photo: Gabrielle Geiselman Milone

photo: Gabrielle Geiselman Milone

Kelly Fields is the Chef Owner of Willa Jean in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Having mastered her craft for over two decades, accoladed Chef and Owner Kelly Fields opened restaurant and bakery Willa Jean in 2015, showcasing her robust pastry expertise and passion for traditional cuisine. “We bring honest, low-country-southern fare to New Orleans, while celebrating all we have around us. With simple, nostalgic dishes that are served with intention and care, I like to think that we pay tribute to the South’s sense of belonging,” Fields explains. As a leader in the city’s dining scene and beyond, she distinguishes the Central Business District with comforting soul food and a warm, approachable atmosphere.

In her instrumental role as owner, she simultaneously considers not only her guests experience, but also the success of her dedicated team, as she leads and executes day-to-day operations. “Some days that means I’m jumping on the line or advising my managers, other days I’m answering emails about potential business opportunities or working on my upcoming cookbook,” she says. Foreseeing the future of Willa Jean as a household name, she thoughtfully approaches each detail through top quality in service, products, and hospitality, offering an unparalleled culinary experience. “I take everything to heart from securing the future of this brand, to each individual who contributes to its success, and to our farmers and fishers who help nourish our communities,” she notes.

Growing up in Charleston, South Carolina, Fields discovered her natural talent for cooking and baking while helping her mother pickle and preserve their garden’s produce. At a young age, Chef Fields began working in some of New Orleans most celebrated patisseries but it wasn’t until she worked with Chef Susan Spicer that she realized her passion for the culinary arts. “She helped me realize my love for this industry—I love the constant learning, critical thinking, the science behind it, as well as the community it creates and the community it nourishes,” Fields states. Following her time with Chef Spicer, Fields pursued a degree in baking and pastry arts from Johnson & Wales back in her hometown, grounding her passion for pastry with refined technique and absorbed in her big dreams. Upon graduation, Fields returned to New Orleans and took her first position as pastry chef at Restaurant August. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina forced her to leave in 2005 but Fields found the silver lining and decided to travel throughout Europe, the Middle East, and the Asian Pacific, to work with diverse chefs. Following her time abroad, Fields later landed in San Francisco, assisting with the opening of Scottish-themed Martin’s West Gastropub, and also worked at Mediterranean bistro, Sens, under mentor and Pastry Chef Shuna Lydon.

Returning to New Orleans in 2010, Fields rose up the ranks with BRG Hospitality as executive pastry chef—responsible for overseeing all the group’s pastry operations—while extending her scope to savory stations. “I believe that my pastry background makes me a better cook. Even now when I focus so much on cooking savory foods, I’m still bettering my abilities, approach, and thought process when it comes to pastry,” she says.  

A culmination of her professional experience and fulfillment of her lifelong dream, Fields opened Southern-rooted bakery and restaurant Willa Jean in August 2015, garnering recognition in both local and national publications, such as Louisiana Cookin’s “Bakery and Beyond” Award and Travel + Leisure’s “Our Favorite Local Bakeries Around the World.” For four consecutive years, Fields has been a James Beard Award nominee and semifinalist for the “Outstanding Pastry Chef” category. Over the years, her iconic, nostalgic desserts have gained a solid following, earning commendable praise from Bon Appétit, Saveur, and National Geographic, among others. In 2016, Eater New Orleans awarded Fields with the “Chef of the Year” and “Reader’s Choice Awards,” while Dessert Professional Magazine included her as one of the “Top Ten Pastry Chefs in North America.” Additional titles Fields’ have been awarded include “Breakfast Chef of the Year,” “Top Ten Pastry Chefs in America” and “Most Influential Women in the South.”

Aside from her role at Willa Jean, Fields works hard to make an impact with the community by mentoring several emerging New Orleans chefs. In 2017, she launched the "Yes Ma'am" foundation to inspire, encourage, and mentor the next generation of women in the restaurant and hospitality industry.

In her spare time, Fields enjoys traveling, reading, photography, fishing, and sailing. Her dog Kinney is always by her side and she can be found documenting his adventures on his Instagram.