kelly fields (copy)

Chef Kelly Fields

Kelly Fields of Southern bakery and restaurant Willa Jean (611 O’Keefe Ave., 504-509-7334; www.willajean.com) won the James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef at the awards gala in Chicago May 6. Fields spoke to Gambit about the honor and her work.

Gambit: What has been your biggest inspiration throughout your career?

Fields: The people I work with, today and yesterday — anybody that I have had the pleasure of working beside or with over the last 20 years has inspired me more than any other experience in life.

(Winning the Beard award) was wild. I always enjoy going (to the event) so much, because it’s such a celebration of talent and work for everyone in the industry. Winning definitely made it a lot more surreal than it was before. But it’s exciting, and you get to see a lot of people you admire, like chefs you’ve looked up to forever and people you’ve become close with in the industry.

G: You’ve advocated creating healthier kitchens. What are your thoughts on how the industry is addressing this — in particular, the James Beard Foundation?

F: Under the new director of the James Beard Foundation, (CEO) Clare (Reichenbach) and (Vice President of Impact) Katherine Miller, (they’ve) shifted the work that the James Beard Foundation is doing, and I think it’s incredibly important. It’s a direct impact with measurable growth for us as chefs, because it’s investing in us and teaching us that not only do we have a voice, but here is how we can use it for good in a restaurant, in the community, in the nation. It’s exciting to see where the food industry was two years ago and where we are now and how hopeful and optimistic and collaborative it is for (our) voices to be heard.

With Willa Jean, I try to be as transparent as I am able to be on every level, from (asking), “What are we doing on a daily basis and why do we do it?” to inviting the staff to participate in meetings to see what else do we need to do. What are we doing right and where is there room for improvement? My kitchen is full of leaders, my dining room is full of leaders and it’s about giving them the room to shine and empowering them and giving them the tools they need to do that.

G: What’s on the horizon for you now?

F: Right now my biggest plan is to finish my book, which is publishing in fall 2020. Once I get that done, I can start digging into how to expand the Willa Jean brand, and how do we become more accessible to all people who are experiencing what we do. (The book) is a modern Southern encyclopedia of baking, but not like a textbook — it’s more casual than an encyclopedia. I think a lot of what’s out there is almost too precious to really cook from, so I’m trying to scale it back and reflect the grit and the texture and the richness of the South and New Orleans. — HELEN FREUND