A Southern Chef Went Vegan for a Week and It Was Beautiful

Virginia Willis traded in her mouth-watering chicken and gravy for baked sweet potatoes and Thai curry.

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Southern chef Virginia Willis is a woman of many talents. As a well known cook, blogger, photographer and author, it seems there's nothing she can't do. She's appeared on hit TV shows, cooked for former president Bill Clinton and even prepared dishes with Julia Child. But her craziest feat yet might be taking on our vegan challenge.

For an entire week, Willis ditched the Southern comfort food she's known for — from chicken and gravy to seven-layer dip — to get up close and personal with vegan cuisine. Here she tells us all about the experience.

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Dr. Oz The Good Life: What are you used to eating and cooking?

Willis: I'm an omnivore, so I eat a lot of vegetables, but I also include lean proteins like chicken or turkey.

Had you ever eaten vegan food before this challenge?

I've definitely eaten vegan in the past. I would say vegan has never been a targeted goal, though. In the South, vegetables are always flavored with a bit of meat.

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Why did you agree to do the challenge?

Part of it was I've never considered not eating meat or any animal products for seven days. Eating is one thing, but making a conscious effort to only eat plant-based meals seemed like something that would make me think about my eating. I also like a challenge.

How would you describe your vegan challenge experience?

I felt most satisfied making recipes that were from actual vegan cuisines. The first night we kicked it off with highly spiced, aromatic Thai curry. We harvested vegetables from our garden that afternoon so they tasted great. I cooked a lot more ethnic food than I normally do.

Juicy plums to start off the day? We'll take it. 😍 #7daysofvegan 📷: @virginiawillis

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Did you have any challenges buying, preparing or eating vegan food?

I felt I needed more planning. If I'm not recipe testing, I would go to the kitchen and whip something up. In the summertime it would typically be chicken pies on the grill, turkey burgers or a piece of fish. I wanted to make sure we were fully satisfied throughout the week.

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What was the hardest thing to give up?

Definitely dairy. Sometimes when I come home from the gym, my post-workout would be a peanut butter sandwich on whole wheat bread with a glass of milk. I mostly missed cheese, though. It's intensely satisfying. I really didn't miss the meat, but I found dairy to be the most challenging.

You were very creative with recipes. What was your favorite dish?

It wasn't a recipe, but so much a couple of components: A roasted sweet potato with roasted mushrooms, eggplant and chopped kale. It was a very high, umami flavor — meaty without being meaty. I topped the dish off with my friend Kathy Hester's steel cut oatmeal, which is quite toothsome. Then I combined it with spices that one typically finds in sausage. They're sort of like "sausage crumbles."

What was your favorite part of the vegan challenge?

My favorite part was how it made me think of outside my box in terms of cooking, eating and shopping. It gave me a greater awareness.

Has the vegan challenge inspired you to make any changes in your food lifestyle?

Yes, I think so because it drew attention to the fact that the challenge allowed me to have completely plant-based food for seven days. I think I might be more inclined to incorporate that more often.

Now that you've completed the vegan challenge, what are you most excited to eat again?

Parmesan cheese. In my normal eating habits, I try not to make anything too restrictive. We exist in this place where you can't have cake — it's taboo and creates a system of failure. In my own life, I can't have cake all the time — especially if I'm not exercising. So in terms of the vegan piece, it's the same. I think more than anything, with a little bit of thought and being more cognitive of it, it can be very satisfying to eat vegan and not create a system of "have or have not."

Want more Virginia Willis? Check out her latest book: Lighten Up, Y'all: Classic Southern Recipes Made Healthy and Wholesome.

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