I’m going to get right to the point: I wrote this book to bury y’all in cornbread and biscuits. Not just ordinary cornbread and biscuits, but the best dang ones you’ve ever had. I’ve spent twenty years figuring out how to perfect every dessert in my repertoire, and it’s high time I share those honed recipes. My cornbread? It’s made with a mix of cornmeal, corn flour, and buttermilk that sits in the fridge overnight, which plumps up that cornmeal and makes a killer moist and supremely corny-tasting loaf. And my biscuits are made with Italian-style 00 flour. I know that’s not Southern, but damn, that flour creates some of the flakiest biscuits you will ever taste.
While I’ve worked in pastry kitchens under amazing chefs, I’ve also learned a lot from plain old trial and error. And even the absolute disasters were fun. That’s ’cause baking is meant to be fun. I took two and a half years to get my chocolate chip cookie just right, and now I sell more than ten thousand cookies a week at my New Orleans restaurant and bakery, Willa Jean. Baking doesn’t need to be laborious or scary, y’all. The pastry of the American South was born out of ingenuity, simplicity, and intuition. A handful, a dollop, and just a pinch are how ingredients have been measured for centuries, and I’ll be damned if that hasn’t worked, and worked deliciously. It’s a beautiful thing to get to know your ingredients well enough to just “feel” them, to know instinctively that you need a splash of this or another pinch of that. It’s how we do it in the South . . . and I personally rejoice in the beauty of it. Calm down, put your phone away, take a deep breath, get your hands in the flour, and let them do the work.
How did I get here? It was a long and winding road that began when I was a kid growing up on the water in the low country of South Carolina. That was a pretty idyllic place. My mom had a beautiful garden and grew most of her own produce, which we used for baking, canning, and jamming—my mom treated preserving like an Olympic sport. We also regularly went to farmers’ markets and pick-your-own fruit farms. My mom baked everything, from fruit pies and cobblers to biscuits, cakes, and cookies. The door to our house was never locked, and neighborhood kids came and went, grabbing cookies along the way. We were kind of the neighborhood cookie factory. My mom was also known for her cakes. She made carrot cake (it took me years to understand why anyone would want to put vegetables in a cake), Mississippi mud cake, and even a better-than-sex cake (a sweet concoction of chocolate, cream, caramel, and coconut). Let me tell you, when my two siblings and I first had that cake as little kids, we were all like, ooohhhh
My mom’s mother, Audrey McDowell, was also a great baker. As far back as I can remember, every time we visited, she would make her apple cake, which was super, super moist and had a perfect pure apple taste. My bakery, Willa Jean, is actually named after my father’s mother. She was a terrible cook, but she was sassy and stubborn and sarcastic, and she was my biggest cheerleader and life coach. (I get my personality from her.) Whenever I was a pain in the ass, my dad called me Willa Jean Junior, which stuck as my nickname. I always thought it was a compliment, and needless to say, my grandma got a real kick out of it.
After high school, I moved to New Orleans and started working in bakeries and pastry shops. I went to work for Susan Spicer, who back then had a gourmet shop called Spice Inc. It took two years for me to realize that I could actually make baking a career. I really didn’t know it was a valid choice until I went to work for Susan, where I saw a successful woman doing something she loved to do, and it was a real oh shit moment. Grandma Willa Jean and I started talking, and she told me that if you find something you love to do that much, don’t look anywhere else—go do it. Grandma paid my rent while I was working for Susan, supporting my desire to dive right into the industry and work for the best chef, the one I would grow to emulate. Grandma Willa Jean also made me promise never to tell my cousins that she was footing the bill!
At a staff meeting in late 1999, Susan announced that she was closing Spice Inc. to open Herbsaint with chef Donald Link. I took that as an opportunity to go to culinary school. I went to Charleston to attend Johnson & Wales University, again with Grandma’s support. In 2002, not long after graduating from school, I went back to NOLA and applied for a job in the pastry kitchen at Restaurant August—as the pastry chef! When I started, I was in way over my head; I should never have been in that position. It was sink or swim . . . and I swam.
To be honest, the chef de cuisine who ran the kitchen at August really pushed me to succeed. He was a classically trained guy, and I came in really rough around the edges. He didn’t think I should be there. He told me I wouldn’t last a month, so out of spite, I changed the menu. When I started at August, there were five desserts on the menu that were constantly rotating. I threw away the existing menu and created themed tasting plates. I wasn’t allowed to take August’s signature bread pudding off the menu, and customers always wanted the other signature NOLA desserts: crème brûlée and cheesecake. So, I figured that instead of serving them separately, I’d put them all together on one tasting plate that I called A Taste of New Orleans. I also created a chocolate tasting plate and a farmers’ market plate, as well as one rotating dessert plate that usually had a dairy focus. Each had at least three components, but some nights a plate could have as many as nine components. These new-style desserts took off, and there was no longer any doubt about whether I should be running the pastry kitchen at August.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, I took a few years off and traveled. A lot. Then I lived in San Francisco and worked under the maniacal badass Shuna Lydon at Sens, where the focus was on southern Mediterranean desserts. Shuna had the resume I wanted: she had worked at the French Laundry, Bouchon, Citizen Cake, and even with Claudia Fleming at Gramercy Tavern! I knew I needed to work under her, but it was intense. Very intense. I learned a lot about mentorship, leadership, and organization from her. It was the first real position where I got to see and learn business management and not just food.
At Sens, I befriended chef Michael Dotson, and he and I traveled to Scotland before he opened a gastropub called Martin’s West in Redwood City, California. I was the pastry chef there, but I also helped run the savory kitchen. We were trying to do Scottish food, like haggis and corn dogs, for Americans (which is pretty funny to me now), back before the gastropub trend in America. One of the partners, Moira Beveridge (who is now Moira Beveridge Dotson) is Scottish. We went to learn about the Scottish approach to eating, since their farm-to-table approach to life was beyond anything I had experienced, even in San Francisco. There was a restaurant in Edinburgh named Martins back in the day, run by a fellow named Martin Irons. He was one of the restaurateurs who inspired Alice Waters’s passion and mission for championing farm-to-table cooking. I figured out how to make the best sticky toffee pudding there, and we had a lot of fun.
I also traveled throughout Europe and the Middle East. Traveling and living in other places exposed me to so many different flavor combos, developing my palate and food memory in ways that continue to inform my daily baking. Just eating strawberries in those places made the journey worth it. For example, I tried strawberries served simply with elderflower in Scotland and then roasted with quince in Israel, and realized how the same ingredient can have a distinctly different personality across the globe. My travels have allowed me to learn, hands on, about seasonings and spices in a way that would not have been possible otherwise.
In 2010, when I was in New Zealand, I got an email from Michael Gulotta, then the executive chef at August. He shared his goals and aspirations for the restaurant and told me there was no one he wanted to do it with other than me. So, I went back. The time was right.
The thing is, when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans back in 2005, I lost every notebook and recipe I had accumulated during my career. As soon as I arrived safely at my mom’s house in the days after the storm, I wrote down every single recipe I could recall in a little red notebook. I remember sitting in bookstores and coffee shops with that notebook, closing my eyes and literally moving my body as if I were making the things I wanted to recall. Muscle memory is an incredible thing, and it helped me resolidify the foundational recipes that have ultimately shaped my career. Truth be told, I still use that notebook to this day. It inspires me as I flip through it, seeing where recipes started and the journeys I have taken through making those recipes in different parts of the world. It’s stained and falling apart—as well worn as my favorite pastry cookbook. While thinking about getting back to my roots when I returned to New Orleans, and again before I opened Willa Jean, this notebook was the reminder of where I had come from and the measure of the growth I had experienced. That little notebook spent a good eight years in my left back pocket and is the figurative glue that binds this very book together.
Copyright © 2020 by Kelly Fields with Kate Heddings. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.