Why are energy and empowerment key ingredients for building a more inclusive restaurant industry? Kelly Fields, author and chef/owner of New Orleans’ Willa Jean, shares.
Melissa: Welcome to the Cultur(Ed) podcast. I’m Melissa Jezior, your host. On this podcast, I talk to top culture makers in the world today to unpack the visible and not so visible forces that make up this often overlooked superpower of organizations. Season two of Cultur(Ed) is focused on changemakers from the restaurant industry. And I’m delighted to have with me Kelly Fields, owner and Chef, at Willa Jeans located in the food capital of the US New Orleans. Welcome, Kelly, Thank you for joining us.
Kelly: Thanks for having me.
Melissa: Now, I’ve only been to New Orleans once, but I loved the city and I am excited to go back, especially once the world returns to normal. After reading about your barbecue shrimp toast and chocolate chip cookies at Willa Jeans, I think it might need to be my first stop when I arrive. So, I hear these are two of your most popular signature items?
Kelly: Um, Yeah, I think they are. I think We’ve been really lucky that almost everything we put on the menu is really well received. So, it feels like the experience of Willa Jean’s is more of the signature item than any of the food individually.
Melissa: So, like, more of the collective experience, everything you have on your menu creates the Willa Jean experience.
Kelly: Yeah, I think that’s true, I hope that’s true.
Melissa: Well, I am excited as well, because I also ordered your chocolate chip cookies and cornbread, and I’m going to be having those delivered this week, so I get to at least try a little bit of Willa Jean from the comfort of my own couch this week.
Kelly: Amazing. Good news.
Melissa: So, in the town with some of the most talented chefs in the world, your restaurant quickly achieved high acclaim and success. So, tell us a little bit about the culture you’ve established at Willa Jean, and how that culture has really helped you create your mark in such a few short years.
Kelly: I mean, first, I feel really lucky to be cooking in New Orleans and be, you know, accepted and part of the community here. Such talented cooks across the board. I think, Willa Jean from conceptualization like our goal was to be as inclusive as possible as a restaurant, both for employees and for people that we want to feed and nourish. And we have tried to navigate all of our decision making in the way that we do business based on that idea. And that value, and based on, like securing the future, is our mission statement. And that’s for our cooks, and our servers, and our guests, and the farmers, and, you know everybody that we deal with on a daily basis to try to, you know, just make the future a little bit better, and a little bit more secure for everyone.
Melissa: How did you arrive at that mission statement?
Kelly: I made a lot of mistakes [laughter]. I reached a point in my life where I was OK, admitting that I made mistakes or that I didn’t know at all, because it kind of goes against the way I was taught to be in a kitchen for most of my career. When I opened Willa Jean it was more of like I’ve never done this before, I’ve never been in this position, I don’t know what to expect, I don’t have all the answers, I don’t know what happens if we try this, and it’s wrong. So I just started saying that stuff out loud, which is really been one of the most empowering things to do. And the more mistakes we made, and the more we learn from them, and the more things we learned to do right, and the more ways that we were able to celebrate, we collectively learn that what we wanted to do was make sure that we were securing the future of the brand. And along with that, everything that’s built that brand. And it just sort of evolved naturally to be our mission statement.
Melissa: Do you have any thoughts on that brand and your culture, and the link between that and customer satisfaction? I read one of your Willa Jean reviews and one of your customers were saying that she always feels like a sense of belonging when she comes into your restaurant, so you know, I heard you talking—you know, you may even know what review I’m talking about. So, tell us like a little bit more about the vibe and sense of community at Willa Jean
Kelly: I mean, I think, you know, the goal is, I mean, especially, especially now with everything that’s happened over the last few months, The goal now is to like, make everybody excited to be here, who chooses to be here in whatever capacity and just cook really good food that we’re excited to be cooking, that people are excited to be enjoying. And that’s, that’s kind of what we’ve been trying to do all along. And sometimes, you know, we get stuck, myself and especially, I get stuck on the wrong things and the wrong focus, and trying to take myself too seriously and take the food too seriously. But I think we really just try to have fun doing what we love to do. And I think that translates to the guest and the experience of eating here is that if we’re having fun, people are automatically more likely to have fun with us.
Melissa: Yeah, I mean, yeah, totally makes sense. Yeah, you know, I think my mom always used to say, it just kinda reminded me and popped in my head, when you said that. It’s like, you can, you can throw a party, but you can’t make people have fun. Right? But, if you think about what you’re doing, is you’re throwing the party and it, when, of course, most people, when, they have a party want to have fun, so I get that vibe of like, you’re having a great time, and it just encourages others to enjoy with you.
Kelly: And sometimes, I stand in my own way of that. That’s a learning experience too.
Melissa: So, how do you remind yourself not to take yourself too seriously or your food too seriously?
Kelly: I mean, I think a lot of the success of me, not knocking myself down, is employing people around me that, have no problem telling me that. Or, you know, pull me out and then, you’re, you’re kind of, are you OK? Like, what’s really going on? You seem a little tightly wound. Like whatever it is. Like being, by everybody in this business, has really helped all of us. When you have, that many people holding you in account, you’re more likely to, to catch yourself in the act of, you know, maybe overreacting to something or not being aware of how something is impacting another, you know. So, just like total, transparent, open, accountability, across the board.
Melissa: I found, I don’t know if this is something you could relate to. But I’ve found when starting Eagle Hill and being the boss, is that more, you’re more likely to have people tell you what they think you want to hear, instead of what you actually need to hear. And so, when you do, find people, who are so honest with you, I find myself, I value them even more than I even used to because you need that, I feel I crave that.
Kelly: Yeah, 100%, 100%.
Melissa: So I understand that even though all of your employees were furloughed because of the pandemic, you still provided access to health insurance. So what was your thinking behind that decision given that most restaurants don’t offer health insurance to begin with?
Kelly: I mean, it’s the ethical thing to do, period. It’s kind of a no-brainer and it wasn’t a lot of thought, I mean, we were Furloughed. We furloughed most of the staff because of a health crisis. And to think about laying them off, where they lose their health benefits during a health crisis, it just goes so far against who we are as a company, that, it wasn’t even a discussion, really.
Like, of course going do that for them for good again. Yeah. Yeah.
Melissa: So as the economy re-opens and many employers are returning now back to their jobs, I think a lot of employees are fearful, how have you balanced, how have you handled balancing employee concerns with the financial realities as a business owner?
Kelly: That’s one of this is one of the most difficult things I’ve done in my entire career is figure out one, how to do it right that instills, a sense of safety and trust with both the public and with my team. And I think we’re all fearful, including myself, especially with the recent, you know, spikes and numbers, and how many articles are attaching that to dining out in restaurants and so we’re doing everything we can as far as like people wearing masks and doing this and you know, getting the right filters in the HVAC system and sanitizing. The biggest tool for me that’s been successful, is just talking about it openly, again, with that transparency. It’s scary to be in here right now, and I’m not afraid to say it, and so nobody else is. So we just, we talk about it, we manage it on a day-by-day case by case basis. Like, sometimes it’s just really hard to be here and I get it. And if that’s the case then, you know, we deal with that the way we need to.
Melissa: Yeah, there’s a lot of written right now about the power of, of vulnerable leadership, of being vulnerable and in front of those that you lead, and I believe in that greatly. I think it builds trust. When people look at you and realize you’re just a person, too.
Kelly: Yeah. This is a very new place for me to be in my life after 20 years of being in, like, really competitive kitchen, so it’s really, one of the most remarkable things for me is to sort of let the walls down and be my socially awkward, shy, knowing self. [laughter] The more I do it, the more successful I find that we are. The more, I allow myself to be ridiculous, because I am ridiculous, the more fun we have as a team. So it’s really, really rewarding. and it’s really healing in a way that is hard to put into words.
Melissa: So Besides COVID, the other topic, and you started touching on this already, but the topic already like dominating today, our conversations today is diversity and inclusion. And I read that you want to make Willa Jean the most radically inclusive restaurant space in New Orleans. I think so many organizations want that too. They just don’t know how, so can you give us a glimpse into how you’re doing that at Willa Jean.
Kelly: I mean, to be clear, like it’s a goal, and we have to work every day to make that goal a reality for the people that we have here and for the future. And I don’t know that I am the person to talk about how to do it, but I can talk about my experience in doing it. And the number one rule I have found and continue to find is to daily, listen. And listening to the team, listen to the public, you know, especially, you know, since the, the killing of George Floyd. There’s been so many things with my team and the black members of my community, black members of my team about what, and where my restaurant succeeds and fails on a professional level even on a personal level, to do the work, to make it better.
And there’s been situations that I was even unaware just because of my own bias, unaware of how it impacted or affected others on my team. And so, you just have to be open to listen. And you have to be open minded to want to do the work, want to make the changes. And really do whatever is necessary that every member of your team feels included, feels like they have, you know, value on the team, they have the same experiences and the same opportunities, as anybody else, you know, walking through the doors. Yeah.
Melissa: So do you have any advice, then, for businesses or restaurants, struggling with diversity inclusion? Have you found anything that you feel resonates with your team or that you feel like works or that has worked in terms of encouraging employees to bring their whole genuine self to their jobs?
Kelly: I mean, I just think, it’s not one thing in particular. I mean, it is the removal of ego and the ability to show up and have to have those difficult and uncomfortable conversations and to put your own defensiveness away and listen, because for me, diversity isn’t you know, the number of faces I have in the front of the house or the back of the house. It’s, how do those people feel when they are at work? You know, it’s not about numbers for me, it’s about the culture, it’s about the experience of being here and making sure that everyone across the board feels empowered to be themselves and to show up as they are.
And that, whatever way that is, they still contribute to the greater good and the experienceâ€”like I don’t make Willa Jean. Everybody that works here does, like, they’re the people who make this place great. That’s certainly not me. And so, the more I’m able to empower that, the better of a restaurant we are. Period.
Melissa: So I understand civic engagement is also a part of your culture, and helping, I read that you are planning to hire a van to make sure employees can get to the polls on Election Day. Tell us why that’s important to you.
Kelly: Why is it important? I mean, I think it’s more important than it ever has been, in my lifetime. Yeah. We have a van and operative people need rights to their polling place. We’ll give it to them, and we also use some of the driving services, Lyft and Uber, usually have free rides to and from the polls on election days. And our RTA, New Orleans Transit System does free rides on election day some years. I think they are this year. But I want to make sure that everybody has the opportunity to vote. Obviously, I’m not making anybody vote or telling them how to vote, but it’s important to make sure, should somebody want to exercise that right that they are able to. And that’s something I wasn’t really afforded in my time growing up and working in this industry. Like, nobody cared if you wanted to go vote, you had to be a work, and I don’t, I just don’t want to do it that way.
Melissa: It sounds like you’ve really created this, great, and it really, it sounds like you’re well on your way, to create living your vision of creating this radically inclusive restaurant. Really truly, very impressive.
Kelly: Well, thank you. It’s one step at a time. That’s it.
Melissa: That is that I have for certain one step at a time, for sure.
Kelly: Yeah, I mean, we got, we still have so much work to do, know, we still, you know, get to learn from our mistakes on the daily basis. We’re just going to keep doing it and having fun and recommitting every day with every mistake to get it right next time.
Melissa: You’ve also established a foundation, “Yes, Ma’am.” Tell me why you tell us why you chose that name, and what’s the drive, what’s your drive to mentor the next generation of women in the industry?
Kelly: I decided on the name “Yes, Ma’am” because for what, 20 years in a kitchen, I was never called Chef, I was always ma’am.
Melissa: And male chefs are typically called chef?
Kelly: Yeah. Oh, yeah. I’m pretty down the middle of the gender spectrum. So I’m like the least ma’am, ma’am, available in the kitchen usually. And it just drove it drove me insane. Like it made me crazy if I was and then there’s a bunch of guys in the kitchen, they all get chef and I get ma’amed. And I decided with this foundation to finally like own it and like take, take the word back for me and what it means. So I called it Yes, Ma’am. And I kept seeing, I made it happen. I kept seeing all these chefs throw fundraisers and parties and do all the stuff, and they were guy chefs who were bringing all their guy, friends. And there weren’t, there weren’t women. There weren’t chefs of color. There was no, there was zero diversity happening in the events that I kept seeing, or being asked to do, or being part of. And so I decided to throw my own party and invited a bunch of women chefs from around the country to come in and cook dinner with me and just have a really good time. And it exploded and did really well. We made a ton of money, and that’s where the foundation came from. So I could take that money and invest it back into the women who nourish the South and try to pay it forward. And that’s what we’ve been doing ever since.
Melissa: So have you been investing?
Kelly: Lately, we’ve just been giving, well, I mean, lately, before COVID. We offer scholarships to different conferences around the country. We invest in, like, basically hands-on continuing education. Like, if a woman wants to go learn about wine in California from a woman winemaker, you know, they can reach out to us and, you know, tell us what they want to do. We talk them through the process of what it would look like to cost that out. And then we’ll just very quietly, like, give them the money to go spend a couple of weeks in California. And, you know, learn what they want to learn, see what they want to see, and bring that back for whatever their goal might be that we discussed in the process.
Melissa: So, Kelly, what do folks call you in your own kitchen now?
Kelly: They generally called me chef. When somebody calls me, Kelly, a lot of people call me Kelly, and I am so not used to hearing my own name that I don’t respond to it. I’m kidding, I’m getting more used to it. Most people call me chef, yeah.
Melissa: Finally, right? I like it.
Kelly: I kinda like just being called by your name.
Melissa: I also heard you’ve got a cookbook coming out, which I am personally excited and looking forward to, which is getting released in September, I understand. We are a baking family. My family is a baking and cooking family, so I’m excited to get it. So tell us about the inspiration to take on this task and maybe tell us a little bit about the focus of some of the recipes.
Kelly: Yeah, so the book comes out on September 8th, and it’s called The Good Book of Southern Baking. And it’s basically a collection of things I grew up eating. My family was making things I’ve made in my career. And people like, you know, people who have eaten my food and dined at the restaurants I’ve eaten at or worked at, the restaurants that I’ve worked at over the past few years have always asked for a book, and I had no desire to write a book.
Melissa: So what changed your mind?
Kelly: I don’t really know. I went to a book release party for Vivien Howard and her last book and met a guy named David Black who is a literary agent and he somehow talked me into it, to at least like write a proposal and see how that feels. And you know he built it on step by step so I never felt like the big, you’re going to write a book, here’s the process. It was, like, hey, just, you know, do a couple of pages like this real quick. And then, all of a sudden, there was a book, which is probably a pretty smart, smart way to do it.
You know, I wanted to bring Southern baking to a book that one, felt approachable, and not intimidating. I think there’s a lot of misconception on how difficult and scientific and exacting baking is. And I don’t think it’s as scary as people have made it out to be. And I wanted to share that, while also, like, tearing down the stereotypes of southern baked goods. Because most people think they’re overly sweet and overly decadent and too big and stationary, and that they haven’t evolved, through the years. The way everything above the South has evolved through the years. So I just really want to do a modern interpretation of how we celebrate, who we are as the South, as a region.
Melissa: So are there are new recipes in there, as well as rest or recipes from, Willa Jean?
Kelly: Yeah. Nothing’s really new, right? Like, not, I don’t know that anything is new here. But, it’s not, it’s not specifically Willa Jean. There are some of, like, Willa Jean’s greatest hits in there that people, like the chocolate chip cookie will be in there, the Willa Jean banana bread is in there, cornbread, things people usually associate the restaurant are in there, but it’s so much more than just Willa Jean.
Melissa: Have you been doing a lot of cooking than and experimenting to get the recipes right for the book?
Kelly: Yup, sure have. It’s also very different to bake at home than it is to bake in a restaurant.
Melissa: How so?
Kelly: Like, to me baking in our restaurants, like we have everything you need. You know what to expect, you know where your ovens are and how they work. And baking at home is like for me, for somebody who’s on autopilot and muscle memory in a kitchen, baking at home in small quantities, like disrupts the whole baking system. So, where do I keep sugar? I don’t know, I never bake at home.
Melissa: It’s probably safer not to back a lot at home too. My problem is as we bake and then we eat it all.
Kelly: I was baking cookies during quarantine for research. I was trying to figure out how to do like gluten free cookies and this and that. I just gave them all to my neighbors. I was home for three months, baking cookies almost every day.
Melissa: You were probably the most popular neighbor.
Kelly: Yeah, the days I didn’t make cookies, my neighbors would come knock on my door and make sure I was OK.
Melissa: I heard, someone say, this joke about, you know, forget about the freshman 15, its the COVID 19. So here’s a question, we ask all of our guests. What is the first word that comes to mind when you think of culture?
Melissa: I like that. Tell me more.
Kelly: I think the energy of a place is its culture and the culture is the energy like it goes both ways right? Like when you walk into a restaurant or you know anywhere that’s fueled by people, the energy will tell you all you need to know about it, right? Or most of what you know about it.
Melissa: Yeah, I guess that that also supports your thought too is like if you’re having fun, Right? If you and your team are having fun, it creates the energy that your customers’ experience. And my last question is, if you could have one superpower, what would it be, and why?
Kelly: Oh dang, I would really like to be able to fly.
Melissa: Where would you go?
Kelly: Everywhere. Where wouldn’t you go? It would be amazing to fly around the world, see everything from a new perspective.
Melissa: Fantastic, I love it. Well thank you so much, Kelly, for your time and your thoughts. It’s been such a pleasure to talk to you and I hope when the world gets back to normal, I can make it down to Willa Jean and get to eat the barbecue shrimp toast and cornbread and cookies in person.
Kelly: Me too, me too. Come on down.
Melissa: I would love it Well, thank you so much. Kelly. Have a wonderful day.
Kelly: Thank you, you as well.
Melissa: Take care.