“Don’t be scared of pastry,” Kelly Fields advises. Easy for them to say. Fields has been in the game for nearly twenty years, and has gone from preparing elaborate gingerbread houses at the Biltmore in Asheville to, most famously, pastry chef at John Besh’s Restaurant August in New Orleans.
Fields was so good at their job that Besh let them take over all of his restaurants’ dessert operations, and in 2015 gave them and fellow pastry chef Lisa White the keys to Willa Jean in New Orleans’ South Market District. Named after Fields’s grandmother, it was supposed to be a simple bakery. Now six hundred people pack in for brunch on any given Saturday.
Ever since Fields made New Orleans home in 2002, they’ve had a thing for the local strawberries, which can come on strong as early as December and hit stride by March. They were once to Louisiana what oranges are to Florida or apples are to New York. In the 1930s, varieties like the Headliner and the Klondyke, whose deep-ruby fruit was so delicate the lightest touch would elicit a wave of scent, filled 23,000 acres of Louisiana soil.
Though the state’s production has waned, strawberries are still big business in Tangipahoa and Livingston Parishes. Fields likes to turn them into a simple and homey pan of strawberries and dumplings: sweet biscuits baked atop a juicy mix of berries, sugar, and a little lemon zest.
Even though Fields is regarded as a precise pastry chef, they recommend home cooks go easy with this dessert. Cut the biscuits into “any old shape you like” and, though they prefer to bake the dessert in a cast-iron skillet, use “whatever dish you damn well please.” Baking, after all, should be fun.
“You can’t be intimidated,” Fields says. “If you mess something up, it’s still most likely going to be delicious.”