Virginia Willis could be our next celebrity chefbian


If you ever asked yourself, “Self, what makes TheLinster happier than most anything?” today you will find the answer. It’s fried chicken. Not the Church’s, KFC, deep-fryer kind. I want the slathered-in-flour, pan-fried, perfectly crisp kind. One of the best things my mother ever did for me was give me two fried chicken drumsticks in my lunch every day for as long as I can remember. I miss my mother.

All that is to say that I judge a cook by her fried chicken. If I can’t get an actual sample, I look at her recipe to see if she knows what she’s doing.

Virginia Willis, out lesbian and author of Bon Appétit, Y’all: Recipes and Stories from Three Generations of Southern Cooking, knows what she’s doing.

Willis not only has a perfectly simple, perfectly perfect fried chicken recipe (except for adding cayenne pepper, which I will excuse since she’s from a different part of the South than I). She also suggests a gravy ingredient that solves my eternal problem of never quite having enough for all the mashed potatoes I can eat. Chicken stock! So simple, yet so brilliant.

I heard of Willis from the fine gentlemen of Gay List Daily, who are quite particular about what goes in their mouths (within reason, of course). The line from Bon Appétit, Y’all that won their hearts:

“I’m here to tell you that a bag of little smokies, a bottle of ketchup and a jar of grape jelly combined in a slow cooker, served with a box of toothpicks on the side, is not an hors d’oeuvre.”

This is a woman you want at your next lesbian potluck.

At 41, Willis is, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, poised to become the next celebrity chef. She is talking to at least three production companies about creating her own TV show and Bon Appétit, Y’all has just been nominated for an International Association of Culinary Professionals award.

The cookbook is more than a collection of family recipes. It’s a tribute to refined Southern cooking, an exhibition of luscious food photography — and a damn good read. Willis is a great writer and more than once I found myself teary-eyed at the memories of my grandmother’s kitchen invoked by her stories. And just try to read her recipe for Old Fashioned Yeast Rolls without practically smelling them fresh from the oven.

Willis earned her place in the professional kitchen with degrees from L’Academie de Cuisine and Ecole de Cuisine LaVarenne plus a résumé that includes training with Southern cooking icon Nathalie Dupree, French country chef Anne Willan and the inimitable Julia Child. She even survived a three-year stint as kitchen director for Martha Stewart’s first TV series in New York — and came full circle when she recently appeared as a guest on Martha.

Although Willis has always been a wizard in the kitchen, having learned the secrets of good cooking at the elbow of her grandmother Meme, she didn’t expect to be a professional chef. Her partner of 20 years, Becky Minchew, is the one who suggested she attend culinary school when the two lived in Charleston, S.C., after graduation from University of Georgia.

“She wasn’t interested in pursuing it as a career choice,” Minchew said. “Back then it wasn’t as glamorous as it is now. It was considered a trade. If you weren’t smart enough for college, then you went to cooking school.”

After traveling the world and cooking for folks like Bill Clinton, Aretha Franklin and Jane Fonda, Willis returned to Georgia, where she and Minchew bought a house, built a chicken coop and planted a vegetable garden. Since then, Willis has been working for herself and, with the success of Bon Appétit, Y’all, is ready for the next stage of her career.

“I’m comfortable with who I am now, and I’ve worked hard and worked with the best,” Willis told the AJC. “I know what I’m doing.”

I hope that one of these days I’ll get to find that out in person over a plate of Meme’s fried chicken and gravy.

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