Our latest BSB series celebrates HBCU Tailgate Culture, focusing on cultural cuisines, HBCU lifestyle, memories, celebrations, and entertaining.
Photography by Sabal Palm Creative
Michiel Perry invited Gullah Geechee, chef and founder of What’s Gina Cooking, Gina Willis, to her home to share her HBCU experience at Savannah State University and how it shaped her cultural dishes and entrepreneurial spirit.
Gina Willis grew up in the historic city of Savannah, Georgia, where she attended the oldest HBCU in Georgia, Savannah State University. “It was just a natural progression that I would go there, shares Gina. “A lot of my family members went there, so that’s where I started.” She studied Business Management, intent on being a “corporate chick” who eventually found her passion as a “culinary chick.” with a keen business sense. One of her female inspirations is legendary pioneer Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor chef and author of 1970 cookbook-memoir, Vibration Cooking: or the Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl.
Chef Notes: When possible, buy fresh, local fish off the dock
“One of my favorite HBCU memories is attending homecoming because it’s such a tradition. I think the best time I had was when my parents and grandparents came, and we just had a huge tailgate, And it was the best time.” Entertaining and preparing exquisite home-cooked meals for her family and friends transformed into a small-bite catering company and lifestyle brand.
Chef Notes: For larger groups, I like to serve spareribs because they’re hardier, you can feed more people
For her HBCU Tailgate, Gina prepared what she calls “upscale tailgate,” complete with nibbles and libations with locally sourced ingredients and signature flavors. “I wanted something light, something flavorful that everybody would enjoy,” shares Gina, who prepared Marinated Shrimp, Pickled Okra, Pimento Cheese, Boiled Peanuts, and Benne Crackers. And for libations she mixed her signature BBQ Bloody Mary’s with bacon & crab claws finished with a pecan wood smoke.
Chef Notes: I really like to have beer and lemons to kick up the flavor when cooking shrimp.
When she is able to get back to Savannah State University, she enjoys attending in an RV with family and sampling barbecue from other tailgates, while watching the Greek stroll and attending concerts.
From food influencer, content creator, recipe developer to brand ambassador, Gina’s cuisine is known for her “New Low Country” cooking style, which blends rich, spicy flavors of her Gullah Geechee heritage and exotic, robust influences from her Cuban roots. Stay tuned for more from Gina and her HBCU-inspired upscale tailgate.