Felicia Suzanne Willett tells a story the same way she cooks a meal, a slow simmer with a lot of heart
FEATURE | October 2014
Story by: Doug Gillon
Chef Felicia Suzanne Willett spent most of a Tuesday cooking a hearty holiday meal in a trendy downtown apartment building, easily switching between her custom penthouse kitchen and a photographer’s studio nook. In either environment, she has a relaxed bounce to her movements. There’s a constant energy tempered by familiarity. Nothing in either kitchen is new to her, but everything is exciting.
In between searing duck breasts, she describes the first time she met Emeril Legasse, the New Orleans celebrity chef who achieved national fame through his show on Food Network, and who she worked for eight years before opening her Memphis restaurant 12 years ago. “Honestly, I didn’t know who he was,” she remembers. “We had a major chef coming from every state, and I was just excited about Mark Abernathy from Arkansas.”
She has to pause. Temperatures need to be adjusted. Ingredients added. She quickly moves from one immaculate plastic container to another, sprinkling some of this, and adding a dash of that. As she goes, she announces the name of every ingredient with the enthusiasm of a guest on Sesame Street. Butternut Squash! Spiced Pecans! Duck confit! All set for the moment. Back to Emeril.
The event Willett mentions was a celebration of Southern chefs, held by Louis Osteen at the Charleston Hotel in South Carolina. One chef represented each Southern state, and each chef would be paired with a Johnson and Wales culinary student. Willett was finishing her culinary degree, and as the top student, she got to pick her partner first.
“People around were all excited about Emeril, but I couldn’t go with anyone but Mark Abernathy,” she says. “These were the guys. I mean, when I was growing up, some of the kids were reading… what’s the magazine… Teen Beat or Tiger Beat? I was reading Bon Appetit. These guys were my rock stars.”
Pause. Cooking to be done. Leave that story on low. Willet isn’t kidding about the early obsession with food and cooking. She was raised by essentially two families: her mother and stepfather, and her father and stepmother, who both lived in Jonesboro about a mile apart. Both houses were havens for food and food prep.
“My mom and my stepdad were gourmands,” she says in an accent that makes it seem the French word was somehow invented in Hot Springs. “Their wedding gifts to each other were matching his and hers gas stoves.
“And my stepmom was always finding an excuse to cook by the pool. That was a bigger family, so there was always a birthday or something to cook for.”
And Willett was right in the middle of all of it. She poured over her stepfather’s impressive cookbook collection. She made something every day at every house, and never had any doubt about what she would do for a living. “I would have gone to culinary school at 18, no question,” she says. “But mom wouldn’t allow it.”
So Willett earned a business and marketing degree from the University of Memphis before heading to Johnson and Wales.
Which brings us back to Emer… wait a second. Some deviled eggs are coming out. These particular deviled eggs use chowchow, a type of relish made from green tomatoes. Never heard of it? No problem, because apparently it can be used on anything.
“Chowchow is sort of a balance. It’s not real sticky-sweet, but it’s not real tart. And so you just use it in substitute for where pickle relish was. So on brats, hot dogs, burgers, in your tartar sauce, tuna fish, chicken salads, or just something simple over white beans and cornbread.”
Willett has started her own line of canned goods, Flo’s, to make ingredients like chowchow more accessible. The chowchow is made at the restaurant, and today we’re getting it in our deviled eggs instead of salmon. It tastes amazing. Back to Emeril, then.
“It wasn’t until he arrived at the event that I kind of figured out who he was,” she says. “And after meeting him, I knew exactly who I wanted to work for.” Willett called Emeril’s restaurant every day for thirty days before finally speaking to him one-on-one. She needed an internship to finish her culinary degree. Emeril didn’t take interns. But he took Felicia Willett.
Suddenly she was thrust into one of the hottest kitchens in the country. This premier New Orleans eatery was full of chefs from the Northeast and Midwest, serious chefs with “normal accents.” For the first few years, she made less than $3 an hour, and did the most menial of jobs.
During this time she found personal warmth in a cold place, the restaurant’s cooler. “If I cleaned the cooler sometimes, I could be productive but alone,” she says. “And, the cold gets rid of tears pretty quickly which, in a kitchen with more than a dozen men and only two women, could be really helpful.”
For eight years, Willett watched and worked for Emeril, earning the nickname “Flo” because she was always moving in the kitchen, flowing from one end of the room to the other. That’s also where the name of her canned goods line comes from. When Willett remembers Emeril, her bright eyes shine as she describes his technique as an expediter, or expo.
“You could hear a pin drop in that kitchen,” she says. “The only talking you heard was ‘yes, chef’ or ‘no, chef.’ It wasn’t an ego thing. It was about accuracy and professionalism. There are enough sounds with plates and everything that talking can make the room confusing. But Emeril was a master up there.”
And after eight years of watching, Willett felt it was time to open a place of her own. She wanted to open a place close to home, but chose Memphis because, well, Jonesboro is in a dry county.
Willett instantly found a loving community in local restaurant owners like Thomas Boggs, Charlie Vergos and the Grisantis. It was Boggs and Vergos who convinced her of downtown’s potential (it did not look like it does now 12 years ago), and within six months, Felicia Suzanne’s was open.
Wait a minute. You have to try the gumbo. It’s a chicken and sausage gumbo, but you can make it with anything. Really. Listening to Willett rattle off substitute ingredients does make it seem like anything can be made with anything, as long as the ingredients are choice.
Which is interesting, because choice ingredients are the most consistent things Willett discusses. Oh that spinach on the salad? She’s using that this week because the Vu’s stopped growing the iceberg. And this comes from Woodson Farms and this comes from Whitton Farms and this is from the Farm that is now Claybrooke.
“When we started the restaurant, I had to take a little clown car out to the farmer’s market,” she says. “They didn’t deliver, and you could only get there on Saturdays. So I would go out there with my manager at the time, Steve, and we would fill our little clown car to the brim. I think we were some of the only ones buying the real fresh ingredients because the other places just couldn’t get away on Saturdays. But then they started delivering, and that gave us a lot more options.”
And Willett will rattle off those options like the South’s most charming savant. She writes a new menu every week, sometimes every day. It takes a mix of logistics, creativity and business sense to put it together.
“You want something fresh and you want to do new and fun things, but you have to keep certain things that are expected,” (read: shrimp and grits) she says. “But then you also have to make adjustments for seasons and prices and availability.”
Better to have good stuff than the same stuff.
Wait a minute. Here’s the chiffon. She didn’t include bourbon in the whipped cream today because she “wasn’t sure what kind of group this was going to be.” The pie is delightful, but the vegan, spiced pecans steal the dish.
Our meal, like her restaurant, is an accurate amalgam of Willet’s various personas. There’s Felicia Willett the little girl from Jonesboro who admired the science of baking in the sweet potato chiffon. There’s Flo speeding around that New Orleans kitchen and cleaning the cooler showing up in the shrimp and grits and the chicken gumbo. And then there’s Felicia Suzanne the Memphis celebrity with a ponytail draping over her immaculate chef’s coat, and bangs hovering over her eyes, mostly green with a dash of brown, as if God himself had to give this chef a little garnish, present in the service, the décor, the wine and the experience.
She tries to provide the same thing at the restaurant, and also with those new canned goods. It was a natural thing, to start Flo’s,” Willet says. “I didn’t want to open another restaurant, but I did want to keep growing. So we had the kitchen certified as a production kitchen and we added that to the business.” It’s the latest addition to this local success story that, as of now, is still simmering.