All in a Day's Work: Chef Felicia Willett's Job
What do you do for a living? Our identities are so frequently tied to our jobs. What do you do outside of your occupation — for fun? Once we leave the office, I doubt that many of us consider our day-job activities to be our relaxing-fun activities, as well.
Felicia Willett is a chef — one of the few female chefs in town. The food world is a tough one. It’s physical, messy, hot, dangerous, and stressful. And, like it or not, it’s a world that is still dominated by men. Meeting Felicia, it’s not surprising that she holds her own — in the kitchen and everywhere else.
Felicia moves and talks fast. Every time I’ve been around her, she’s got dozens of things going on at one time and her mind keeps up with all she has to do without missing a trick. Cooking demo on TV in the morning, planning and scheduling for the week while on her way to the interview, finish some special event menus, a quick chat with a liquor rep. Just stand out of her way and watch.
With all that goes into the day-to-day operation of a restaurant, you’d think I could occasionally catch her looking stressed or grumpy. No, not Felicia. I have yet to see her ever be anything but upbeat, positive, and witty. She is smart and charming. City or county, doesn’t matter, she gets into the thick of things — and cooks of course.
Felicia grew up near Jonesboro, Arkansas and graduated from the University of Memphis. She attended Johnson and Wales for her culinary training and spent seven years writing and producing TV shows and cookbooks with famed chef Emeril Lagasse. But Memphis is close to home and when it was time to realize her dream of owning her own restaurant, she brought the influences of cooking in Charleston and New Orleans to her downtown Memphis restaurant, Felicia Suzanne’s.
Felicia quietly rotates a large selection of locally produced items on her menu — Arkansas caviar, Bonnie Blue goat cheese, Delta Grind grits, Neola Farms short ribs, and plenty of produce from our local farmers. A few years ago, before there was a midweek farmers’ market, she brought in some of the farmers to sell produce and flowers out in front of the restaurant.
On the day that Felicia is taking me down to The Roost, she’s already had a full day by the time we head out around noon. She walks into her immaculate walk-in cooler to grab a few supplies and we’re off.
The Roost is a private home, sitting on several thousand acres of soybean farmland near Clarksdale, Mississippi. Owned by the Williams family, it’s a retreat for hunting and relaxing. The Williams donate the house for fundraisers near and dear to their hearts, such as the Brooks Museum, Make-a-Wish, Delta Waterfowl and the Memphis Arts Council, supplying the house, hunting expertise, and equipment. The Roost is miles from a restaurant or grocery and the guests have to eat.
Chefs get asked all the time to donate meals for fundraisers. So when Felicia’s longtime friend, Curtis Robinson, who has managed The Roost for years, first suggested she cook as part of a donation package for a weekend getaway, she was game, but probably didn’t know how much she would grow to love giving away her time and talent.
“Once she ditched the chef coat, she fit in just fine,” says Curtis.
While I’m sure Felicia could have her prep cooks at the restaurant prepare ready-to-pop-in-the-oven meals to ship down to the Roost, Felicia doesn’t work that way. She packs her own supplies, cooks and cleans up. “The first time, I went way overboard,” she laughs. “We had 18 people and I served eight courses…each on a different plate. We were up until the wee hours of the morning doing the dishes… just mounds and mounds of them.” Now they keep it simple — one plate and one fork.
Getting into the center of things means participating in the other activities here, too. It’s a hunting lodge — so she hunts. “I sent an email to the sporting goods store saying I needed to pick up some ‘weighters.’ They replied that I probably meant ‘waders’ and I said ‘yes, I need some of them, too.’” The hunters get up early, enjoy a robust breakfast (which Felicia forgoes for her favorite breakfast of Diet Coke and Fritos) and they go out onto the pristine, quiet land to watch the sunrise. “It’s so beautiful…serene,” says Felicia. “You’re enjoying the quiet and then out of nowhere…bang, bang, bang, bang.” Gunfire wakes you up much quicker than caffeine.
A little later, after the boots have been scraped of mud and the deer, quail or duck has been cleaned and dressed — this is when anyone would be glad to have a chef in their midst. Game can have very little fat and zero tolerance for overcooking or mistakes. So, at The Roost, they bring in a pro.
But today, she’s just showing me how it all works down here. And that means really getting into the middle of things. On this day, they are harvesting acres and acres of non-GMO soybeans. So, of course, that means a quick ride on a 30-foot combine. Our questions spark Curtis to give us more information about soybeans than we ever thought possible. We learn about Round-Up Ready soybeans vs. conventional soybeans, buckshot (the colloquial term for the type of soil on the farm), floating combine tires and “maypops” (a persimmon-like ground vine that abounds on the farm).
What started out as a single donation dinner at The Roost has turned into four or five weekends each year that raise substantial dollars for worthy organizations. And the time spent there has become a respite for Felicia’s busy life. “The drive is peaceful. My phone doesn’t work well down there. I leave my computer at home.” It’s become a place to relax and get to know new friends — even though she’s still cooking.
For all that Felicia is quick moving, talkative, and vivacious, she does other things very quietly — donating her time, talent, and support.
Even in her free time she’s cooking, but always with the same cheerful, “bring it on” attitude.
At the recent St. Jude gingerbread event, the following comment conveyed Felicia’s attitude, “Give me a room full of kids and some pastry bags and I’m happy.” Never mind that the restaurant reservation book is full, there is prep to take care of, staff to manage…
What does Felicia Willett do for a living? She cooks. But how and where are a great example of how being identified with your “job” isn’t such a bad thing.
Visit Felicia at her downtown restaurant
80 Monroe Avenue
901-523-0877 • www.feliciasuzanne.com
Melissa Petersen is the editor of Edible Memphis. If she had to hunt for her own food, she would starve. If things get dicey, she plans to be somewhere near where Felicia is hunting and cooking.