Cooks at Home: Virginia Haley
Virginia Haley is the kind of self-proclaimed foodie who plans her career travels around cuisine. In between tourism conferences and the airport, the president of Visit Sarasota County (VSC) is hailing cabs, seeking out specialty shops she read about in the city’s paper, and stuffing perishables into insulated bags for the flight home.
“Because I travel so much, I always like to try the local restaurants on the road. You will not believe how many times TSA has wondered what was in my suitcase,” Haley jokes. “I was in Richmond, Virginia, recently and they have this amazing butchery there called Belmont Butchery. At the end of my meeting and dinner, I zoomed out there. That type of trendy place tends to be in an interesting part of the city, so it’s a learning experience.”
Finding tourism trends is a major component of Haley’s job, considering VSC is the official provider of visitor information for Sarasota County. She has been with VSC since 1999 but she cultivated her culinary palate long before arriving. Her love of food and travel dates back to her upbringing in Northampton, Massachusetts.
“My first cooking memory is when I was 4 or 5, making a dish we called bird’s tongues with my dad. It’s orzo pasta and you scramble an egg and add butter and cheese,” Haley says. “Before the holidays, we’d go on a big trip to Springfield, Massachusetts, where there was an old Italian market. We’d get the fresh cannoli shells and they’d sell the tub of filling separately—my dad would take one for the filling and one for his mouth.”
Today, Haley can be found in her Sarasota kitchen in the Meadows, following recipes from the Saturday edition of The Wall Street Journal. She will whip up meals to savor with family while watching Boston Red Sox or Florida Gators games on TV. She also adores gardening, and grows pimentos, cubanelle peppers, Bibb lettuce and Thai basil.
“I find cooking and gardening creative,” says Haley, who has been married to her husband, Jack, for 30 years, and has two children and three grandchildren.
Everything Haley learns outside of Florida, she brings back to Sarasota for the betterment of the community. Case in point: Savor Sarasota Restaurant Week, which just completed its eighth year in June.
“We started our restaurant week after a trip to Boston (about five cities were doing restaurant weeks at the time). We had gotten some research back saying that Sarasota did not have a great reputation within the state as a culinary destination,” Haley says. “People go to a destination because of the restaurants, and we have completely turned it around here.”
Thanks to Haley’s good taste.