Kelly Fields is a legend in the pastry world who has been mastering her craft for the past two decades. For years, Fields ran a high-end pastry program at John Besh’s August, but when it came time to open her own concept, Willa Jean, she chose to go a more traditional route. The resulting fare garnered her her first James Beard recognition, in 2015. Here, she reflects on her journey, the current New Orleans pastry scene, and some of the most important lessons her career has taught her.
You once said you ended up in hospitality “by accident.” If not for that happy accident, what do you think you would be doing today?
I had a lot of goals when I was growing up: photography, aviation, urban planning and even medicine. Being so in love with my industry, it’s really hard now to think about the “what ifs.” I really can’t imagine doing anything else, and I feel like this world would have found and claimed me at some point, regardless of what my direction may have been.
Have you ever consider focusing on savory food? What made you stick with pastry?
I learned all the savory stations I was able to in each restaurant I’ve worked. Pastry is my first love and always will be, but I’m really thankful for the learning experience and for the position I’m in now — having the privilege to oversee savory and sweet menus in my own restaurant. I believe that my pastry background makes me a better cook. Even now when I focus so much on cooking savory foods, I’m still bettering my abilities, approach, and thought process when it comes to pastry.
How do you think the life of a Pastry Chef compares with that of an Exec Chef?
It’s the same job, but just almost always without the due credit or “glory” in these times. I’ve held both roles, so I say this with absolute confidence.
Has the New Orleans pastry scene evolved over the past couple decades? If so, how?
After Katrina, I think we, as a city, really regained focus on our traditions and held those near and dear. In the decade since, there’s been a real push by chefs to push the scope of cuisines forward, while still honoring where we came from. It’s been really beautiful and fun to see restaurants truly celebrating who New Orleans is by recognizing and introducing all of the cultures that have defined our city.
Although you started your career in New Orleans, you’ve stated previously that you left the city to travel after Katrina hit in 2005. Did you have to leave, or was this something you’d been wanting to do for awhile?
When Katrina hit, I had to leave. In the wake of the storm, as the devastation became a reality for the entire community, I decided to make the most of the situation and go out and see, taste, smell, and learn all I could from whoever, wherever. Traveling, working under different chefs, and stray anything comfortable was perhaps the best education I could have ever had.
What were the most important lessons you learned in those years?
Learn from everyone and everything. Also, after gaining so much exposure to new flavors, spices, and even flavor combinations from living in different agricultural climates, I’m able to reflect on what I saw and experienced daily.
What advice do you have for young pastry chefs looking to make their mark on the industry?
Take your time and be patient. Be in love with our craft daily.
What do the next few years have in store for you?
Well, I hope to continue to solidify and build the brand of Willa Jean. I hope to continue investing in my team, my community, and learning something new every single day.
You can follow Kelly Fields on Instagram: @kellyfields.
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