For Kelly, one visit was all it took, and New Orleans has been her home ever since. After a decade in fine dining as a pastry chef, she opened Willa Jean, which has quickly become a staging ground for great food and important conversations. Not only is Kelly adding her own vision to a city steeped in notable foodways, but she is endeavoring to make her industry better—one dish and one empowered employee at a time.
Is there a philosophy that guides your cooking? How do you go from ideation to execution?
I spent over 15 years in fine dining kitchens and over the past few years have really honed in on the idea that simple, approachable, and craveable food should be so nourishing that [consumers] don’t have to give thought to the technique behind it. I am constantly inspired by the bounty of New Orleans and the surrounding areas. [We have] access to such special ingredients and the ability to know who grew our sugar, who caught the shrimp coming into our restaurant, and even who picked our tomatoes. It has created this approach at Willa Jean to do just enough to each ingredient to highlight how spectacular it is.
What ingredients get you excited? Is there anything you've been trying to incorporate more into your cooking or that doesn't get the love and respect it deserves?
Whatever is local and at the peak of its season. I always catch myself, anytime a new season starts, declaring it my “favorite of the year.” As a pastry person, salt is always the ingredient that needs to make it into a dish. Desserts should never be an afterthought of a meal and should always be approached with the same desire for balance as any savory food.
You take an approach to ingredients that emphasizes multiple layers of texture and flavor. How has your approach to dishes evolved?
It all goes back to the desire to really show off Mother Nature and what she provides for us here in the South. My approach with desserts was always inspired by the idea of avoiding palate fatigue. I’ve always really liked the idea of desserts being “salads,” where every bite is interesting and curious and keeps you wanting to know what the next bite may bring.
You are seen as a leader in the movement to change the culture dominating kitchens; as a chef-owner, you have the tools to change not only the work environment but the framing of the conversation around being a chef. I hear that you are doing some creative things with your team. What are you doing, inside and outside the restaurant, to build the world you want to see?
Phew—that’s such a big question, and such a long time coming in this industry. I feel grateful that it’s finally found a place in the conversation of our industry. At Willa Jean, we strive to work and inspire each and every day. We embrace one another for not only our strengths but also our weaknesses. [We] constantly support the growth of everyone on our team. I have “leadership” meetings with my management team where we discuss specific leadership topics. Generally, homework is assigned beforehand to prepare everyone to show up, actively participate, and really dive head first into how to continue our own growth and development as leaders. Even beyond the constant study and self-evaluation of leadership, we start with the very basic ideas of work-life balance, and we all support and respect the lives outside of the walls or identity of this restaurant. We pay our employees fair wages, empower them, connect with them, and praise and reward the work that they do. I am really in awe each and every day of the amazing collection of folks who make up the family at Willa Jean, and how selflessly they pour their hearts into their work. I think the success boils down to being genuine, human, transparent, and wide open as a leader with everyone on the team, [and] never being afraid to admit you don’t know all the answers but always being willing to learn.
On an ongoing basis, our management team is conducting performance reviews with goal setting, is soliciting genuine feedback from our employees, and is empowering our staff to hold not only each other accountable for respectful behavior, but our guests as well.
You are doing important work to change the conversation and practices of the industry: you focus on work/life balance, have frank conversations about mental health, and have started a foundation (Yes Ma’am Foundation) to empower women in the restaurant industry. To you, what are the important points we should be talking about, and what's the next step?
I think the continuation of these topics is important, and I’d like to see more conversation about actual investment in women and minorities. We should all be advocates for women and minorities having access to the same amount and quality of resources in this industry. We should be working collaboratively as an industry to be inclusive of all genders and identities to level the field for equal opportunity for all talented chefs to achieve their dreams of leadership and/or ownership.