Recently (which in Thomas’ slacker terminology means within the last month) I got around to something I’ve meant to do since I started the blog about a year ago. Part of the reason I write what I write is because—in addition to the fact that Memphis food is tasty and awesome—I want to share the unique nature of local businesses. We have owners/chefs who not only provide superb service and delicious dishes, they also bring jobs to our neighbors, put money directly into our economy, and give us a unique cultural identity. You can go to Nashville or Whateverville and find a Chili’s and a Wendy’s, but you’re not going to find a Felicia Suzanne or an Andrew Michael or an insert your favorite local restaurant.
We take enormous pride in our music, our art, our basketball, and our food. As I get to know those folks who give us bragging rights, I hope to help you get to know them too. After all, they may work in kitchens or on the floor, but they are still your neighbors. We’re the South, damn it—so let’s get to know our neighbors and start greeting them when they walk by our front porches. Even offer a glass of lemonade or sweet tea once in a while.
So without further ado, here is the first chef in Eat Local Memphis’ Getting to Know series. In Felicia Willett, I picked the best possible inaugural interviewee. Without giving too much away, how many interviews end in a hug?
I hollered at Felicia Willett on Twitter to let her know that I wanted to start interviewing chefs for a new feature on Eat Local. She told me to come on over for lunch on Friday. The following will be my attempts to convey the awesome story of care, commitment, and cuisine that she shared with me over an amazing meal.
Who are you, who who who who?
Where I come from (Memphis), one of the first things we ask someone new is, “Who are your people?” That seemed like a good place to start, as it turns out that Felicia’s people created the foundation for her career and the awesome food she serves downtown. Felicia hails from a large family in Jonesboro, Arkansas. After her parents divorced and remarried, she had two sets of parents within a mile of each other, and both aided in her cooking development.
Foodies, the bar has been set—Felicia’s stepfather and mother gave each other matching gas stoves as wedding gifts, so their kitchen was a temple of fine cuisine. They entertained all the time, picking out the best that Bon Appetit had to offer. A mile away, her dad’s house was home to the swimming pool, where everyone came to hang out, so you’d find a lot of fish fries, spaghettis, and other group foods. Cooking for people was what they did as a family—it was how they partied and hung out.
How did you know? Some people want to be an astronaut when they’re eight, some want to be a bounty hunter, but Felicia knew she wanted to be a cook when she was 12. She can remember a seminal moment of cooking with her grandmother, who drew Felicia in and taught her to make fried chicken and biscuits from scratch. This was a true test kitchen, where there was flour everywhere, and when grandmother tasted something that wasn’t right, you just shrugged your shoulders and started over.
On the Road(s) – Memphis-New Orleans-Charleston and in between
What Felicia brings to the table Tuesday through Saturday is an experience I’m calling the triple threat. Three cities form a great Southern triangle in her experience, and each finds its way to the plate. Although Felicia wanted to go straight to culinary school at 18, she followed her highly educated mom’s plan and went to Arkansas State for a year before heading to Tiger Country. Her time in Memphis would pay off down the road, but she left M-town for Charleston, SC’s Johnson and Wales (now in Charlotte) culinary school, where she built upon her natural talent in the low-country capital of the U.S. A true Southerner, the choice of Charleston came down to the simple fact that Charleston offered the beach and the school in New York offered snow—no-brainer!
Her next stop was New Orleans, where she worked closely with Emeril for eight years. After starring in the kitchen for two and a half years, she moved on to working with him on his cookbooks and the television shows for the next five years. As the shows gained in popularity, she realized her hands-on nature of work would take a different direction, and that was what pushed her to consider “what I was going to do when I grew up.”
I have noticed that more and more of my peers seem to move from Memphis to places like Nashville, so I wondered how a New Orleans chef with such a resume could be persuaded to move from that awesome food atmosphere. “I was homesick, and all of my people were starting to have babies.” Memphis offered a great opportunity to pursue her craft with a better balance of work and home.
All Roads Lead to Memphis aka You Can Go Home Again
While my main man (figuratively) Thomas Wolfe says you can’t go home again (read it if you haven’t), I beg to differ. Felicia’s road led right downtown to Monroe Ave. Why Downtown? When she got to Memphis, our very own Commercial Appeal showed signs pointing to the city’s western edge. In a couple of weeks, she read profiles on two of Memphis restaurant families, Thomas Boggs and the Vergos family. Both were excited about where Memphis could go and were committed to downtown. Another article was about Gary Garland and his enthusiasm for downtown, and she “knew what Memphis meant to all of these guys, and I wanted to down here. I wanted to be a part of this family.”
The space that Felicia Suzanne’s resides in called to her. After Kevin Adams showed her the space, she signed the lease a week later. An SBA loan and six months of construction later, the restaurant opened without even a sign on the door.
Welcome to Memphis
One of my favorite stories from the interview was how she describes the Memphis restaurant community. During construction, she spent a lot of time meeting and eating at the bar at Gristanti’s. When a waiter came out and said, “Mr. Grisanti wants to know if you are the young girl opening the restaurant downtown,” she confirmed. A week later, Ronnie introduced her to Judd and Alex and took her under his wing. “They are very protective of me,” she says, and from day one were available for advice and help. “Karen [Carrier], Jose [Guitierrez], and Erling [Jensen] were all just amazing, really a ‘what do you need and how can we help.’” She’d work the restaurant five days a week, cook at home on Sundays, and eat out at her friend’s places on Mondays.
She describes Memphis as having a very familial atmosphere in the restaurant business. Downtown restaurants aren’t competitors, they are neighbors. She gets excited and says, “Some people in this town say we have too many restaurants—I say we don’t have enough!”
Memphis is a great place to eat. It is a well-known joke that Felicia rarely crosses Danny Thomas, but she admits to zipping across town to eat out. “I love Kelly [Iris], I love Bari, I love Ryan [Sweet Grass], I love Ben at Tsunami, I love Do and Beauty Shop. And recently it wasn’t so busy on a Wednesday, so I went out to see Andy and Michael at Andrew Michael.” She’s all about supporting our great establishments. It really does seem like Memphis has a family of awesome chefs dedicated to serving the best food and raising the bar collectively.
More than Que
“People think that Memphis is just barbecue, but there is so much more that it just isn’t funny.” She loves that some of our places are getting a lot of exposure, as it is good for us as a whole. She knows the stories, “You look at Kat [Muddy’s] getting exposure, that’s good for us, Kelly [Iris] was in Food and Wine, that is huge for us, Andrew Michael was on TV, that was huge.” It shows an outside audience that while we may be kings of ‘que, our food skill isn’t limited to smoking hogs.
The Food of Felicia Suzanne
So basically, most of my posts about restaurants would skip the above 50,000 paragraphs, but without all of that we don’t get the whole story. Felicia isn’t just cooking in a bubble, she’s bringing her life and her passion to the plate, and it all plays together.
When I ask her what menu item would cause her clients to revolt if she removed it. “The shrimp and grits,” came out of her mouth in a second. While the dish is readily available, she has made it her own, through her three city approach. She describes the classic shrimp and grits as a low-country staple, gulf shrimp on white grits with a bacon gravy. However, she put her experience of her other two cities into the mix, using Delta Grind yellow grits, which have a better taste and texture, and making a New Orleans style sauce. “I took a creole sauce, which is very New Orleans, and refined the sauce,” making her shrimp and grits a unique take on a local favorite. “Every now and then, we have an extra in the kitchen, and I’ll taste it, and I remember why I loved it in the first place!”
The other stalwart that would cause a local panic if it left would be her fried green tomato BLT salad. On the menu from day one, she uses Newman Farms bacon to lock this dish together. She says the Newmans, from the bootheel of Missouri, are engaging and have a contagious enthusiasm, which explains their prominence on Memphis menus lately. For almost all of the dishes we discuss, Felicia tells me about the farmers who make the food. It is an awesome example of how local food can support so many!
While we talked, I let her pick out my lunch for me, so I started with the oysters Bienville, which combine gulf oysters with a sauté of gulf shrimp and baby shiitake mushrooms from Mississippi, a sherry cream sauce, and herb bread crumbs. She skews from the traditional New Orleans sauce, and leaves the shrimp and mushrooms chunky. Dude, this was awesome!
Next up, as we talked about the menu, I told her I had read about her grilled cheese sandwich in an old Memphis Magazine article, and she got excited about “the best grilled cheese ever.” Felicia is a grilled cheese connoisseur, having searched for the best in France on a trip for her mother’s 60th birthday. “I tried them all, croquet monsieurs, croquet madams.” I picked up the idea to use short ribs from a place in Miami. When Neola Farms was coming online, short rib was one of their first products, so it all came together. So I make mine with a braised short rib, Tennessee Sweet Water Valley cheddar cheese, béchamel sauce, and topped (optional) with a poached Flora Farms’ duck egg.
I have to switch away from serious interview voice to describe my experience with this sandwich. I immediately posted online that the sandwich might have gone as far as it can go. This is insane good, I mean, like OMG good. If you like meat and cheese at all, get this sandwich. Do yourself a favor, you deserve it.
Learn from the Best
The last thing that I’ll mention is that Felicia offers an exciting style of cooking class. While the restaurant is open, your party of 4-12 can eat at the kitchen table, and then she’ll throw you into the figurative fire by getting you to assist her team as they prepare the night’s meal. She explains that you could cook four crepes and mess up and never do them again because you are frustrated, but if you help cook crepes for 100, you are going to know how to do it forever.
For all the cooking show fans, there is always the chance of extra excitement. “You get a chance to see the breakdowns and the meltdowns in the kitchen.” Normally they aren’t too serious, but the kitchen is a pressure-filled atmosphere, and it really lets you do something that is different from your ordinary life. To sign up, just give Felicia a call to discuss your dinner menu and how it will all work.
As we finished up, we talked a little about our shared hopes for Memphis, and she really is a star of our city. She believes that this place can continue improving, that we’ve got the people to do it. As I shared my sentiments on the topic and got up to say goodbye, ready to shake hands, she came up and gave me a hug. She’s the real deal, and if interviewing people can be this awesome, I’ll get back on the streets and do it more often. Got anyone you want me to meet and write about next? Tell me how to get in touch. You might just find me at Felicia Suzanne’s. See you there!
You want to go to there:
80 Monroe Avenue
Memphis, Tennessee 38103
Dinner – Tues-Sat
Lunch – Fri
PS. Special thanks again to Felicia for having me for lunch! Also thanks to EW for lending me her proofreading and editing skills!