New Orleans did not have the success we usually have at the annual James Beard Foundation Awards this year. Of the multiple chefs, restaurateurs and food service professionals up for the honor, Brett Anderson of the Times Picayune was given the Jonathan Gold Local Voice award, and Kelly Fields, chef-owner of Willa Jean in the CBD, was picked Outstanding Pastry Chef. Fields is a huge talent, and had been nominated three times before winning this year. She’s a native of Charleston, South Carolina and while she’s primarily known as a baker, she’s got savory chops too.
I had a chance to speak with her after she returned to New Orleans from Chicago, where the awards were announced at a gala on Sunday night. When she won, she admitted that she hadn’t prepared an acceptance speech, but she made sure to give credit to her staff. I asked her if there were any folks in particular she’d like to recognize and she was quick to name Lexi Fragofo, who runs the pastry department at Willa Jean, and Adrian Morgan, who runs the bread program.
We also talked about her work with the Yes Ma’am Foundation, which she launched two years ago to create opportunities for women in the restaurant industry. It’s about breaking down barriers and doing away with stereotypes; it’s an ongoing process, and progress has been made, but like many other professions, women are often still not given the respect their male counterparts receive in professional kitchens. That’s not to say that we don’t have outstanding women chefs who are recognized for their talent, because we do. Rather it’s that most cooks are men and most kitchens are run by men. It’s an odd thing, given that cooking at home is generally seen as “woman’s work,” and Chef Fields’ work on behalf of Yes Ma’am deserves at least as much recognition as her Beard award. She mentioned that there’s a re-launch in near future for Yes Ma’am, so be looking for that.
Fields is also in the late stages of putting out a cookbook, which she described as a sort of casual encyclopedia of modern Southern baking. She wants to make clear that not all baked goods from the South are overly sweet or precious, and again she wants to break down stereotypes. It’s been two years in the making, but she seems to be close to getting it published. Not so close that a final title has been selected. “I’ve got a name I’ve been using,” she said, “but my editor isn’t crazy about it.” Regardless of the title, hearing her describe it as a “casual encyclopedia of Southern baking” was enough for me to know I’ll be picking a copy up when it comes out.
The last thing I asked Chef Fields was what she did after the ceremony was over on Sunday night. She went to the after party put on by the Beard Foundation, she said, and then “party-hopped” until around 2:00, when she went to a local restaurant for steak and potatoes before heading back to another party. When she got back to New Orleans on Tuesday evening, friends and the staff of Willa Jean met her at the airport with Popeye’s and champagne, which is something that I would like to experience once in my life whether I win an award or – far more likely – not. I will alert you, dear readers, when I next plan to travel so that you can mark your calendars for my return.
I’m a fan of Chef Fields, so it’s delightful to see her work recognized yet again. If you’ve been to Willa Jean, you probably share that sentiment. If you haven’t been to Willa Jean, you should. Just be prepared for a bit of a wait if you go during lunch or prime dinner hours; turns out the James Beard Foundation aren’t the only ones who appreciate Fields.