Food Transformer

by MM Pack • Photography by Angie Mosier

In the recent past, Southern cooking has received something of a bad rap. For several reasons (particularly the influence of some food TV shows and personalities), it’s a common perception that the iconic foods of the South are loaded with fat, salt, sugar and carbs, and are usually deep-fried. While these stereotypical elements certainly exist (especially since the mid-20th century), it’s important to realize that, historically, Southern cuisine didn’t fit this unhealthy profile. Southern cooking—evolved within the region’s lush agricultural context—is a rich and complex amalgam of English, French, African and Native-American influences and food traditions. It has been, and can be, subtle and delicate, as well as fresh-produce-centric. Fortunately, in the last few years, this back-to-the-future approach is on the rise, and cooks and chefs in the South and elsewhere are doing amazing things with heritage ingredients and flavors to create what some call “New Southern Cuisine” but which, in many ways, is a return to traditional roots.

“Southern food is so much more than we’ve been told lately,” says Virginia Willis, one of the country’s foremost proponents of classic Southern cooking. An Atlanta-based, French-trained chef, teacher, recipe developer and author, her latest cookbook, “Lighten Up, Y’all,” is both an homage to what she calls “the foods of my people” and a dedication to making these dishes more healthful, i.e., lighter, with less fat and more fiber, and more nutritionally dense. This isn’t such a stretch in the realms of vegetables, legumes and grains, but what about in dishes such as macaroni and cheese? Chicken with gravy? Pimiento cheese? Famous Southern desserts like buttermilk pie? “Lighten Up, Y’all” has these challenging areas covered, too.

According to Willis, it’s a matter of adjusting ingredients and techniques while maintaining flavor, mouthfeel and satisfaction. “Food has to taste good,” she says. “If you take fat out of a dish, you have to put the flavor in somewhere.” It’s also a question of balance and moderation—of distinguishing between special occasions and everyday eating. “Not every meal has to be four ounces of lean protein. There’s a place for indulgences, as long as it isn’t too often.”

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Willis’ path to healthier Southern cooking has been a fascinating one. She first learned at the elbows of her mother and grandmother, both talented traditional cooks. Following college, she apprenticed with Nathalie Dupree, the prolific Southern cookbook author/teacher and PBS television personality. After earning a culinary degree, Willis spent three years in Burgundy, France, at La Varenne cooking school, working with British author/teacher and founder of the school, Anne Willan. “Interestingly, my time in France made me truly appreciate what we have at home in the South,” says Willis. Upon returning to the U.S., she worked as kitchen director for both Martha Stewart and Bobby Flay and produced numerous TV food programs. She regularly teaches classes around the country—including at the Central Market Cooking School. “Austin is definitely a special place; I love the diversity and the culture. It’s got a small-town feel, but is an international, world-class city.”

A few years ago, Willis decided to shed some pounds. “I needed to change some things in my life; I wanted to be healthy and strong, but I still wanted to eat the friendly food I grew up loving.” During this process, she conceived “Lighten Up, Y’all.” In addition to recipes, Willis has ideas for gently lightening up your own cooking. “If a recipe calls for two tablespoons of butter, replace one with a heart-healthy oil. You’ll still have butter flavor, but a healthier dish.” She recommends using oil spray rather than pouring from a bottle. “It’s amazing what you can cook in very small amounts of oil,” she says. “When recipes call for mayonnaise or sour cream, replace half with yogurt. My pimiento cheese is twenty-six calories per tablespoon as opposed to a standard eighty calories per tablespoon. And, face it, who eats just a tablespoon of pimiento cheese?” Lest anyone think that “Lighten Up, Y’all” is simply another book on weight loss, think again. It’s the product of a creative chef/teacher’s lifetime mastery of a cuisine; she tweaks the glorious cooking of the American South to fit modern sensibilities without sacrificing taste, tradition or pleasure. And she succeeds, y’all.