unnamed-1La Varenne alum and Southern cooking expert Virginia Willis sat down with us for 5 questions. In honor of her new book, Lighten Up Y’all, we got the dish on everything from her love of okra to an ‘aha moment’ at La Varenne in Burgundy. Here’s what she had to say:

1. When you’re not cooking Southern comfort food or traditional French cuisine, what regional cooking do you like to prepare?

While I consider myself an expert in Southern cooking and have a great deal of French training, I actually like to cook many different kinds of cuisines. Lately, I have been particularly interested in middle Eastern cooking. I am excited to taste and experiment with the different herbs and spices.

2. What classic Southern ingredient or dish do you think is underappreciated?

Okra! Folks really have a love or hate relationship with okra.

3. Do you have a fond memory (perhaps something you learned, cooked or ate) that sticks out from your time at La Varenne?

There are so many memories from cooking and learning at LV! There was an opportunity to learn around every corner. Undoubtedly, working with the fresh ingredients from the potager was inspiring and the exposure to so many different chefs and techniques was inspiring and educational. Guerilla jam making on the fly while making dinner for 20 at the same time sticks out as a pretty intense memory for a completely different reason….One of the most important to me in my mind was a personal one. Anne and I were butting heads over something and I was incredibly frustrated. I went upstairs to my room, cursing underneath my breath, and slammed open the window and said to myself, “what am I doing here?!”. Well, I looked out the window and all I could see on the hillside in the distance were tall, bright sunflowers waving in the summer breeze, their faces turned towards the sun. I was literally stunned with the beauty to the point it forced me off my feet and onto an adjacent bench. There was my answer, that’s why I was there. I’ll never forget that moment.

4. How did your experience working with Anne Willan influence your career?

Anne Willan is one of the hardest working people I have ever met in my life. She’s always doing, always working, always writing, always striving to do more. She’s an incredible inspiration to me. I have received awards and accolades in my life and throughout my career, but having the respect of Anne Willan and hearing her say, “Well done” is one of my highest honors. 

5. What advice do you have for young cooks hoping to find their footing in the world of food?

Raise your hand. Volunteer. Do more. Learn. Go. Pay attention. One thing that Anne said to me many years ago was, “Learn the scales before you play the music. Cooking is about creativity, but itʼs important to acquire discipline first.” Good sage, advice.