The Willa Jean pastry chef shares her fried chicken favorites
pup, Bugsy, waits for a treat. Photo by Chris Granger.
We already know that Kelly Fields has a way with biscuits. But the executive pastry chef of Willa Jean in New Orleans—who make the place sing during breakfast, lunch, and dinner—does so much more. Take fried chicken. Fields grew up on the stuff, watching her mother and grandmother (the namesake of the restaurant) fry up golden, crispy pieces. Outside of the home, it was a childhood in Charleston that gave her a seasoned education on subject. Besides serving her own decadent version at Willa Jean, Fields is a veritable encyclopedia of fried chicken haunts. Of course, we couldn’t help but nudge her to wax poetic on the subject.
First things first, what makes good fried chicken? What makes a delicious fried chicken in my opinion is crispy skin plus juicy, flavorful meat and a good ratio of breading-to-meat. A little (or a lot) of heat never hurts.
How does Willa Jean do fried chicken? Willa Jean currently features a Tabasco honey-glazed fried chicken biscuit for breakfast. We also serve the fried chicken sandwich of my dreams: fried chicken, jalapeño slaw, and sambal mayo on a house-made toasted Hawaiian roll. Seriously, as a pastry chef cooking savory food, this is exactly what I dream of.
Dry batter or wet batter in your preparation? I personally do a dry batter. Honestly, it’s a matter of ease, cleanliness, and consistency in the final product for me.
You grew up eating fried chicken with your family. How was it prepared? Cast-iron skillet? Fried chicken was one of my mom’s standout dishes. We ate it at least once a week. She used this strange electric fryer. It was like a flat, square wok. I just remember it being messy.
What does your fried chicken utopia look like? A world where of my favorite fried chicken was in one place in a bottomless buffet, along with all the sides outside on a grassy knoll with a lake. All of my favorite people would be there, eating, swimming, flying kites. And Beyoncé of course, along with the Alabama Shakes.
Fields is a frequent road warrior for festivals and appearances on the food circuit. As a lover of fried chicken, she makes a secondary mission of her travels to seek out superior yardbird all over the South. “I go out of my way to eat at these places any chance I can get.”
Photo by Jennifer Hitchcock.
MARTHA LOU’S KITCHEN | Charleston, South Carolina
“Growing up in Charleston, I cut my teeth as a professional fried chicken eater at Martha Lou’s. Still, it’s my personal benchmark of perfection,” says Fields. Martha Lou Gadsden, chef and pro-prietor, runs this institution with her daughter, serving up a down-home experience that’s bigger than its main attraction. It’s the aesthetic, the sides (get a bowl of lima beans), and the warmth of the service that makes Martha Lou’s a requisite stop.
WILLIE MAE’S SCOTCH HOUSE | New Orleans, Louisiana
“This is the closest comparison I’ve found to the fried chicken my mom would make growing up,” says Fields. “Just much, much better (sorry, Mom).” Though Willie Mae’s is pretty guarded about its recipe, Fields has deduced that it uses a wet batter to make their bird. The chicken comes out super crispy with thin skin and not too much breading.
THE CARRIAGE HOUSE RESTAURANT | Natchez, Mississippi
While cooking in Natchez for a food festival, Fields discovered the Carriage House and a kitchen staff full of women who had been cook-ing there for the better part of twenty years. “The fried chicken there is literally the best kept secret in Mississippi. I’m not gonna lie, I ate two birds-worth,” she says. The Carriage House serves incredibly juicy chicken, extra crispy, with the perfect amount of heat.
GUS’S FRIED CHICKEN | Memphis (and other locations)
The fried chicken at Gus’s elicits this one-word response from Fields: “dang.” With balanced heat, crispy skin, and the perfect setting (paired with lemonade, of course), it’s evident that Gus’s takes fried chicken seriously. Though it’s spread the crispy gospel to multiple states, Gus’s has maintained the spirit and original recipe of Napolean “Na” Vanderbilt and his wife, Maggie, who started it all by selling fried chicken out of the back of a tavern in Mason, Tennessee.
PRINCE’S HOT CHICKEN SHACK | Nashville, Tennessee
If you’re going to eat at Prince’s, Fields recommends you order it “hot.” The addictive mouth-numbing nirvana, served since 1945, comes with two slices of white bread and pickle rounds. That white bread is key, and a little ranch dressing helps too. “When you need white bread to absorb the heat,” says Fields, “you know it’s good.”
BEASLEY’S CHICKEN + HONEY | Raleigh, North Carolina
Chef Ashley Christensen makes sure the focus is on the chicken inside this straightforward downtown joint with communal tables and a simple black-board menu. Order the fried chicken all by itself, or spring for the fried chicken, waffles, and honey. Either way, Fields attests you’ll get classic, perfect chicken.
POPEYE’S | New Orleans, Louisiana
From the nostalgia of her first Mardi Gras to Willa Jean staff parties, this is the food of choice for Fields when revelry abounds. She did, however, note one caveat: “New Orleans is really the only place you should get Popeye’s.”
JESTINE’S KITCHEN | Charleston, South Carolina
Jestine’s Kitchen is another childhood favorite. Named in honor of Jestine Matthews, a legendary Charleston cook, Jestine’s Kitchen serves simple Southern favorites along with blue-plate specials. The ultimate for Fields is a serving of their super crispy, juicy chicken followed by a slice of lemon pie or banana pudding.
MOMOFUKU’S MÁ PÊCHE | New York City
As a Southerner, Fields did not want to love the fried chicken at Má Pêche. She vehemently did not. But the habanero-fried chicken, she says, is worth all the praise it gets. Bottom line? “It’s made me a believer.