Kelly Fields first made her name with exquisite, upscale desserts. This week, the New Orleans chef won a major culinary award for the bakery cafe she named for her grandmother, Willa Jean, and which is best known for a more homespun approach with biscuits, country bread, cake and pastry.
Fields won the outstanding pastry chef award Monday night from the James Beard Foundation, earning a national accolade for a Central Business District restaurant that mixes contemporary style and Southern flavor.
Fields was one of 10 contenders from New Orleans in the running for this year's awards, which are closely watched in the hospitality industry and by dining aficionados. She was the only one of them to come away with a James Beard Award, which was presented at a ceremony in Chicago.
Fields developed Willa Jean in 2015 with BRG Hospitality, then called the Besh Restaurant Group.
The Charleston, South Carolina, native started her career in New Orleans working for chef Susan Spicer. After a stint in San Francisco, she returned to New Orleans, where she was pastry chef at Restaurant August and became executive pastry chef for BRG Hospitality, creating desserts for its various restaurants that ranged from comfort food to artful compositions.
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Since opening in the South Market District development, Willa Jean has become a hub of activity in the CBD. It's common to see locals having breakfast meetings along its dining bar while visitors start the day with boozy brunches and neighbors duck in for coffee and a cookie.
As she accepted the award, Fields praised the other nominees and admitted she hadn’t prepared a speech, assuming one of them would win. She thanked her crew back at Willa Jean.
“I really can’t do it without you, and that’s true,” Fields said.
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The James Beard Award finalists were whittled down from a list of chefs, restaurants and bars submitted by the public during an open call last fall.
Chefs from three New Orleans restaurants were finalists for the regional award for Best Chef, South: Michael Stoltzfus and Kristen Essig, of Coquette; Slade Rushing, of Brennan’s Restaurant; and Isaac Toups, of Toups’ Meatery.
Snackbar has a New Orleans connection. It was opened by John Currence, a New Orleans native. “I would never be here if John Currence hadn’t taken a chance on me 23 years ago,” Bhatt said in accepting the award.
Currence himself won the same award in 2009 for his restaurant City Grocery, also in Oxford.
New Orleans chefs had won this regional award for the past six years. The region covers Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Puerto Rico.
Last year, New Orleans picked up two James Beard Awards. The Freret Street cocktail lounge Cure won for Outstanding Bar Program, and Nina Compton won for Best Chef, South, for her restaurant, Compere Lapin.
One James Beard Award was already in hand for a New Orleanian when this year's event began. Local journalist Brett Anderson of The Times-Picayune and NOLA.com won the Jonathan Gold Local Voice Award, a new award named for the late, influential Los Angeles food writer. The group's media awards were announced in April. Anderson has won two previous James Beard media awards.
Other New Orleans names up for awards this year included Donald Link, of Link Restaurant Group, for outstanding chef (which went to Ashley Christensen of Raleigh, North Carolina); JoAnn Clevenger, of Upperline, for outstanding restaurateur (which went to Rob Katz and Kevin Boehm, of Boka Restaurant Group in Chicago); Ana Castro, sous chef at Coquette, for rising star chef (which went to Kwame Onwuachi, of Kith and Kin in Washington, D.C.); Brigtsen’s Restaurant for outstanding service (which went to Frasca Food and Wine, in Boulder, Colorado); and Bacchanal for outstanding wine program (which went to Benu, in San Francisco).
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