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Chef Kelly Fields of Willa Jean & Her James Beard Award-Winning Journey

Chef Kelly Fields of Willa Jean & Her James Beard Award-Winning Journey

Food & People, New Orleans

Chef Kelly Fields’ James Beard award-winning career began entirely “on accident”. Kelly was 19 at the time and found herself working in a bakery owned by a friend’s parents as a favor.

“That’s when I realized that’s what I wanted to do.”

Chef Kelly Fields | photo credit: Gabrielle Geiselman

So, she began to work at the bakery full time.

“When I had learned everything I could there, I went to work for Susan Spicer. She had just won a James Beard award and was the woman to work for in New Orleans.”

Working for Susan Spicer solidified Fields’ love for the industry. By the year 2000, she had enrolled at Johnson and Wales in Charleston, South Carolina—where she grew up. By 2002, Fields moved straight back to New Orleans and became the pastry chef at acclaimed Restaurant August.

Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, forcing Chef Fields to leave New Orleans. Rather than take up a position in another restaurant in the South, Fields decided to travel the world. Literally.

“I worked. I saw the world. I learned things. I cooked.”

Over the course of some years, Fields traveled extensively throughout Scotland, Iceland, Italy, Egypt, Israel, New Zealand, and countless other places.

Chef Kelly Fields in Iceland by the Gullfoss Waterfall

“I did a lot of WWOOFing,” Fields explained. The Willing Workers on Organic Farms (“WWOOF”) program is a network of national organizations that connect people interested in learning about organic farming and smallholdings with hosts of the same. It’s a simple bartering process—trading room, board, and food for a certain amount of work per day or week.

“I would schedule time where one week I would be on an olive farm during olive harvest, picking olives. Then, the next week I’d be in the actual press,” Fields recounts. “I’d schedule things so that I could see the whole process.”

Fields also staged and worked at a number of small bakeries around the world.

“Being somewhere like Turkey, where they’re firing pastries in these little holes in the wall, I would ask all the questions and figure out what they do.”

Chef Kelly Fields gave horseback riding tours

It was this very type of experience that brought Fields back to her own roots of cooking.

“I had gotten so into sous vide and molecular and trendy stuff. To be traveling places where it’s just fire and really good ingredients brought me back to what is important—what is food, what is nourishment, and how much more important nourishment is over getting your ego on the plate.”

In between WWOOFing and stages, Fields also took up odd jobs.

“I did horseback riding tours around a glacier lake in New Zealand for a week. The lake is fluorescent blue from the chemical compounds!”

Blue Lagoon

Over the years, it was neither those odd jobs nor the stages that Fields remembers with the most fondness.

“For me, it was cooking meals with families. A very good friend of mine from New Orleans is Israeli. I met her and her entire family in Israel and I cooked with her dad at their house. That’s my favorite cooking memory.”

That, and cooking out from the back of a van in Iceland under the Northern Lights. As one does…

Fields continued her adventures after coming back to the United States by taking up positions in San Francisco.

“I figured out New Orleans was exactly where I wanted to come back to. It’s New Orleans. It’s in my blood. This city is home. It feels exactly like the place I belong in the world, after traveling most of it.”

In 2015, Willa Jean restaurant opened its doors in New Orleans. At first, the premise was very simple—a bakery with a couple of sandwiches. Fields soon found herself giving the concept room to show her what else it needed to be. Today, it’s a full service restaurant and bar.

Willa Jean | photo credit: Gabrielle Geiselman

“The bakery is one of the easiest overlooked parts of this business.” That being said, Fields did just win the James Beard Award for “Outstanding Pastry Chef” in the entire country and has been nominated for the same before. To Fields, Willa Jean and her role as Chef Partner means so much more.

Willa Jean | photo credit: Rush Jagoe

“It’s about being inclusive enough in our thought process to make sure that we’re securing the future of the brand, the business, the people who work here, the farmers we choose to work with. It’s about making sure we’re doing everything we can to disrupt what the restaurant industry has always been. It’s about creating a more equitable environment for everyone.”

Fields is doing things right. With her transparent approach to financials as well as the future of the restaurant, she encourages her cooks and other staff to become entrepreneurs themselves.

“My job is to create the opportunity for everyone to have their own version of Willa Jean.”

As of 2017, Fields has extended that mentality past her employees and into the culinary world at large by launching the “Yes Ma’am” Foundation, “to inspire, encourage, and mentor the next generation of women in the restaurant and hospitality industry.”

For Fields, it’s important that women are able to access mentors in the business from an early stage. As a woman in the South, she recognized that mentorship–especially from and for women–was not easily accessible. In fact, it wasn’t until she had already reached a certain level of success that she began to learn from others on the same path.

Chef Kelly Fields after winning the 2019 James Beard Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef

“The stuff I learned so late in my career could have defined me a lot earlier and could have helped me figure out stuff in a much easier and gentler way.”

The end goal?

“I want to make sure that no one else is in the position where you can’t have a mentor in the restaurant industry until you’ve been nominated for a James Beard Award.”

Hear hear.

Chef Fields is hard at work with Yes Ma’am to provide scholarships and funding to women interested in attending leadership conferences or going abroad to stage and learn. She is also currently working on her first cookbook book, due to release in Fall 2020.

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