Virginia Willis chuckles as she recounts a story her mother told her about her toddler days. “My grandmother used to have this double steel sink, and she would put the peas in the shell on one side—and sometimes put me in the other side. So I’ve been in a kitchen, literally, almost my entire life,” the cookbook author says. “And that relationship that I developed with my grandmother, that I also continue with my mother, is at the core of pretty much everything I do.”
So is Willis’ gracious, down-to-earth attitude, which surfaced during her formative years in Alexandria, La., and Montezuma, Ga. She later earned degrees from L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, Md., and Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne in Burgundy, France; apprenticed with PBS chef Nathalie Dupree; and worked as kitchen director for Martha Stewart Living Television, where she had the opportunity to prepare meals for Aretha Franklin, Julia Child and President Bill Clinton.
Willis’ classical training may have transformed her into a culinary expert, but it was the women in her family who instilled in her a fondness for old-fashioned comfort food, including breakfast treats such as cheese toast and fried egg sandwiches. From her grandmother Meme, she learned to top stone-ground grits with fresh tomato slices. From her mom Virginia, she inherited the “topsy-turvy” habit of eating breakfast at dinnertime; something she still does.
In her latest book, Basic to Brilliant, Y’all: 150 Refined Southern Recipes and Ways to Dress Them Up for Company (Ten Speed Press, 2011), Willis adds a pinch of sophistication to her cherished childhood standbys.
For savory Skillet-Baked Eggs with Mushrooms and Spinach—her favorite breakfast dish in the book—Willis uses Meme’s cast-iron skillet. “This way, my grandmother’s always in the kitchen with me,” she says.
For Cornmeal Buttermilk Pancakes, Willis tweaked her mother’s formula by adding “toothsome” cornmeal for texture.
Surprisingly, one of the book’s most Southern-sounding recipes didn’t originate in the South. Willis got the idea for Sweet Potato Grits after enjoying the dish at a Chicago restaurant. “I took one bite and went, ‘Oh my Lord, how have I never had these before?’” she says. To simplify the recipe, which called for puréed sweet potatoes, Willis grates the orange tubers directly into the boiling grits, water and milk.
The ponytailed chef acknowledges she’s taken a little flak for her culinary updates. “I get teased a lot by my family about what I’ve done to change the family recipes,” she says with a warm laugh. “But I feel like I have a nice balance of old tried-and-true, and things that I think are more in line with modern Southern cooking.”