For Atlanta-based chef Christan Willis, food has always been a way of life. As a child, she would watch her mother cook different dishes on a consistent basis. This curiosity for the kitchen eventually manifested into a passion, and ultimately a career that she continues to cultivate daily.
Throughout her journey as a chef, Willis has become one of the top culinary experts not just in the state of Georgia, but across the country. Due to her work and magnetic personality, she has landed appearances on several television networks including the Today Show, Home & Family, HLN, Cooks vs. Cons, Raid The Fridge, and Netflix’s Pressure Cooker, among others. This year, she was a featured chef at the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival, an event that shines an international spotlight on the incomparable food, wine, beer and spirits of the South.
During the festival, Chef Willis crafted an amazing one-of-kind creation that incorporated the iconic Cayman Jack Margarita into a recipe that is perfect for the fall season. With over 16 years of restaurant and hospitality experience, Willis remains highly regarded within the food industry. As a woman of color, she also serves as an inspiration for anyone who wants to break into the culinary field.
“I think it’s really just taking those negatives and turning them into a positive,” she says. “That’s what any chef needs to do, no matter if you’re a person of color, if you’re a woman, male, anything.”
During Atlanta’s Food & Wine Festival, Willis spoke with ESSENCE about how her partnership with Cayman Jack came together, the city’s food scene, how she fuels her passion for cooking, and more.
To you, how does the Atlanta Food and Wine Festival stand out from other festivals in your opinion?
I believe Atlanta Food and Wine stands out, one–we’re in the south. So we have this type of southern hospitality that you’ll actually feel by all the vendors, all the chefs, all the bartenders, mixologists, even the entertainment from the music to the ambiance. The placement of the festival is very unique. It’s in a historic area, but also surrounded by so many fun things like Ponce City market. We also have Edgewood, just locations really great for everybody to come together. But just that southern hospitality is what really stands out to me.
Your dish was a big hit. Can you talk to me how you created this dish and why is it the perfect meal for the fall season?
Absolutely. So when thinking about this dish, I was thinking about Cayman Jack and how adventurous they are as a company and what their message stands for and their core values. So I kind of had to dial that back and think, okay, well, we’re going to be the first stop of this festival for Cayman Jack, and we’re going to be in the south. So, Pimento cheese, of course. Also, Chick-fil-A has this Pimento cheese chicken sandwich. And I was like, it’d be really, really great to kind of see how people can take a different take on Pimento cheese. And I know fried Pimento cheese or fried grits or anything fried. So I merged the two things together and I love a little bit of spice. So the sauce has a Chipotle margarita infusion right there, and I think that’s where I got very creative and the nice spice.
But then thinking about the margarita itself, the strawberry margarita would be very refreshing to kind of be a counterpart to that. So I think all three of those elements came together in my mind and I was like, that’s definitely it.
How did the partnership with Cayman Jack come about?
Yes, the partnership with Cayman Jack—I believe I’m a very integral part of the city, especially with the chefs here. I’m so happy that they reached out to me. It was such an honor to actually have this opportunity to partner with them. And it just felt great because I felt like it was a perfect fit. I’ve worked with other companies before, but Cayman Jack was very special and it felt really good. Just the synergy was there. Also, the communication was great. So I knew it was going to be an awesome place for me to be, and it just happened so seamlessly. And I was like, okay, communication’s good. The food’s going to be great. I love margaritas in a can. So I knew it was going to be awesome.
If you were talking to a person on the outside looking in, how would you describe the Atlanta culinary scene?
Vibrant, up and coming, with bold flavors for sure. Atlanta is in this age of evolution. We just are about to receive our Michelin stars, which a lot of cities, New York, Chicago, LA, already had. And it’s been a very long time coming for Atlanta to kind of hit the spot. And I’ve worked with some great chefs in restaurants before, so it feels like this is the time for Atlanta. Everyone is moving here. So it’s really just one of those platforms where Atlanta can really showcase, yes, we’re very skillful. Yes, we’d like to have a great time but we do know great food as well.
I want to talk about you a little bit more. So you’ve been around the food and the restaurant industry for a long time. When did you decide that you wanted to make cooking and being a chef your life’s work?
I stumbled upon this. I was, gosh, such a kid. My mom would get into the kitchen and make spaghetti or whatever her weekly meal would be, and she would never let me help her. She would always tell me to get out. And one day I begged her and she was like, “Okay, you can sit on the floor and I’ll give you a pot and a pan and you can act like you’re cooking with me.” And I did that for so long. Anytime she was in the kitchen, I would sit on the floor with my blanket. But I didn’t know that was actually going to be a career choice. And I think because my mom said no so much, I figured out a way to kind of make it a yes, just experimenting. But I also studied journalism for college and when that kind of hit a fork in the road, my dad pushed me to take on culinary school.
I was already in the restaurant industry at the time, so it just felt like I would go to school to get the degree but I already had that firsthand experience by working front of house and back of house. And I just felt that this is where I need to be. Any other career choice didn’t make sense.
As with many things, when you do something so much, you could get monotonous or you can kind of lose the fire for it. What continues to fuel your passion?
What continues to fuel my passion, especially with the culinary field, is that there’s so many different avenues with food. Food styling. It’s not like, “oh, I’m going to be a chef and I want to have my own restaurant.” Now it’s, “I would like to be in my own creative direction with this.” So as a food influencer, being a chef that works with media, especially for myself, I love to have a platform where I can share and educate. There’s so many different avenues now. Food is just the focal point. And if you can just touch that in any type of… If you have a passion for, say, hiking and food, you can cook in the mountains now and people are going to gravitate towards that. So really just being very personal with food. And I think if you have that, I think people can see that and they’re like, “Yes, that’s amazing. You should go for it.”
And as a person of color—a woman of color to be specific—what obstacles have you faced in your culinary career and how do you navigate through those obstacles?
I want to say the obstacles they’ve been there from the beginning, just looking how I look, say if I pull my hair back, I have a hat on, I have my apron and I’m in the kitchen, I’m still going to look different than some of my other counterparts that are cooking. Especially growing up, I think it had been around 2012, 2014, this was not expected for women to really be thriving in the kitchen. And I noticed that, and I was like, you know what? Okay, so if I’m not going to be able to move up the way I want to be like a sous chef or a chef de cuisine or executive chef, I need to pave my own way, trailblaze this into something positive. And finding the personal chef aspect of that and creatively making my own menus and really engaging with other customers on a personal level, I thrived. So it’s not so like, “Oh, woe was me.” It’s more like, okay, maybe that’s not the space for me right now. What can I do currently? In building my name and my reputation, I’ll be able to stand on my own.