Ask Chef Virginia Willis what she does in her spare time, and her first response will likely be a chuckle.
The lesbian Atlanta-based cookbook author, celebrity chef, and Southern Living columnist jokes that her home is Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
But 99 percent of the time, Willis is in a kitchen of some sort, whether it’s her own, cooking up lamb for a get-together or that of a fellow Southern culinary artiste. It’s been that way most of her life.
“There’s pictures of me making biscuits at three years old with my grandmother,” Willis said. “I took cake decorating classes in junior high and I would make cakes for the neighborhood moms for their kids. When I was 12 years old, I was selling birthday cakes.”
A few years later, Willis was an apprentice on Nathalie Dupree’s television cooking show. Dupree convinced Willis to attend culinary school. She attended two, L’Academie de Cuisine and Ecole de Cuisine LaVarenne, in addition to completing a degree in history from the University of Georgia.
History and two French culinary schools may seem an odd combination for a Southern chef, but it all comes together in Willis’ latest book, set for release in spring 2018. “Secrets of the Southern Table: A Food Lover’s Tour of the Global South” will take history buffs and aspiring home cooks alike on a journey from the heavily Vietnamese-inspired cuisine in Houston, Texas, to the barbecue sauce-less scampi-like “barbecue shrimp” dishes of the Italian culture in New Orleans, Louisiana, onto Georgia’s own White Oak Pastures, where owner Will Harris took his family farm and reinvented ways to raise livestock.
“It will have traditional as well as more non-traditional Southern foods,” Willis said. “I’ve been trying to educate people about what real Southern cooking is and how the South is this really big place. I mean, we take up a quarter of the country. There’s a lot of Southern cuisine.”
Spinach Parmesan-Stuffed Beef Tenderloin
The truth is that the tenderloin actually doesn’t have a lot of flavor. That’s why you most often see it wrapped in bacon or served with a horseradish cream sauce. In this stunning dish appropriate for a holiday feast, I’ve stuffed it with a savory combination of spinach and parmesan, which really bumps up the flavor.
1 (31/2-pound) beef tenderloin, trimmed
Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 garlic cloves, very finely chopped or mashed into a paste with salt
1 cup cooked spinach (thawed if frozen), squeezed dry and chopped
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
2 tablespoons pure olive oil
Preheat the oven to 425°F. Using a sharp knife, butterfly the tenderloin by cutting it open lengthwise, taking care not to cut all the way through and leaving a spine so you can open the tenderloin like a book. (Or ask your butcher to do it.) Season generously inside and out with salt and pepper. Rub the garlic paste on the inside of the tenderloin. Spread the spinach over the inside surface to cover. Sprinkle with the Parmesan cheese.
Reform the tenderloin and tie every three inches with kitchen twine to hold in the filling. Heat the oil in a large roasting pan and sear the meat on all sides over high heat. Roast until an instant-read thermometer inserted in the center of the meat and stuffing reads 120° to 125°F for medium-rare meat (the internal temperature of the meat will continue to rise about 10°F outside of the oven), about 20 to 25 minutes.
Remove to a carving board, preferably with a moat, and tent to keep warm. If serving hot, let stand for 10 to 15 minutes before carving. If serving at a buffet, cool for at least 30 minutes, then carve and serve within 2 hours. Or cool completely, wrap tightly in aluminum foil, and refrigerate for up to 2 days before carving and serving at room temperature.
To prepare garlic paste, place the broad side of an unpeeled clove of garlic on a clean work surface. Give it a whack with the side of a chef’s knife. Remove the outside papery skin, and using the knife, trim the tough basal plane at the top of the clove. Halve the clove lengthwise and remove the green shoot, if present, as it is bitter. Coarsely chop the garlic, then sprinkle it with coarse salt. (The salt acts as an abrasive and helps chop the garlic.) Then, using the flat side of the chef’s knife like a palette knife, press firmly on the garlic, crushing a little at a time. Repeat until the garlic is a smooth paste.
1. Spread the Love: The main thing is to remember it’s supposed to be about being together, not stressing about what foods are being served. One good tip is to “spread the love” — don’t try to do everything yourself. Be organized however and if you ask friends and relatives to bring dishes, then be specific. When I host our big holiday gathering, I generally plan on providing the main dish and ask for friends and family to bring side dishes, bread, salad, or dessert. It’s important to be specific so you don’t wind up with four dishes of the same thing.
2. Balanced Menus: Believe me, I know (especially after being in charge of her TV kitchens) it’s really easy to want to go full Martha Stewart and make everything from scratch and the happy holidays can quickly become a stressful daze. Create party menus that are a blend of store-bought, carry-out, and homemade. There are tons of great food artisans in the Atlanta area, let them help set your table.
3. Raise the Bar: Instead of having a full bar at a party, consider making one signature cocktail in batches so that all you have to do is make a pitcher or two then pour it over ice. Or, it can be something as simple as apple cider and prosecco garnished with pomegranate seeds. Then, perhaps offer one white and one red wine. Definitely make sure to also have festive non-alcoholic beverages, as well. You want your guests to have a good time yet not over-indulge.