“I’m always learning. That’s what I love the most about this. The minute I think I know it all, I’ll need to leave the industry for real.” ~Kelly Fields
Growing up in Charleston, South Carolina, award-winning pastry chef and author Kelly Fields fell in love with food and cooking without even knowing it.
“We lived on the water, and my mom, a phenomenal gardener, grew most of the produce that we consumed as children,” she says. “I would fish or shrimp or catch crabs in the backyard and then cook dinner. My two siblings and I had a rotating chore list: Cook one day, clean the next day, and I would always trade off for cooking because I enjoyed it.”
Despite her natural knack and inclination for cooking, Kelly didn’t think of it as a possible career choice and went to college for chemistry as a path toward medical school.
On discovering a passion and a career in food
“I had moved to New Orleans for college and met a woman whose parents owned a bakery on St. Charles Ave,” she says. “It was a little mom-and-pop shop, and they submitted a proposal to do all the bread catering for all the airlines leaving the New Orleans airport. They won the contract with very little notice, and went from preparing 1,000 pieces of bread to 18,000 overnight, so anyone they’d ever met in their entire life was called in to help.”
Kelly went in to lend a hand that night and discovered a new passion. Two weeks later, she was working there full time. This was the mid-nineties when the Food Network was in its infancy, and the idea of a possible career in food was beginning to form for her.
“My grandmother was my person,” Kelly says. “She said to me, ‘If you love doing this and can’t imagine going back to school for something else, find somebody you want to emulate and go work for them.”
Kelly cut short her pursuit of a degree in chemistry and went to work for famed New Orleans restauranteur Susan Spicer, a 1993 James Beard Award-winner and 2009 “Top Chef” finalist. She started on pastry production for the bakery counter and then began picking up bread shifts.
From bread to culinary school to pastry chef
“Susan closed that location to open what is now Herbsaint [one of Gourmet Magazine’s 50 Best Restaurants in America],” Kelly says. “And so she sat us all down and asked everybody on the team what they’re interested in, where they wanted to go. She told me that I was one of the most natural kitchen people with no experience and that I needed to make a decision to actually do it or not, so I went to culinary school.”
One of the most valuable lessons Kelly learned from Susan was not to take on too much responsibility too soon. Only now looking back does she realize she made that mistake anyway.
“I was still in culinary school and feeling like, OK, I’m ready, and took a pastry chef position,” she says with a laugh. “I shouldn’t have accepted it.”
After graduating, Kelly moved back to New Orleans with the intention of stepping back and staging in different restaurants where she thought she would learn the most. She applied for a pastry cook position at a renowned fine dining establishment and was again offered the larger role of pastry chef. Once more, she said yes and realized immediately that she was in over her head again.
“I was the only non-male on staff, and they were all very bro-y southern kitchen dudes who worshipped Thomas Keller and the culture of the French Laundry,” she says. “Everybody there was like, ‘You won’t last a month,’ but I thrive in spite and bought three books and put my head down and figured it out.”
Find a culinary star whose resume you want and work for them
Kelly stayed at that restaurant until Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city in 2005, at which point she began a traveling career that took her all over the world with stints cooking in Rome, the Middle East, and Egypt, before returning to the States and heading for California.
“There was a woman in San Francisco with the resume I always wanted so I went to work for her, and that’s when I finally stepped back.”
That woman is Shuna Lydon, whose CV pops with names like Gramercy Tavern, French Laundry, and Bouchon. Kelly spent three years working and learning in San Francisco before moving on to New Zealand.
“I call it the three-year itch,” she says. “Every three years I have to do something big. I’m always learning, and that’s what I love the most about this [line of work]. The minute I think I know it all, I’ll need to leave for real.”
When all those pastry chef gigs start to pay off
In 2010, Kelly returned to New Orleans from New Zealand and went back to work for the restaurant group where she had formerly been a pastry chef. The company had grown from three restaurants in 2005 to 12, and Kelly grew into what she calls a corporate pastry chef role with 15 active dessert menus in the city.
“I was responsible for recipes, menu development, opening new restaurants, all of which were different concepts,” she says. “It was really fun for me.”
Willing to take the risk: From pastry chef to the owner of Willa Jean and a James Beard Award winner
Once again it was time for something new, and Kelly decided she was ready to open her own restaurant. Willa Jean, named for her beloved grandmother. Willa Jean became the Besh Restaurant Group’s nineteenth concept and opened its doors in August 2015. Four years later, Kelly was the recipient of the James Beard Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef. Maybe taking all those pastry chef positions before she was really ready wasn’t such a bad idea.
Willa Jean, Kelly Fields’ restaurant in New Orleans
“I’m willing to take the risk and do the work to give it my best shot,” she says.
Kelly is currently hard at work on her second cookbook. Her first, “The Good Book of Southern Baking,” was named one of the best cookbooks of 2020 by The New York Times Book Review, Bon Appétit, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and The LA Times.
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