Felicia Willett offers local diners a preview of her James Beard House dinner.

Felicia Willett

Justin Fox Burks

Felicia Willett

Felicia Willett, head chef of Felicia Suzanne's in downtown Memphis, has two big reasons to celebrate 2012. Not only does this year mark her 10th anniversary at the helm of one of Memphis' fine-dining gems, it also marks the first year Willett has been personally invited to cook a meal at the James Beard House in New York. On September 24th, Memphians will get a preview of the five-course meal Willett will prepare at the James Beard House on October 15th.

Flyer: For readers who aren't familiar with the James Beard House, why is it such an honor to be invited there to cook?

Felicia Willett: James Beard was sort of the grandfather of American cuisine. For so long [the culinary world] was so French-dominated. Then they made this house in New York where they raise money for scholarships for kids to be able to go to school and for education about American cuisine. Julia Child cooked there — all the greats have cooked at the Beard House.

This isn't your first visit to the Beard House, though.

I was exposed to the James Beard House when I was living in New Orleans and working for Emeril Lagasse. I had the opportunity to go [to New York] on multiple occasions and assist him. And one of my dear friends, Anne Kearney, who had a restaurant called Peristyle in New Orleans, went and cooked and I went to help her. It has always been one of my goals to go up to the Beard House and cook as Felicia Suzanne. I had been on so many other occasions cooking under other people's names that it was an honor to be selected to cook on my own. It's also a little pressure.

Indeed! How were you able to narrow down your menu for such an occasion?

I wanted to showcase our area for something besides barbecue. That's been one of my missions for the last 10 years. The cuisine is local and low country and Creole and Delta and family recipes. I really wanted to showcase the farmers from this area, so I tailored the menu to my farmers and things that were kind of unique and signature items for the restaurant.

Such as?

I'm taking my short rib grilled cheese for passed hors d'oeuvres during the cocktail hour, and that's Claybrook Farms. Of course, my salmon deviled eggs are going, and that's from West Wind Farms. We're doing crepes with Bonnie Blue goat cheese and our pepper jelly. I'm doing shrimp and grits with Delta Grind grits and West Wind Farms andouille sausage. And we'll have hoppin' John fritters with our house-made Tasso ham from Newman Farm.

And those are just the hors d'oeuvres. What does the rest of the menu look like?

I wanted to highlight the Gulf, so my two seafood courses are shellfish. I'm going to do a trio of oysters: the baked, the hot sauce, and the New Orleans barbecue. We'll do a fresh crab salad as the second course, and then make a lamb Bolognese with Newman Farm lamb and handmade potato dumplings. For the Duck Two Ways, we're using quarters from the Tennessee duck, making confit and fried rice, and then a Chinese-spiced duck breast that's sliced and drizzled with cane syrup. For dessert, we'll do the white chocolate bread pudding with praline sauce and ice cream, and then shots of my milk punch, sweetened cream spiked with bourbon.

So how will the local preview compare to the actual dinner at the James Beard House?

The dinner we do on September 24th [in Memphis is the same dinner we will do on October 15th in New York. The tables are going to look exactly like the tables in New York. We'll follow the same time frame as well. Like at the Beard House, [the preview] starts at 7 p.m., you sit down at 8 p.m. But dinner in New York is $190, and $75 here.

Why host a preview dinner?

It's sort of like feedback session for me. It's going to be a lot of friends and family, and they can say, "Felicia, I think you need a little bite of this in your crab salad." I'm good with criticism; I want to go up there and do well.

Felicia Suzanne's, 80 Monroe (523-0877)

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