World Chefs: Willis shows the lighter side of Southern food

Tue Jan 24, 2012 10:09am EST
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By Richard Leong

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Most people equate fried food with U.S. Southern cooking, but Virginia Willis says there is much more to the regional cuisine than many people may think.

In her third cookbook "Basic to Brilliant, Y'all," the 44-year-old chef shows that most Southern dishes are lighter than how they are depicted on television and that basic recipes could easily be elevated when combined with classic techniques and sophisticated ingredients.

The Georgia native spoke to Reuters about the variety of Southern cooking, the impact of fast food on American obesity rates and the importance of fresh foods and good ingredients.

Q: What is the biggest misconception about Southern food?

A: "It's all about butter and fat and it's not. It's complicated. The United States in general has an obesity problem. The South has the highest rate of obesity in an obese nation. But that doesn't come from typical Southern cooking. That (obesity), like in the rest of the country, comes from fast food, convenience food, processed food and packaged food. I've grown up eating home-cooking food and that's been a slippage away from that. Someone sees a stick of butter is deep fried and they think all Southern food is like that and it's not."

Q: So there is this diversity to Southern cuisine?

A: "I want to present to people that Southern food is more than just fried chicken and overcooked greens. There can be refinement to these recipes. (Celebrity cook) Paula Deen is wonderful, and she is very nice lady. Her cooking is not necessarily typical of all Southern cuisine either. We have a 10-month growing season in the South, and we have been eating regionally, locally and seasonally for a very long time. Part of that comes from practicality. The South has been a poor area with many economically depressed areas since its inception. It has less industries. They have always been growing their gardens and buying from their local farmers or harvesting from the woods or the fields, or catching fish or hunting.

Q: How does "Basic to Brilliant" present your point of view?   Continued...

<p>Chef Virginia Willis poses in this undated handout photo. REUTERS/Angie Mosier</p>