James Beard Award-winning Chef Virginia Willis is finishing her next cookbook, collaborating on a sous vide machine recipe development project, working on her photography and writing for Southern Kitchen, which features Southern recipes and stories and offers an array of unique kitchen and entertaining essentials for sale.
Busy as she is, she agreed to pick up another major project: She's serving as lead chef for the Atlanta History Center’s Back on the Farm event, planned for Sept. 22. The benefit supports youth programming and animal care at the Civil War-era Smith Family Farm, part of the History Center's campus.
"I was thrilled to pieces when they asked me," she said with delight. "I travel a lot but I’m very proud to be from Atlanta. I support the work of the History Center and I was lucky enough to be asked."
She's assembled an all-star roster of area chefs to prepare what promises to be a sumptuous feast: Colleen Conrad, regional chef for Whole Foods Market; Tamie Cook, private chef and former culinary director for television chef/author Alton Brown ; Ami Dand , executive pastry chef at Legendary Events; Cynthia Graubart , a James Beard Award-winning cookbook author and PeachDish contributor; Lis Hernandez , chef and owner of Arepas Mia; Jiyeon Lee , chef and owner of Heirloom Market BBQ; and Deborah VanTrece , chef and owner of Twisted Soul Cookhouse and Pours (shown below).
"People have this perception that Southern food is one thing: fried chicken, biscuits and collard greens. Southern food is so much more than that," said Willis, who is excited to showcase the rich cultural diversity of Atlanta through food. "It can be chicken and biscuits but it can also be Lis Hernandez’ empanadas. Southern cuisine is an agricultural based cuisine and there’s something fresh coming out of the ground or off the trees practically 12 months a year."
Joining the chefs will be a master mixology corps: Miller Union bartender Kimya Dongan , Gunshow bartender Mercedes O’Brien , 5 Church Atlanta bartender Keyattah Mincey ; and Melanie Wade , CEO and brewmaster at Golda’s Kombucha. The team has been working to incorporate ingredients grown on site into their cocktail creations.
"What the guests will be enjoying as they’re in the garden will be things created from that particular garden," Willis noted.
Event chair Mary Calhoun, originally from Chattanooga, recalls the days before "farm to table" became a trendy phrase but instead described everyday dining. Today her children are part of the Atlanta History Center's 4-H program.
"When I grew up my grandmother had a farm," she said. "It’s funny to me that my children’s 4-H experience is happening in the heart of Buckhead!"
She's lived in Atlanta for 12 years and quickly became involved with the History Center, where current projects include construction of the new home of the Cyclorama. Live-auction items during the Back on the Farm fundraiser will include a cocktail party for 40 at the Cyclorama - an absolutely priceless opportunity as the venue isn't yet open to the public, she said.
"It’s a great party supporting education and the animals on the farm," Calhoun said. "This is its fifth year and it keeps getting better."
Tickets to Back on the Farm start at $225 each, with sponsorships starting at $750. See atlantahistorycenter.com/backonthefarm for tickets and more details.