CHEF KELLY FIELDS
Kelly Fields is the Chef-Owner of Willa Jean in New Orleans’ Central Business District. Growing up in South Carolina, she discovered a love for Southern baking at a young age. After working with New Orleans chef, Susan Spicer, Fields pursued a degree in baking and pastry arts from Johnston & Wales University in Charleston, where she graduated in 2002.
Fields worked for three years as the pastry chef for Restaurant August in New Orleans, followed by The Inn on Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, and later Martins West Gastropub in Redwood City, California. In 2010, she became the executive pastry chef for the BRG Hospitality Group, overseeing all pastry programs. In 2015, she opened her current venture, Willa Jean in New Orleans.
In 2019, Fields won the James Beard Foundation award for “Outstanding Pastry Chef.” Some of her previous accolades include Eater New Orleans’ 2016 “Chef of the Year” and “Readers’ Choice” awards. In the same year, she was named a “Southern Kitchen Magician” by Southern Living. She has also earned praise from Bon Appétit, Saveur, Garden & Gun, and Dessert Professional magazine, among others.
Valrhona: You named your restaurant, Willa Jean after your grandmother. Did she inspire you to enter the world of food?
Kelly Fields: She did. When I decided I wanted to do this for a career, she was the one who championed it. She paid my rent so could go work toward it. She told me “figure out what chef you want to be compared to or who you want to emulate and go work for them.” I couldn't afford to do that, so she paid my rent so that I could go do it. She was always a big cheerleader of mine. The biggest thing she taught me is to put myself out there and to just stay true to who I am and not apologize for it. And that's the whole point of this restaurant. It’s for everybody here to be able to be themselves and not feel like they have to apologize for it.
Valrhona: From where do you get your inspiration for new creations?
Kelly Fields: From eating out a lot. Having sort of climbed the ladder, now I get to go and do events and stuff, so I always go and eat, figure out who's doing what, and go eat as much as I can and see as much as I can. Most of the people out there doing pastry are a lot smarter than I am. They inspire me.
Valrhona: Who are the chefs you admire most?
Kelly Fields: All of them! I love Ghayah [Oliveira] from Restaurant Daniel. I think she is outstanding, and I think she is one of the most talented people on the planet. I think Thomas [Raquel] from Le Bernardin is amazing. I really like Patrice [Demers] from Montreal and Chloe [Gervaise-Fredette] from Montreal, also from Bocuse. I love her, and now we're pen pals. I think Jennifer Yee in Atlanta is doing really brilliant things, and Rebecca Masson in Houston has Fluff Bake Bar. I think what she's doing is really incredible. There are so many people for various reasons – their food first, but also who they are as humans and what they're doing to disrupt the industry.
Valrhona: What is your favorite type of pastry to make?
Kelly Fields: That’s an answer that will change depending on when you ask me, but right now it's laminated doughs. They're just fun! I love them. I also stick like six chocolate batons in my chocolate croissant.
Valrhona: What is your favorite Valrhona Chocolate?
Kelly Fields: It depends on the day – GUANAJA 70% every day. I really love the PASSION FRUIT INSPIRATION [couvertures], I cannot stop with them. I love the hazelnut, AZÉLIA 35%, and I’m still a die-hard for the DULCEY 32%. You will never come to my house or my restaurant without DULCEY 32%, GUANAJA 70% and now the PASSION FRUIT. And the CARAMÉLIA!
Valrhona: What is your favorite perk of the Cercle V program?
Kelly Fields: The partnership I have with Valrhona has been exceptional because one: the customer support, and two: I feel like since I started using Valrhona, you have invested in me, you have been behind me cheering on what I’m doing. All the information when you launch something new or even send out a new version of The Essentials with every tool possible you could think of for how to best use your product is the success.
Valrhona: When & how did you hear about Valrhona for the first time?
Kelly Fields: When I was in culinary school and I was working at my first job, Valrhona was the chocolate that you'd have to work with when you learned what you were doing. So I started using Valrhona, and then Valrhona took me to a class in France, and then we went to the Bocuse. That taught me the value of what you're sending [to CercleV customers]. Having been through a class and understanding what those materials are, and how to look at them, and how they open up so many possibilities has made me prioritize, so when I receive [a mailing], I read it. I know from my own experience there's a lot of applicable information there.
Valrhona: Congratulations on winning the James Beard award for Outstanding Pastry Chef! While it’s not hard to find talented women who are dominating the pastry world, it seems their success is not highlighted as often as that of their male counterparts. Do you feel like your winning this award is a step in the right direction?
Kelly Fields: I think it is. I think the biggest step in the right direction is, frankly, food media in the US building equity between genders, and sort of eliminating that focus on the same “guy gang” that they've been focusing on for a really long time. There are so many talented people that I think the momentum that we, as a collective, have to be bigger and better than the guys they continue to write about is going to be a pretty unstoppable force.
Valrhona: This is the second year in a row that the James Beard award for Outstanding Pastry Chef has been awarded to a female chef from the South, with Dolester Miles in Birmingham, AL winning in 2018. Do you think Southern chefs are starting to gain more of the recognition they deserve in the pastry world than they have historically?
Kelly Fields: I think Southern food, in general, had a real homecoming over the last decade or so. And it became this sort of romanticized cuisine, which we've always thought of it as. But Southern pastry was never talked about in that sort of revival and appreciation of Southern food. So, for Dolester to win last year and for me to bring it to New Orleans this year is especially exciting because it feels like Southern pastry is finally relevant in the conversation about American cuisine and American pastry.
Valrhona: Why do you think Southern pastry wasn’t part of the conversation before? How would you describe what you love about Southern pastry?
Kelly Fields: There are a lot of stereotypes about Southern pastry being oversized, over-sweet and stationary and not evolving. My goal in coming back to New Orleans was to try to make room for pastry to be an ongoing part of the conversation … We're not standing still. We're not sticking to over-sweet desserts, and there's a lot more nuance and complexity to what we're doing than anybody's talking about.
I think the root of Southern pastry is really simple and joyous and using only what we have around us. Most of the traditions that have been written about in Southern Living or these magazines, it's become very precious. It's all the stories about your grandma. But Southern pastry was really birthed out of using only what you had around you. Like, we have a traditional dessert in New Orleans that is a rice beignet because you had leftover rice from dinner and you didn't throw it away because you couldn't afford not to consume it in some sort of way. And you always want to celebrate – even when you have nothing, you want to celebrate with something sweet. Vinegar pie and buttermilk pie, chess pie – all these things are a collection of savory ingredients that women and men in the past were smart enough to figure out how to make into a joyous celebration.
Valrhona: Can you tell us more about how you are empowering women and other groups who have been underrepresented?
Kelly Fields: Yes, Ma'am, we're about to relaunch, but we've been using all the fundraising dollars that we've made to give scholarships to women to further their education or go to conferences or go have hands-on work experiences with women around the country. And in my own restaurant, mentorship is a focus and it's something that we talk about almost every day with the management team. How am I mentoring them? Are they mentoring each other and how are they mentoring the people that work under them?
Valrhona: You put an emphasis on sourcing ingredients from regional farmers. Why do you think this is important? Do you think this is becoming more common in the restaurant industry?
Kelly Fields: It’s just who we are. Our shrimp for the shrimp toasts came off the boat this morning. A guy comes up in a pickup truck, and we buy 600 pounds of shrimp a week. It goes from the ocean to your dish. It doesn't get stored more than one day here and never sees a freezer. Everything is fresh as it can be.
I know who picks and processes my sugar. I know the guy who makes the cane syrup we put on the biscuits and the cornbread. The guy grows the sugarcane in his backyard and presses it and cooks the cane syrup in his backyard. This is such a cool place to find stuff.
But it’s expensive and it's time-consuming. For small business owners, sometimes it's easier not to do because you know what you're getting and you're getting it for the best price. To be able to run my business in a way that contributes to the economy on a much bigger level than Sysco, that for me is a value I'm unwilling to compromise.
Valrhona: We hear you have a cookbook in the works that will feature recipes for your favorite Southern dishes. Can you tell us what that process has been like? What recipes and stories are you most excited for readers to see?
Kelly Fields: The point of the book is that it's the book I needed when I started in this industry in the South. So, it's kind of a reference slash casual encyclopedia of Southern baking, and I'm excited to tell that story and not do it in a precious or textbook way. And it is me. It is written in my voice, so it's kind of stupid and funny and not very serious at all. I'm really excited about recipes that have long earned the comeback in the canon of Southern cooking, like the buttermilk pie in the chess pie. There's a chocolate chess pie with whipped ganache on top that I'm really excited about. And I really like the celebration of fruit. And the South has so many traditional, big, grand cakes in the history, like the 16-layer coconut cake. How do you make that relevant today?
Celsius or Fahrenheit?
Kelly Fields: I prefer Celsius, but I’m forced to work in Fahrenheit.
Cake or Tart?
Kelly Fields: Cake.
Kelly Fields: Lilia in Brooklyn.
Go to snack?
Kelly Fields: Charcuterie and cheese.
Wine or Cheese?
Kelly Fields: I mean, both. Do I have to pick one?
Coffee or Tea?
Kelly Fields: Coffee.
Favorite kitchen tool?
Kelly Fields: I really like a handheld immersion blender.
Craziest delicious flavor combination?
Kelly Fields: Turnips and coffee. With chocolate.