But to honor the memory of the well-known chef who worked at M. Restaurant in Nashville, his colleagues and family established a fund called “Tummies for Toby” to collect money for a chef mission trip to Haiti in July on Willis’ behalf. The new foundation will be sending a coalition of chefs and friends to Haiti to feed the hungry and help build a hospital, homes and kitchens.
His cousin Kelly DeLude, who was raised in Cleveland with Willis, said, “I think Toby would be humbled and proud that his colleagues would come together and do this in his honor. He had a good heart and supported several charities. This mission trip will truly honor his memory. I feel something good is coming out of something so tragic. As his family, we’re very proud that he lived his life in such a way that people would want to come together and honor him like this. We are so very, very proud of him.”
The family said they were “devastated” to hear the shocking news that the Cleveland native had suffered a stroke in Nashville and was hanging on for dear life, before he passed a few days later on Feb. 10.
Willis had attended Hopewell Elementary and graduated from Cleveland High School in 1988. He attended Sewanee University and went on to become an award-winning chef who gave back to his community by supporting several charities, according to his family.
His grandfather and grandmother, Wallace and Margaret Rymer, owned Rymer’s Produce Market and the restaurant bearing their name. His parents, Betty and Ronald Willis, said their only child loved to cook and also loved home-cooked meals.
“He learned how to cook by helping me and his grandmother,” Betty said. “When he became a chef, he cooked for several upscale restaurants, but when he came home for a visit he didn’t want to cook. He wanted to eat my cooking.”
Throughout his career Willis cooked for many famous people, including Whitney Houston, Bobby Brown, Amy Grant, Vince Gill, the Judds and several others, according to his family. He received high praise for his culinary and social skills, including winner of “Best in Show” and “Best Menu” last year at the Flavors of Nashville culinary event, which spotlights premier regional chefs creating menus above and beyond the usual restaurant fare.
“Toby was soft-spoken and reserved, but he would do anything for anybody,” DeLude said. “He had a really good heart and he was always polite.”
Jan Strawn, who helped bring Willis to Nashville, told the Tennessean, “We have lost a wonderful colleague. It has shaken our roots, because it’s a tight, tight group. He was such a sweet, elegant man. He was sweet and kind and generous and talented.”
Willis served as the Garden Plaza’s first chef in Cleveland before going on to serve as executive chef at The Lodge on Gorham’s Bluff in North Alabama and executive chef for the Nashville City Club.
The M. Restaurant is holding a series of dinners in Nashville to help raise money for the special mission trip. Willis’ parents said they would like to ask the Cleveland community to help honor their son by supporting the one-time event, which will take place during the July Fourth weekend.
“A lot of people in Cleveland grew up with Toby and knew him well,” DeLude added. “If they want to do something to honor him — this would be the way to honor his memory — contribute to this fund and continue his legacy of generosity. He had a very giving heart.”
Willis helped create a philosophy about food, which he shared with the public on his blog, “Elevated Southern.” The expression referred to his rural mountain cooking with his signature approach to contemporary food.
Anyone wishing to contribute to “Tummies for Toby” can make a check or money order payable to “Tummies for Toby c/o Avenue Bank.” Mail to: Avenue Bank, 209 10th Ave., Suite 250, Nashville TN 37203.