NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - At Willa Jean you’ll find a welcoming counter filled with stunning stacks of cookies and pastries and a dining room that stays busy thanks to the crave-worthy savory creations that bloom from the kitchen.
Behind it all you’ll find Chef Kelly Fields, a woman who poured her heart into her restaurant and has probably baked more chocolate chip cookies than you’ll ever eat in your life.
“I made chocolate chip cookies everyday almost, for two and half years, at least once a day to try to figure out what makes a perfect cookie,” Fields said. “It's crunchy, it's chewy, it's supposed to be soft, it's supposed to be gooey. Everybody has an idea of what that looks like, so how do you get that all in to one cookie? It took me two and half years of trying every day to figure out how to get that right.”
Fields drew on a familiar background, naming her restaurant after her grandmother, Willa Jean, and building the foundation around those memories.
“I have all of her handwritten recipes on the paper you get your cookies and milk from, that's the memory,” Fields said.
As a kid, she would fight her siblings for the beater from her grandmother’s hand mixer, covered in that sticky cookie dough that never made it to the pan, and while she may not have always won, every guest that orders cookies gets that beater with a dollop of cookie dough, although if there’s more than one person at the table there’s likely still a fight for who gets to lick it clean.
Fields got her footing in the kitchen under James Beard Award winner Susan Spicer, starting as a pastry chef at Spice, Inc. in the Warehouse District, where she realized she could make a career out of cooking. Two decades later, she’s crafted a thoughtful menu rooted in pastries.
“Every dish that we have on the menu here, starts in the bake shop. All the pastries start over here and we have a room that's all bread. So, we're very self-aware of who we are so everything starts with bread or pastries,” Fields said.
The James Beard Foundation has recognized Fields as a finalist for the Outstanding Pastry Chef award and while it’ll mark her third trip to the ceremony, it’s the people in the restaurant that really make her smile.
“I walk in here every day and I'm still just like, ‘Ha! People are showing up!’ It's just the most incredible feeling to come in here every day and see the staff and see how hard they’re working and how they've bought in and how much fun they're having and we're just making really good food and trying to do it better every day.”
It’s a testament to where she started and where Chef Fields is heading in a direction that’s captured taste buds in New Orleans, roping them in with a cookie that’s hard to ever forget.
“Somehow a pastry chef opened a restaurant and people come and eat the savory food and they’re excited about it, which is shocking and amazing to me but also, pastries aren’t a second thought here, so don’t skip 'em!" Field said. “Cookies keep us in business ... for sure!”