What’s Willa Jean?

John Besh's casual cooking apparel included a Willa Jean T-shirt.

John Besh’s casual cooking apparel included a Willa Jean T-shirt on a hot September Saturday at Pensacola Beach.

I sat in 95 degree sweltering sun for over an hour to watch John Besh make courtbouillon on an outdoor stage facing Pensacola Beach. I claimed my free front row seat and wasn’t giving it up for shade or water.

Dan Dunn, chef at Pensacola Beach Hilton, also knows to dress for the weather. he wore flip-flops and shorts to go with his monogrammed chef's jacket.

Dan Dunn, chef at Pensacola Beach Hilton, also knows to dress for the weather. He wore flip-flops and shorts to go with his monogrammed chef’s jacket.

Eight local chefs dressed in specialty chef apparel preceded Besh for a Taste of the Beach cookoff. Then Besh appeared on stage in shorts, a T-shirt and flip-flops. He knows how to dress for the beach, but then as he says, he’s practically from around here. New Orleans isn’t that far from Pensacola Beach.

While he cooked a big pot of fish, crab and shrimp courtbouillon, he told stories of shipping gumbo to his son at Notre Dame, preparing one-pot meals to freeze for the other three boys and his wife while he was on the road, and cooking like his mama taught him. He talked about New Orleans food, Hurricane Katrina and how other chefs helped him after Katrina.

Drake, a New Orleans chef who Besh is currently mentoring, helps dish out the courtbouillon at Taste of the Beach.

Drake, a New Orleans chef who Besh is currently mentoring, helps dish out the courtbouillon at Taste of the Beach.

In return, Besh explained, he mentors new chefs and now has nine restaurants in New Orleans and three in Texas. He never named a single restaurant, but did mention August in passing. Only fans would know Besh is August.

Besh seems like a down-to-earth regular Louisiana kind of a guy. As he was wrapping up the cooking segment, I pointed out his T-shirt to the woman sitting next to me.

“What’s Willa Jean?” I asked.
“I guess it’s a jeans store like The Gap or Old Navy,” she offered.

My husband figured Willa Jean was Besh’s mother’s name. He was close.

Willa Jean is named after Kelly Fields’ grandmother. Fields, a South Carolina native, is the Besh Restaurant Group Executive Pastry Chef. She left New Orleans for San Francisco after Katrina, but she’s back and has teamed with Pastry Chef Lisa White of Pizza Domenica to open Besh’s newest restaurant, Willa Jean.  It’s a Southern bakery (that also serves breakfast, lunch, dinner, and cocktails) in the New Orleans Central Business District. It opened, appropriately, in August.

It sounds like my kind of place with an emphasis on coffee and pastry, but also dishing up things I’d like to try — avocado toast, cane syrup peach and blackberry cobbler, pimiento cheese, sticky buns and Lamb Pot Pie, plus lots of healthy fare. And my husband will love it, too – Willa Jean serves boudin, collards and cornbread, pigs in a blanket with apricot mustard, fried chicken biscuits with pickled jalapeno relish, and biscuits with sausage gravy.

I can’t wait to meet Willa Jean. She’s got a place over at 611 O’Keefe Avenue and opens at 7 every morning.

Besh wore a Willa Jean T-shirt like this, in blue. Photo from www.willajean.com

Besh wore a Willa Jean T-shirt like this, in blue, for Pensacola Beach’s Taste of the Beach event. Photo from www.willajean.com

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About thegumbodiaries

On the search for the perfect gumbo!
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