Kelly Fields labored 2½ years to good a single dessert.
Some variations had been too skinny. Some had the mistaken texture. Others simply didn’t meet her requirements. The tip end result: a chocolate chip cookie.
Fields, who final 12 months received the James Beard Award for Excellent Pastry Chef, serves the cookie at Willa Jean, her New Orleans bakery and restaurant, with a glass of milk and a beater stuffed with uncooked dough.
Fields, 42, polished her pastry abilities at high-end eating places, the place perfection was demanded on the plate and errors weren’t tolerated within the kitchen. In a enterprise the place nonetheless few girls rise to the highest, she discovered a method to succeed — even when her boss and benefactor, the movie star chef John Besh, grew to become synonymous with dangerous habits within the #metoo reckoning.
When Fields determined to open her personal place in 2015, as an alternative of fancy desserts she centered on biscuits, cornbread and sticky buns that drip caramel like a lit candle. She made Willa Jean a welcoming place. And she or he tries, she stated, to verify the work atmosphere is kinder than so many locations the place she’s been.
Love of cooking developed in childhood
“The Good Book of Southern Baking” (Lorena Jones Books), Fields’ first cookbook, collects her candy secrets and techniques for all the things from fluffy pancakes and home made Moon Pies to seven several types of biscuits — together with one for canines favored by her pooch R.S. Kinney.
“I needed a contemporary canon of Southern desserts and baking, with out holding issues in that outsized, over-sweet field that Southern desserts normally are in,” Fields stated. “As a result of that’s not the way in which I cook dinner, and that’s not the way in which most individuals I do know who’re baking strategy meals.”
We worth desserts, Fields believes, as a result of they’re not vital.
“You must eat the meal to outlive. You don’t must eat the pie to outlive,” she stated.
The sweets we decide, notably once we’re younger, linger the longest in our reminiscences, Fields stated.
It’s true for her. A lemon chiffon pie transports her to the house of her nice aunt Jean. A peach cobbler makes her really feel 7 years previous once more. After which there’s her household’s heat chocolate pudding.
“I may be again in the home that I grew up in, and keep in mind the way it felt and the way it smelled when my mother made pudding,” Fields stated.
Fields was born in Ohio (“I don’t say that out loud fairly often in any respect.”). Her household settled in Charleston, S.C., when Fields was younger. Her mom, Shari, wasn’t a lot of a cook dinner, however she might bake — truffles, cookies, pies and biscuits — and he or she did almost each weekend. Fields remembers swiping a slice from the truffles her mother would retailer within the microwave.
The three Fields youngsters took turns making dinner and cleansing up afterward. Fields would usually commerce her cleansing shifts for cooking shifts, partly as a result of she hated cleansing, partly as a result of her sister, Kimberly, inherited their mother’s lack of cooking abilities. It wasn’t lengthy earlier than Fields needed to cook dinner dinner as a result of she’d been captivated by the recipes in her household’s many cookbooks.
Rising up, Fields was near her grandmother on her dad’s aspect, Willa Jean, who lived in Indiana. Willa Jean additionally wasn’t a lot of a cook dinner, however she inspired Fields’ rising curiosity in meals.
“We’re form of comparable folks, with the identical dry, sarcastic, cussed, sassiness,” Fields stated.
After highschool, Fields moved to New Orleans and labored at somewhat bakery. Willa Jean informed her, “Determine who you need to work for and go work for them.” Fields had seen the New Orleans chef Susan Spicer on the Meals Community. So Fields walked into Spice Inc., Spicer’s now-closed bakery and deli, and requested for a job.
On the time, Fields didn’t take into consideration what it meant to work for a feminine chef. Right now, after years logged in high-pressure kitchens run by males, she sees why it mattered.
“I spotted how that unconscious determination to go work for Susan in all probability is the one factor that saved me within the enterprise, to be actual trustworthy,” she stated.
In Spicer’s kitchen, when cooks made errors, they had been anticipated to repair them and be taught.
“Relatively than a few of the different kitchens I’ve been in the place you make a mistake, you don’t have a job anymore. Otherwise you’re humiliated or no matter,” Fields stated.
Willa Jean additionally informed Fields she needed to go to school. The final time they talked, earlier than Willa Jean received too sick from the most cancers that killed her in 2000, Fields known as to share her acceptance to the Charleston campus of the distinguished Johnson & Wales culinary program.
Chopping her enamel in New Orleans
After graduating in 2002, Fields returned to New Orleans. Regardless that she had simply completed culinary faculty, chef John Besh, who earlier than his fall from grace as a consequence of allegations of sexual misconduct was one in all New Orleans’ most esteemed cooks, employed her to be the pastry chef at celebrated Restaurant August. What did Besh see within the younger chef?
“I do not know. No thought,” Fields stated. “I sat there and tried to behave like I knew what I used to be speaking about for a minute.”
Excessive-end pastry cooks within the 2000s had been sculpting elaborate plates with chocolate and sugar. Fields informed Besh that she was concerned with flavors, not structure.
“John is John, and made lots of selections with emotion,” stated Michael Gulotta, on the time one other younger chef within the Restaurant August kitchen. Besh, who served with the Marine Corps throughout Desert Storm, ran his kitchens with a army mindset.
“He discovered the youthful folks had been higher, as a result of he might management them extra,” Gulotta stated.
When Fields was employed, Besh was busy opening his second restaurant, a steak home in Harrah’s New Orleans on line casino. It was step one in rising his firm to a dozen high-profile eating places and leveraging his allure and attractiveness to turn out to be New Orleans’ most well-known chef since Emeril Lagasse.
With Besh centered on the steak home, Fields’ boss at Restaurant August was chef de delicacies Brandon Sharp, a hotshot who had labored below chef Thomas Keller on the French Laundry, a California restaurant thought of then, and now, one in all America’s finest. In Fields’ reminiscence, Sharp wasn’t too impressed with the brand new pastry chef his boss had employed.
“He was extremely disciplined and extremely well-spoken about meals and sensible and clever on each degree,” Fields stated. “I used to be tough across the edges. I nonetheless am.”
Sharp, who’s now the chef/proprietor of Hawthorne & Wooden in Chapel Hill, N.C., doesn’t keep in mind his first impression of Fields. After churning by way of New Orleans cooks he had low expectations for each new rent, he stated. What he remembers is his remaining impression.
“She had some ineffable qualities that simply made her appear assured,” Sharp stated. “I do not know if she was projecting confidence or if she has that innate capability, however it’s definitely been borne out in what she’s completed ever since.”
When Sharp critiqued Fields’ desserts, she listened and improved, a response he nonetheless finds uncommon amongst cooks.
In 2005, the federal levees failed following Hurricane Katrina, inundating 80% of New Orleans. Fields’ dwelling flooded, destroying notebooks of recipes she had saved her complete profession. Removed from town, and he or she traveled in North Carolina and across the East Coast after evacuating, she recreated these recipes. She would shut her eyes, and repeat the motions she’d made so many occasions within the kitchen at Restaurant August.
“Actually, bodily working by way of the recipes and writing down what I’d be doing,” she stated.
In all probability 90% of the recipes in that pocket book are in “The Good E book of Southern Baking,” akin to her pancakes (p. 64), the bread pudding (p. 146) and the fig and brown butter custard tart (p. 225).
Different recipes she determined weren’t price recreating. A number of ill-considered tarts. Too many ridiculous spins on bread pudding.
“While you’re making an attempt to make bread pudding fancy, you’ve completely gone the mistaken method. Interval,” she stated.
After Hurricane Katrina, Fields labored in California. She traveled all through Europe and the Center East. In 2010, she was in New Zealand and stopped at an web café to examine her e mail. She had a message from Gulotta, who she considers “like my brother.” He was now operating the kitchen at Restaurant August, and he wanted her again because the pastry chef.
New Orleans’ deep tradition felt prefer it might actually wash away after Katrina. Earlier than the storm, Restaurant August had been innovative. Now the restaurant was embracing New Orleans’ culinary roots, albeit with the polish applicable to the restaurant’s costs. Fields’ easier strategy, the way in which every of her desserts strove to focus on the primary ingredient, match the second.
Gulotta additionally wanted somebody who might navigate the extraordinary kitchen tradition at Restaurant August, after a number of pastry cooks had flamed out. He wanted somebody who might work with Besh.
“He’s simply one in all these forces of nature, or hell. I don’t know,” Gulotta stated. “Nobody else knew take care of John, whereas Kelly did.”
At Restaurant August, Kelly needed to be powerful. Mike Carmody, a baker at an Italian restaurant Besh opened in 2009, remembers his first encounter with Fields. They had been working an occasion collectively, and he or she sized him up and informed him she didn’t belief his pastry abilities. He would solely be allowed to make the vegan desserts.
“She got here from a restaurant business and group that was powerful, and there weren’t actually any girls on the high. She was alone for thus lengthy,” Carmody stated. “She needed to create this intimidating presence.”
Fields quickly softened on Carmody. He got here to see her as “somewhat little bit of a genius and hardworking and funky.” Later, she would rent Carmody, who now works at Proof Bakeshop in Atlanta, to supervise the bread at Willa Jean.
The workers below Fields at Restaurant August had been extra more likely to see her anger. One cook dinner, who requested that her identify not be used, stated she went to work on daily basis worrying it will be her final.
Opening Willa Jean
Gulotta and Fields would discuss usually about having their very own locations. Ultimately, Gulotta left Besh’s restaurant group to open the informal, Southeast Asian impressed MoPho and later the higher-end Maypop. Kelly would open Willa Jean, named for her grandmother, with backing from Besh and his firm.
“There’s so many nice eating places in New Orleans, it’s laborious to seek out backers on this city,” Gulotta stated.
Willa Jean, in New Orleans’ Central Enterprise District, occupies the nook of a lately constructed high-rise, however the vibrant restaurant has a rustic allure. Platters simply contained in the door are piled with cookies, muffins and fast breads. The servers put on matching blue gingham shirts. The fake brick partitions are painted with a duplicate of an historical Uneeda Biscuit advert, the unique of which may be discovered on a constructing within the French Quarter.
Fields took inspiration for her restaurant from Charleston’s Hominy Grill, which closed final 12 months after almost 1 / 4 century in enterprise. Rising up, her favourite deal with was breakfast there. She cherished the little touches, like how the fast breads had been griddled earlier than served. She does the identical at Willa Jean.
“Oh, I stole all the things I might from there,” she stated with fun. “It was the very best eating out expertise I’ve ever had, as a result of it was my favourite meal interval however with that degree of hospitality you’re used to at dinner.”
Nonetheless, she stated, she drew probably the most inspiration from the restaurant’s namesake, Fields’ grandmother Willa Jean.
“A whole lot of it’s simply her openness, to permit folks to indicate up as they’re and never really feel like they should be apologizing for that,” she stated.
Carmody, who got here to work at Willa Jean shortly after it opened, instantly observed that Fields was completely different. She had dropped the powerful exterior.
“That complete façade was gone as a result of she didn’t want it anymore,” he stated. “She was in cost.”
Fields, who wears her hair shaved shut on the edges with layers of blond on high, nonetheless comes throughout as intense, however she punctuates the seriousness with sly smiles and mugging. She looks like the form of one that would possibly poke you within the stomach to drive dwelling a goofy joke, if such gestures had been nonetheless allowed in a office.
After Willa Jean opened, Besh would drop by within the morning, examine the kitchen and meet with Fields. In accordance with one former workers member, Fields was by no means in temper after these conferences.
In 2017, an investigation by Brett Anderson for New Orleans’ Instances-Picayune newspaper found widespread allegations of sexual harassment at the Besh Restaurant Group. Particular allegations of harassment had been leveled towards Besh and his enterprise companion, Octavio Mantilla. The story described Willa Jean, in distinction to many different Besh eating places, as a welcoming place for girls and LGBTQ workers.
Within the wake of the story, Besh ended each his formal and public roles in his firm’s eating places. The Besh Restaurant Group was renamed BRG. And Besh stopped coming round Willa Jean, though he and Mantilla stay partial house owners of the restaurant. Besh didn’t reply to a number of interview requests despatched to his firm, BRG Hospitality.
Fields declined to debate Besh.
“It’s a piece in progress. I simply don’t discuss him,” she stated. “There’s an excessive amount of good and an excessive amount of essential occurring to fret about that half.”
Willa Jean is a restaurant, not like most, the place girls outnumber males 9 to 1. Males who don’t like taking orders from girls don’t final.
The cooks on Fields’ pastry workforce get to check out their very own concepts. The nice ones find yourself on the platters of pastries on sale out entrance. She made Willa Jean right into a kitchen just like the one Spicer ran, the place that inspired Fields to proceed cooking at first of her profession.
“Initially this house was created to be the alternative of my expertise arising on this restaurant business,” she stated. “However the extra you undo it, the extra you be taught there’s to undo.”
The coronavirus pandemic has uncovered inequalities throughout American society. Within the restaurant business, it has led to a conversation about reforming a system built on low wages and long hours for too many. Fields has been grappling with these questions for years. The solutions, she is aware of, are usually not straightforward nor are options instant.
“For 20 years, I operated on a sure degree in a sure method that was, for higher or worse, crushed into me,” she stated. “Each day is a brand new day to proceed to do the work to unlearn.”