It all started in a lemonade stand. Felicia Suzanne Willett, owner and executive chef of Felicia Suzanne’s restaurant, took the lemonade stand to a new level by adding homemade cheesecakes to the curbside menu when she was only 12 years old. Today Felicia is an avant-garde chef whose cooking style is attached to her Southern upbringing, as expressed on the menu of her downtown restaurant where she serves American cuisine with Southern, low-country flair (with an emphasis on the flair!)
Originally from Jonesboro, Arkansas, Felicia earned a business degree at University of Memphis, then started her formal culinary training in Charleston, South Carolina, at Johnson and Wales. Next, it was on to New Orleans for an internship with Emeril Lagasse. Felicia always wanted to return home to be close to her family in Jonesboro, but in those days Jonesboro was a dry county; she says that Memphis was the closest place she could sell whisky and pay the rent!
When did your passion for cooking begin?
I started young, around age six. I would help my grandmother in the kitchen: frying chicken, stirring cornbread batter, rolling out crust for pies. At age 12, I served lemonade plus homemade cheesecakes from my lemonade stand—a hit with family, friends and neighbors—and I always enjoyed making cheesecakes for my mom’s friends during the holidays.
What is next for Felicia Willett? Inside scoop?
I want to continue to build Flo’s (my product line, Flo’s Homemade Goodness). We just got approved to be a manufacturing kitchen, so we’re looking to expand the Flo’s line beyond jams, jellies, and pickles. As for the restaurant itself, we’re constantly building onto the patio, changing up the art. And our menu changes seasonally, so we’re learning to work with a new set of fresh ingredients every few months. We’re expanding FSR To-Go (our catering/delivery service), which just got a new logo, so we can bring the restaurant to you! And, of course, working on the cookbook is an ongoing process. We just finished the syllabus!
A typical weekend in the professional life of Felicia Willett?
We’re open for lunch on Friday, so Friday is an all-day deal. I get a break from 5:00 to 6:00 p.m. to walk my dog before dinner service. Then, Saturday morning is the Farmer’s Market for Flo’s or for buying provisions for the restaurant. I’m always picking up last minute things and ordering for the following week. Then Saturday night, of course, is dinner service.
Tell us about the biggest roadblock you’ve overcome.
Balancing everything. You have grand, romanticized ideas of opening a restaurant and you’re cooking everyday. In actuality, you’re constantly juggling and trying not to drop all the balls. You’re always teetering and trying to find ways for things to be balanced. I spend a lot of time in the front of the house giving orders, even though I have people in charge. I manage the purchases and manage product, vendor, and employee relations. Sometimes you’re going faster, sometimes slower. I always joke that if I fall, I hope all the balls don’t fall down with me and that I can catch one or two. You have all sorts of situations that can come up, and I try not to repeat the same mistakes that I might have made yesterday.
If you could have lunch with any woman in the world, who would it be and what would you order?
My grandmother Lovis, who’s now in Heaven. It wouldn’t be about what I would order; I’d want the dishes we ate so often on Sundays, her fried chicken and her chicken and dumplings. I’d recreate the family dinners. She never knew if she would be cooking for six or for twelve. It was simple, and made by her. She owned a florist shop, she was involved with the church, she had grandchildren. For all of us, her house was our safe place to go. She also didn’t sugarcoat anything; we learned a lot. She never overreacted, and she had a great sense of balance. Things seemed so easy for her and she always had a method to her madness. She made everything seem so seamless and easy.
Explain some the special reservations available at Felicia Suzanne’s.
Because I have three different areas of the restaurant, we can do a lot of things. It can be as much or as little as you want. We have a tasting menu, which we offer at the chef’s table in the kitchen. For this, you tell me your likes and dislikes and I’ll put together a meal based on that. Then we have the main dining room, which is a little more reserved, and patio tables where you can do whatever style you want. It has a more casual feel. We’re very flexible.
Do you have a favorite activity or set of activities away from work?
I love to go walking and ride my bike down by the river near Beale Street Landing and Tom Lee park. I love to stroll on Sundays and see where I end up. It’s pretty much contained downtown if I have a day off, but I do love Shantih’s classes at Midtown Yoga.
Best advice you have ever received? Favorite quote?
I had one of my mentors tell me that I needed to ask for help. If I didn’t learn to delegate then the restaurant wouldn’t stay around. If I had to be in charge of everything, I wouldn’t be around. Trust people and put them in good positions.
Favorite vacation escape and why?
I go to my cousin’s – he lives at the beach. It’s a quick flight and total getaway. I just blend into the life. There aren’t activities, we just meet and hang out. I totally unplug.
Are there any charitable organizations where you volunteer your time or support? What’s meaningful about this outreach to you?
I’m involved with a lot of organizations, but I really love Make-A-Wish, because of the children. When they grant those wishes, those kids get to forget for a minute how tough life can be and really just enjoy it, whether it’s going away on a trip or just spending time with family. I hold a fundraiser for the kids at my restaurant every April, called “Dishes for Wishes.” 100% of the ticket sales go directly to the children to grant their wishes. Last year, we raised $170,000, and we granted 28 wishes.
What books are you reading, or have you most enjoyed reading lately?
I love food magazines and cookbooks. Anything food-related, whether it’s about a single ingredient, like tomatoes, or something by Julia Child.
Do you have any favorite fashion trends or must-have clothing items / accessories on your wish list (or already in the closet!) for your 2014 wardrobe?
I have weakness when it comes to boots. I love my Frye boots. And jewelry — I love bangles and cuffs. If you see me out, I always have a special cuff. On the other hand, I’ll have bangles.
Thank you for joining us on StyleBlueprint, Felicia!
Today’s exquisite pictures were taken by Julie Wage Ross at Felicia Suzanne’s restaurant in downtown Memphis.