On a day off, you can find New Orleans-based chef Kelly Fields riding her bike through City Park, down Esplanade Avenue and through the French Quarter, or maybe taking in the sights and sounds of Frenchmen Street, where local artists and musicians show off their work. On Mondays you might find her eating a bowl of red beans and rice with some cornbread, but most days you’ll find her hard at work in the kitchen of her popular New Orleans restaurant, Willa Jean.
Fields grew up baking on weekends with her mom, but it wasn’t until a friend asked her if she could help her family’s bakery with a large order that she first realized it could be a career. As it turned out, she was a natural in the professional setting and knew she had found her home.
“I went in and immediately fell in love with the kitchen and baking, and dove in headfirst,” says Fields, who credits mentors like chef Susan Spicer with helping her find her groove. “I’ve been fortunate to work with and for amazing bakers and pastry chefs over the last 20-plus years who have pushed me to be great.”
In 2015, Fields opened Willa Jean, named for her grandmother, which has become one of the most celebrated Southern food restaurants in the city. If that’s not impressive enough, in 2019 she won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef — something made even more impressive by the fact she had been a nominee four years in a row before finally taking home the prize.
Now her cornbread and chocolate chip cookies (served with vanilla milk and an eggbeater of cookie batter) are known and loved across New Orleans. She’s since released her first cookbook, The Good Book of Southern Baking: A Revival of Biscuits, Cakes, and Cornbread, an effort she says was “challenging yet rewarding.”
The book is filled with over 100 recipes for quick breads, muffins, biscuits, cookies and bars, puddings and custards, cobblers, crisps, galettes, pies, tarts, and cakes sure to warm the stomach and heart of anyone, from true Southerners to international foodies and home bakers.
While she says she used to find it a bit lonely working as a queer head chef in the Big Easy, things have been changing. “In recent years the number of queer folx running their own food businesses has exploded across the city, and it inspires me deeply,” she says. “It’s created a bridge within our community that I just feel grateful to be a part of on any level.”
Like many of us, Fields can’t wait to get back to a world where she can travel and make food with large groups of people again. Until she can, she’ll be in the kitchen working on perfecting her gumbo, a challenge she’s learned to love.
“It’s a slow, long, tedious process to create that great nuanced depth of flavor, and I really enjoy the process as much as the outcome,” she says. “It requires a cooking intuition that comes from a different place than baking intuition.”
Follow Chef Kelly Fields on Instagram: @kellyfields. Check out her famous recipe for bread pudding below!
Chef Kelly's Bread Pudding:
Bread pudding is a rite of passage for pastry chefs in New Orleans. I would go so far as to say that when pastry chefs are applying for jobs in New Orleans, making bread pudding is a key part of the application process. Making this version is pure muscle memory for me. Even though it came well after childhood, I cut my teeth and “grew up,” professionally speaking, making this recipe almost daily. Use a dark rum you like to drink for the sauce, as we do in New Orleans, ’cause this sauce is a lil boozy.
Bread Pudding ingredients:
1 quart whole milk
2 cups heavy cream, cold
1 cup granulated sugar
1 1⁄2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Grated zest of 1 orange
5 eggs, at room temperature
6 1⁄2 cups torn stale crustless white bread (about 12 slices, torn into 11⁄2-inch pieces)
Butter for greasing the pan
1⁄2 cup unsalted butter
1⁄2 cup light corn syrup
1 cup granulated sugar
3⁄4 cup dark rum
3⁄4 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1⁄2 teaspoon kosher salt
Make the pudding. In a large bowl, whisk together the milk, cream, sugar, cinnamon, vanilla, orange zest, and eggs. Stir in the bread pieces, cover, and let soak at room temperature for 30 minutes or refrigerate overnight.
Preheat the oven to 325°F. Grease a 9 by 13-inch baking pan with butter and pour in the bread mixture. Bake for 65 to 75 minutes, rotating the pan after 35 minutes, until golden brown and set in the middle. Set aside.
Make the sauce. In a saucepot set over medium heat, cook the butter until it turns a light brown color with a rich, nutty aroma, about 5 minutes. Add the corn syrup, sugar, rum, cream, vanilla, and salt. Simmer and reduce the sauce until it thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon, about 15 minutes. Remove from the heat.
Scoop a large spoonful of warm bread pudding onto serving plates. Ladle the sauce over the pudding and serve.
New Orleans–Style Bread Pudding Lite:
Because I am incapable of leaving things alone, I love to make this recipe, but I substitute 3 cups Japanese panko (bread crumbs) for three cups of the torn bread. This version has the same flavor as the original recipe but a phenomenally smooth texture.
Willa Jean is open daily: 7AM-3PM | 611 O’Keefe Avenue | New Orleans, Louisiana. Reservations are recommended, but not required. You can purchase The Good Book of Southern Baking by Kelly Fields with Kate Heddings, published by Lorena Jones Books, at Amazon. Follow Willa Jean on Instagram: @willajeanneworleans
This story is part of Out's 2021 Travel Issue. The issue is out on newsstands on April 28, 2021. To get your own copy directly, support queer media and subscribe — or download yours for Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News.