For Pastry Chef Kelly Fields, farm fresh has always been the way to go. Growing up in South Carolina, she baked at some of Charleston's best patisseries, where she discovered a natural talent for the sweet side of the industry. Following her passion, Fields attended Johnson & Wales in Charleston, anchoring her pastry enthusiasm with solid technique before eventually making the move to New Orleans.
As it's been known to do, the city charmed her, both as a young culinarian and a NOLA neophyte. But Fields' wide-eyed enthusiasm evolved into a more passionate savvy, owing at least in part to her tutoring under legendary Chef Susan Spicer. Spicer wasn't the only local legend in Fields' career path. After graduating culinary school, Fields met and worked under prolific New Orleans Chef John Besh, climbing the ladder and eventually taking over the pastry program at Besh's Restaurant August.
After Hurricane Katrina, Fields traveled for several years, settling in San Francisco and working at Sens under mentor and 2011 StarChefs.com Rising Star Pastry Chef Shuna Lydon. Like many displaced New Orleans professionals, Fields returned to the city when she could, first as pastry chef at Restaurant August, and eventually taking over pastry operations for the whole Besh group. Over the years, Fields's desserts—blends of the exotic, nostalgic, and romantic—have earned her a cult following. She has been featured in many media outlets and garnered a nomination for Food & Wine's 2012 Best New Pastry Chef award. And Fields, not one to hoard her sugar-and-flour skills, also mentors pastry students as part of Besh's scholarships at New York City's French Culinary Institute.
Interview with Rising Star Pastry Chef Kelly Fields of Restaurant August – New Orleans, LA
Caroline Hatchett: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Kelly Fields: I was in college in New Orleans and one of the girls I met owned a bakery on St. Charles. They had a huge wholesale business account, so they called in everyone to bake bread. I walked in, met the pastry chefs, and she challenged me and said she wouldn't teach me anything unless I took it seriously. I fell in love and a year later I was enrolled in culinary school.
CH: What's the toughest thing you've had to do in your job?
KF: Keep the people who work for me inspired and moving forward. I have five people plus one working for me. They're all amazing.
CH: What's your proudest accomplishment in your career to date?
KF: Coming back to August. When I started at August, I didn't apply with any intention of being a pastry chef. Adapting and growing into it was the best experience of my life. John [Besh] asking me back to August after years spent traveling and learning after the storm, believing that time was well spent.
CH: Where do you see yourself in five years?
KF: Starting to talk with chef [John Besh] about a bakery, a commissary more or less. To build a pastry program for whole company, and I'll have retail on top of that.
CH: What advice would you give to young chefs just getting started?
KF: To not get ahead of themselves. I see that more than anything. Everyone is in a rush to learn spherefication and skipping over fundamentals of classic techniques. Rushing to get a pastry chef title without knowing how to get there. Enjoy the time, learn everything you can from everyone around you.
CH: Who are some of your mentors? What have you learned from them?
KF: John has taught me 100 percent about expressing passion and being completely open with what you do on a plate and how you treat each and every person. Shuna [Lydon] is one of the most passionate people across the board I've ever met. Through her mentorship, she's made me passionate about filling that role for someone else.
CH: What is your philosophy on pastry?
KF: Having fun; New Orleans is not known to be the most adventurous of pastry markets, so having fun with our diners, their expectations, while staying ahead of a curve and pushing myself.
CH: What goes into creating a dessert?
KF: I mostly look into finding what people are excited about.
CH: What's the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
KF: Balance. Personal and professional balance. [Going from] running one restaurant dessert program to doing five is a balancing [act] to say the least. Balance with people I work for and who work for me. Every restaurant is so different so finding the balance between individual personalities, goals, and focus of each Besh Restaurant while maintaining the same high standards.
CH: If you had one thing you could do over again, what would it be?
KF: I would not get ahead. Take more time to work under more people.
CH: What does success mean for you?
KF: Balance and happiness. Finding balance on all levels in life, being happy with it. Making people happy. Inspiring young people around me.
CH: If you weren't a pastry chef, what do you think you'd be doing?
KF: Travel or urban planning and development. I like the thinking process behind creating spaces and cities. How they are built, how they work, the movement of people.