVarenne.

Willan originally opened the school at the urging of Julia Child and James Beard. Willis fondly remembers Child’s visits.

“It was very normal in a way, in the kitchen hanging out. But then every now and then I’d think, ‘Oh my God, it’s Julia Child!’ The whole reason I was there was because of her in a way. My mom grew up watching her, and then I did ... She’s one of the most famous American chefs, and she was a cookbook author. Julia Child didn’t have a restaurant. James Beard didn’t have a restaurant. Craig Claiborne didn’t have a restaurant. So many of the most iconic people in American cooking were food writers. That was always inspirational to me.”

Willis spent nearly four years working in restaurants, but she ultimately sidestepped the path to restaurant owner/executive chef-dom. Instead she became the invisible force that makes test kitchens and food shows go. For nearly 10 years, she was the kitchen director for Martha Stewart and Bobby Flay. “From the bowl of salt by the cooktop to the beautiful cookies coming out of the oven, someone has to make sure they’re there,” she says. “And whether it was me actually putting the salt in the bowl, or making sure it happened, that’s all a part of it.”

Back in the kitchen, the collard greens need some marinating. Willis twists and folds the leaves on the cutting board before running her long, shiny chef’s blade through the tight bundle over and over again. Next, she tosses the heap of crinkly, forest-green shreds in a jumbo metal mixing bowl with paper-thin shaved onion, minced garlic, lemon juice, and olive oil.

From behind a pair of black frames, Willis’ kind blue-green eyes always appear smiling, no matter what the rest of her face is doing. She scans a floor-to-ceiling pantry rack filled with what looks like a hundred different pieces of cookware — pans and pots in all sizes. Instead of a fancy skillet, Willis reaches for her most prized possession: a 125-year-old cast-iron pan that once belonged to her grandmother. Soon, the well-seasoned skillet is filled with chicken breasts that crackle as their pale pink exteriors turn a cream-colored shade of gold.



LIGHT(ER) BITES: Willis’ wholesome three-course meal (top left) includes braised cabbage with red pepper flakes (clockwise from top right), brown sugar-strawberry shortcake, a chilled collard green salad with sweet onion, and herb-peach chicken with brown rice pilaf.

Willis is exceptionally mellow for someone juggling event appearances, speaking engagements, and teaching workshops, in addition to running her eponymous culinary consulting company. Whether it’s a book-signing in Charlotte, a food festival in San Antonio, or a cooking demonstration and interview for a local newspaper, every week is different, and she likes it that way.

Willis’ latest cookbook, Ligthen Up, Y’all, was inspired by her own lifelong struggle with diet, health, and body image. “I’d finally realized that I’d gotten too heavy, my numbers were bad. The ones that were supposed to be high were low, the ones that were supposed to be low were high. I didn’t feel good, and I was unhappy.”

Fed up with feeling bad, Willis overhauled her lifestyle. She joined Weight Watchers and has lost almost 40 pounds. The recipes in Lighten Up, Y’all stem from Willis’ desire to get healthy without breaking up with good food. The book, which opens with an illuminating personal essay from Willis, is a collection of Southern recipes that have been lightened with healthful tweaks, but never at the cost of flavor.

“There are things out there that try and tell you, ‘A piece of wheat toast with cottage cheese, a slice of apple, and cinnamon will take the place of a Danish!’ I’m like, that’s not a Danish! That’s a piece of toast with an apple on it! If I want a really rich, delicious, buttery Danish from Star Provisions, I’ll have it. I just understand now that I can’t have that every day. It’s just about making smart choices.”

Willis transfers her creations onto various platters and into bowls. Having staged countless food shoots of her own, Willis is in her element when it comes time to photograph the finished dishes. She fluffs the collard greens with a pair of tweezers, arranges and rearranges glasses and plates, and repositions utensils until she’s satisfied with the configuration. By the time she’s finished, the spread in front of us looks like a page out of Southern Living magazine. She fills a plate with supple stewed cabbage flecked with red pepper flakes and a heap of lemony, wilted collard greens tangled with sweet Vidalia onions. Hunks of chicken studded with glistening sliced peaches over almost-creamy brown rice are tender, savory, and slightly sweet.

This is Southern food, y’all” Willis says, sinking her teeth into a buttery, vanilla-scented strawberry shortcake made with love in the modern South.

Next: The recipes for Chilled Collard Green Salad with Georgia Pecans, Easy Braised Cabbage, Whole Grain Rice Pilaf with Vidalia Onion, Herb-Peach Chicken, and Brown Sugar-Strawberry Shortcakes.



Chilled Collard Green Salad with Georgia Pecans

Serves 4 to 6

• 1 medium bunch collard greens (about 1 1/2 pounds), cleaned, stems removed and discarded
• 1/2 (Vidalia or another) onion, shaved
• Juice of two lemons, or to taste
• 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
• 3 cloves garlic, minced
• 3/4 cup pecans or any nut you have on hand, chopped (optional)
• Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

DirectionsFirst, stack the collard greens leaves one on top of the other. Roll the stack into a tight cylinder, and then slice the cylinder crosswise to create fine strands. Next, place the strands into a large bowl. Add the onion, lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, nuts (optional), salt, and pepper. Toss to coat evenly and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. The greens should wilt slightly while they marinate. Taste before serving and season with additional salt and pepper as desired.
Chef’s note: The best way to clean greens is to fill a clean sink with cold water, add the greens, and swish them around. The dirt will fall to the bottom of the sink. Lift the greens out, drain the sink, and repeat until the water is clear and the greens are free of dirt and grit.



Easy Braised Cabbage

Serves 4 to 6

• 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
• 1 onion, sliced
• 1 medium head green cabbage (about 8 cups), core removed and thinly sliced
• 1/2 cup water or low-fat, reduced-sodium chicken broth
• 1 sprig of thyme (or another fresh herb or 1 tablespoon of dried herb you have on hand)
• Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
• 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
In a large skillet, heat the butter over medium-high heat until sizzling. Add the onion and cabbage and sauté until the cabbage starts to wilt, about 3 to 5 minutes. Next, add the chicken stock and thyme and season with salt and red pepper. Decrease the heat to medium and cover and simmer until the cabbage is meltingly tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and black pepper as needed. Serve immediately.
Chef’s note: Cabbage is an inexpensive vegetable, and, if stored properly, will keep for weeks in the refrigerator.



Whole Grain Rice Pilaf with Vidalia Onion

Serves 4 to 6

• 1 tablespoon canola oil
• 1/2 Vidalia onion, chopped
• Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
• 2 cups uncooked, long-grain brown rice (such as jasmine or basmati)
• 3 sprigs thyme (or another fresh herb or 1 tablespoon of dried herb you have on hand)
• 3 cups water or low-fat, reduced-sodium chicken broth

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large, ovenproof saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat until foaming. Add the onion and cook until golden brown, about 5 to 7 minutes. Season with 1 teaspoon of salt and pepper to taste and stir in the rice. Cook, stirring constantly, until the rice is coated with oil and lightly toasted. Next, season with another teaspoon of salt and pepper to taste. Add thyme and stock or water; stir to combine. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, cover with a tight-fitting lid, and transfer the pan to the oven. Cook until the liquid is absorbed and the rice is tender, 25 minutes. Remove from the oven and let stand covered for 5 minutes before serving.

Herb-Peach Chicken

Serves 6

• 3 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (1 1/2 pounds)
• Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
• 1 tablespoon pure olive oil
• 1/2 Vidalia onion, chopped
• 1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
• 2 garlic cloves, very finely chopped
• 2 sprigs rosemary, plus more whole leaves for garnish
• 1 cup homemade chicken stock, reduced-fat, low-sodium chicken broth, or water
• 3 large peaches, pitted and sliced 1/4-inch thick (about 1 1/2 cups)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. 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 and add the onion 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 rosemary, 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.
Chef’s note: The technique of starting the chicken on the stove top and finishing in the oven helps prevent dry, overcooked chicken. The flavorful jus is fresh and clean, much lighter than a flour-thickened gravy.



Brown Sugar-Strawberry Shortcakes

Makes 8

• 1 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
• 1 1/4 cups whole wheat pastry flour (can also use all-purpose flour)
• 1/3 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
• 2 teaspoons baking powder
• 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
• 1/4 teaspoon salt
• 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into bits
• 3 tablespoons canola oil
• 1 cup low-fat buttermilk
• 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
• 1 tablespoon water (optional)
• 2 tablespoons raw, turbinado, or demerara sugar (optional)
• 4 cups sliced strawberries
• Vanilla cream, for serving

For the vanilla cream: Add 1/2 cup low-fat vanilla Greek yogurt and 3 tablespoons confectioners sugar (or another white sugar) to a mixing bowl. Stir to combine and set aside.
For the shortcakes: Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone mat. In a food processor fitted with the metal blade or by hand, pulse the flours, brown sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Add the butter and oil and combine until the mixture resembles a meal. Add the buttermilk and vanilla. Continue to mix until the dough pulls together. (It will be wet and soft.) Using a rubber spatula, transfer the dough to a floured board. Knead several times so the dough comes together. Pat or roll the dough out into an 8-inch sheet about 1/2-inch thick. Cut out rounds of dough with a 2 3/4- or 3-inch round cutter that’s been dipped in flour by pressing the cutter straight down, without twisting, to ensure the shortcakes will rise evenly when baked. Gather the dough scraps together and repeat to yield one or two more shortcakes. Place the shortcakes on the prepared baking sheet. Brush the shortcakes with water and sprinkle with raw sugar (optional). Transfer to the oven and bake until golden brown, about 12 minutes. Remove to a rack to cool slightly. Toss the strawberries with the remaining tablespoon of sugar in a medium bowl. To serve, split the shortcakes horizontally. Spoon the strawberries and juice onto the bottoms, top with the cream mixture, and replace the shortcake tops. Serve immediately.