On the morning I joined celebrated chefs Kelly Fields and Lisa White for coffee at their restaurant, Willa Jean, New Orleans was just beginning to enter into the throes of bead-and-glitter Mardi Gras mayhem. “It’s a party—every day is a party,” Fields laughed. “Sometimes you want to be at the party, sometimes you don’t.” The duo are no stranger to the fact that Carnival season in the city is a marathon, not a sprint, and one that requires a certain kind of sugary stamina if you’re working in the kitchen. Kelly’s elegant desserts wowed out-of-towners and locals alike for years at John Besh’s Restaurant August, while Lisa’s magical king cakes (the traditional sweet of the season) at another Besh favorite, Domenica, have long been the stuff of magical Mardi Gras legend. DSC_6724 (4) In August 2015, the pastry dream team combined their forces to open a Besh-backed space of their own, Willa Jean, named after Fields’ grandmother. “We thought we were opening a bakery,” said Fields, “and now we have a very busy restaurant and bakery all in one space.” Located in the burgeoning South Market District, Willa Jean offers playful takes on Southern staples—like potato chip crusted oysters with buttermilk ranch and caviar—alongside pastries, breads, and a stellar coffee program that runs from sun up to sun down. There’s also a full bar that reflects not only the restaurant’s commitment to seasonal flavors—and willingness to embrace the sillier side of food and drink. “I have an extremely goofy personality, and when we were building out the bar program, I wanted a slushie machine on the bar. I believed in the power of the slushie—and it’s been the best seller,” said Fields. “I’m really looking forward to doing some sort of frozen slushie lemonade drink in the spring.” The bar’s “Southern nostalgia” focus also includes a wide swath of small batch bourbons, and the most robust selection of coffee and tea-based cocktails in the city. (A play on the classic “peanuts and Coke” combination with bourbon is a personal menu favorite.) Going into their first spring, Fields and White are particularly excited about the bounty of produce just over the horizon. “We have a really wonderful berry season here, and they pair especially well with the herbs that we get. We tend to see stone fruit really early here, too, so I always associate that with spring—the cherries and apricots and peaches and all that Southern goodness. It’s not taking ourselves too seriously and letting us show ourselves with high quality products.” said Fields. DSC_6485 (1) The sunny climate in New Orleans not only lends itself to a wide-ranging growing season, but a community that values encouragement over competition. “The community in New Orleans is a lot more supportive than other cities. We’re all opening restaurants, but whether you’re successful or not everyone in the industry here roots for each other. When somebody is wildly successful, we’re cheering for them. If they’re not successful, we’re there for whatever they need. I don’t find that to be true other places,” said Fields. “Here, it’s like ‘We’re in this together, and we all want the same thing.’” This commitment to a familial attitude is at the heart of Willa Jean’s spirit day in and day out, radiating not only in the smiles of Fields and White but through the lovingly constructed creations that line the restaurant’s counters. “I’d like Willa Jean to be grown into a place that’s synonymous with quality representation of the South as a sense of place. When I was in trouble as a kid, my dad would call me Willa Jean, Jr.,” said Fields. “ taught me to never be afraid to put myself out there, and that’s what this entire business is. You put your grandma’s name on something, you want to see it everywhere.” Visit Willa Jean at 611 O'Keefe Ave. in downtown New Orleans.
March 05, 2016 — Molly Szkotak