The Best Breakfast Chef of 2017
I woke up like this—and then I went to breakfast at Willa Jean
If you build it, Bey will come—or at least that's what chef Kelly Fields hoped when she opened Willa Jean in New Orleans in 2015. The Southern-centric restaurant and bakery opens at 7 a.m. each day, serving a glorious array of freshly baked breads and pastries, plenty of savory dishes (like a life-restoring grits and braised short rib "hangover bowl" and a croque madame), meticulous coffee, and a gobsmacking "biscuit situation," then shifting gears to meatloaf, truly righteous fried chicken, a rotating selection of slushy cocktails, Champagne, desserts, and plenty more until 9 p.m. Locals and tourists alike quickly took notice.
The press did, too, and Fields knew better than to throw away her shot. She mentioned her favorite artist, Beyonce, in every single interview (including this one with Extra Crispy) for a year and a half in an attempt to get the singer's attention, until one fateful Saturday this past February when the whole Carter clan strolled in for a leisurely weekend brunch. With five minutes' notice (Beyonce's sister Solange, a Willa Jean regular, popped in to give a quick heads-up), Fields prepared a feast fit for the then-pregnant star including most notably a fried chicken biscuit and some cornbread, which she accidentally offered with a bow.
"I lost my mind. I didn't know how to say hello," Fields recalled with amused delight when Extra Crispy sat down with her during a bustling Sunday brunch service. "I was bringing food over to the table and I literally bowed to Beyonce with cornbread. She laughed. She was super gracious."
Earlier that week, the James Beard committee had selected Fields as an Outstanding Pastry Chef semifinalist, as they had in 2015 and 2016, and she went on to become one of the final five nominees for the award.
In Fields' world of warm, generous, gravy-drenched hospitality, a person doesn't have to be a Queen Bey to be treated like royalty. Rather, she aims for something more intimate. "Being a professional cook for 20 years, breakfast is the only meal I've ever cooked at home consistently," she said. "Breakfast and brunch comes really naturally. If you came to my house for breakfast, this is what I would feed you."
At the core of it all is biscuits—or rather a biscuit that's the culmination of years of obsessive study. "Biscuits are a form of religion down here," Fields said.
"There are so many different ways to biscuit that to put yourself out there and say, This is my biscuit! is the biggest statement you can make in the South as a restaurateur. This one is the collaboration of a bunch of great minds coming together to ask: What's your favorite thing about angel biscuits or a beaten biscuit or a drop biscuit and how do we make that all happen in one biscuit?"
It is, without a doubt, the best biscuit the Extra Crispy staff has ever tasted and would have been enough to seal Fields' coronation as 2017 Breakfast Chef of the Year, but then she sweetened the deal by starting the nonprofit Yes Ma'am Foundation this past June. "At that time and especially now, people were talking about how women are treated in this industry. But what are we actually going to do? It's a foundation where we're creating a network of professional women to find their mentors and leaders and dream bigger," Fields said.
Yes Ma'am is currently in the fundraising phase, hosting dinners to raise cash, and Fields envisions, for instance, a woman working in a wine program at a restaurant developing a plan where she would figure out how much it would cost to go learn more about the craft of winemaking with a female vintner, and present that to the foundation for potential funding. And the loop doesn't close there, she said. "They also have to come up with a way to bring that knowledge back to benefit the community around them."
We can't think of a single lady or gentleman more worthy of being our Breakfast Chef of the Year.
Fields' dream breakfast to make or be served: "I'm the same both ways. I'm a biscuits, gravy, fried chicken, and Champagne kind of gal. What else would you be? It's God's perfect breakfast."
The breakfast chef Fields admires: "Tanya Holland of Brown Sugar Kitchen in Oakland. Her food is as good as she is as a person. If you've met her, you know that's a really, really, really high bar. When I was living in San Francisco, she had just opened Brown Sugar Kitchen and that soothed any amount of homesickness I felt."