From an Unfussy New Orleans Cafe, a Summer Cobbler

August 7, 2015
By: Kate Donnelly, The New York Times
Photo:Rush Jagoe

Back in 2003, the Southern-born pastry chef Kelly Fields approached her boss, the beloved blue-eyed New Orleans chef and James Beard Award-winner John Besh, about opening a bakery. Then Hurricane Katrina hit, putting Fields’s plans on hold while the city picked itself back up again. At Besh’s urging, she traveled the world in the meantime, gathering culinary inspiration in Italy, Egypt and throughout the Middle East before settling back in New Orleans and holding the title of executive pastry chef at his culinary empire there. And finally this week, over a decade after she first conceived it, Fields opened the doors to Willa Jean, an unfussy corner bakery and cafe in the up-and-coming South Market District.

Willa Jean is named for Fields’s grandmother, a sassy Indiana girl who, Fields says, “was the most Southern Yankee I’ve ever known.” Fittingly, the menu is loaded with down-home-style bites — fried boudin, grilled okra and pimento cheese, plates of fried chicken with jalapeno relish — and the counter loaded with grab-and-go baked breads and pastries. “What I love most about Kelly is her playfulness with food without becoming too precious,” says Besh, a partner in Willa Jean alongside Fields and the pastry chef Lisa White. “She’s a master at the most luxurious laminated doughs. She also stays true to her Southern roots and never turns her back on the classics.”