By Daniel Schumacher
At closing time in the Crescent City, things are just getting started at Willa Jean.
While most of New Orleans sleeps, the lights burn bright at Willa Jean, which opened the middle of last year in the city’s new South Market District. Conceived as a partnership between superstar pastry chef Kelly Fields, accomplished baker Lisa White, and Crescent City restaurant magnate Chef John Besh, the restaurant garnered instant local and national acclaim for its Southern-inspired dishes and its ambitious in-house bread-baking program (which includes comforting white bread, crusty baguettes, and three-day aged Siciliano loaves).
To keep the restaurant stocked, Willa Jean’s bakery runs around the clock. The Third Shift, led by chef Lisa, bakes the loaves, buns, cookies, and croissants that have brought early acclaim to the new restaurant/bakery. Willa Jean’s multi-day rolling schedule of mixing, proofing, shaping, and baking blurs the lines from one day to the next, and the overnight crew stewards the lumps of dough into crusty perfection. We stayed over with the Third Shift to see how these hands-on bakers got the job done.
9:32 pm – On the playlist: “Let Me Clear My Throat” • DJ Kool
When Lisa arrives for the Third Shift, dinner service is nearly over, but there a few customers still linger over their espressos and salted chocolate chip cookies. In the kitchen, though, the line cooks are hard at work breaking down their stations and cleaning up. With clouds of steam from the dishwashers, floury mops, and excitement everywhere, they’re deciding which bar or restaurant they’ll be hitting once their shift ends.
While Lisa writes up her prep list for the next day, she sips on a warm cup of herbal tea. Her favorite: Kilogram’s 333, a caffeine-free blend of sweet-tart rosehips, peppermint, and chamomile. The irony that she’s a coffee shop owner who hardly drinks the stuff isn’t lost on her.
On a normal night, she’d sit down with Kelly Fields to bounce around ideas for new menu items, breads, and flavor profiles she wants to try. Though the two are close collaborators, they work opposite schedules with Kelly leading the day shift; they’re often like ships passing in the night, relying on quick nightly meetings and a constant flow of e-mails to stay in touch. This isn’t a normal night, though. Kelly has decided to stay for her first Third Shift.
9:51 pm – On the playlist: “Shoop” • Salt-N-Pepa
With the kitchen to themselves and early 90’s music on the hi-fi, the Third Shifters work with a quiet intensity. Flour is everywhere, and it’s just the beginning. Pullman loaves are in the oven, and Tasha Tetreau, a 10-year pastry cook, shapes a dozen baguettes, pinching, pulling, and stretching the dough, goading it into the classic shape.
The morning and afternoon crew mixed the dough for all of Willa Jean’s breads, gave them a first shape, and let them rest. In the beginning of her shift, Tasha gives the baguettes, pumpernickel, and semolina loaves the final touches before getting them into the oven. Semolinas are studded with sesame seeds and sliced with a razor blade, and the pumpernickels get a thick dusting of flour.
Timers punctuate the relative silence, and before we know it, the soft, white Pullman loaves are done.