Meet Memphis Chef Felicia Willett
Memphis chef Felicia Willett is known for her high-quality twist on Southern Creole cuisine in a fine dining atmosphere. Her downtown restaurant, Felicia Suzanne’s, celebrated 13 years in business this month. Felicia is originally from Arkansas, went to culinary school in Charleston, then worked in New Orleans before opening Felicia Suzanne’s in 2002.
I Love Memphis intern Savannah sat down with Felicia to talk restaurants, food inspiration, her background, and Felicia’s love of Memphis. Here’s the interview.
Savannah: How’s it feel to be celebrating your 13th anniversary?
Felicia: I’m sort of speechless about it. I don’t realize that’s how old the restaurant is. It’s sort of funny because it starts to date how old I am. And, you know: blessed. I wouldn’t have gotten here for the 13th year if it wasn’t for my great family, amazing staff, and Memphis. Memphis has really embraced me as one of their own. The clientele continues to come and celebrate birthdays and anniversaries and graduations. I’m blessed; I’m a blessed girl.
Savannah: Any specific dishes you’ve grown to favor over the years?
Felicia: After 13 years, I have signature dishes that I’ve made since day one. I would like to see some of those roll off the menu at times, but considering your guests are the ones that drive the menu, it’s kind of hard to remove the crispy oysters with New Orleans barbecue sauce or the salmon deviled eggs (Savannah: I had some of these after the interview and they were delicious), or the shrimp and grits. Those three along with the white chocolate fresh coconut bread pudding are signature dishes.
If I wanted to be buried, these dishes would be on my tombstone. As you can tell, I don’t want to be buried, and I certainly don’t want a tombstone. But if I did, those four dishes would be on there.
Savannah: What was it like working in New Orleans?
Felicia: I lived in New Orleans for eight years. When I was in culinary school in Charleston, South Carolina, I was at an event called “Salute the Southern Chefs” and I met Emeril Lagasse. He had two restaurants at the time in New Orleans and for graduation requirements I needed to complete an internship. Because of where Charleston is located, all of those internships were at big golf resorts. And I was not interested in making holidays for 500 people for a Sunday brunch.
So, I called Emeril every day for a month and he returned my call and hired me to come down and do an internship. The school asked for a three-month internship; Emeril does not do three-month internships. He only did a year at the time, so three months turned into a year commitment, which turned into eight years.
I love New Orleans: the people, the food, the culture, the music. They don’t eat to live, they live to eat. It’s just so family-oriented. When you get up in the morning you’re having breakfast talking about lunch, at lunch you’re talking about dinner, dinner you’re talking about the next day. It’s just a cycle that repeats every day. And everything is made from scratch.
When you go to New Orleans, it kind of reminds me of Downtown Memphis. You don’t see a lot of chains. You don’t see a lot of fast food. There are mom and pop places and restaurants that have been there 5, 10, 15, 20 years. Emeril’s is celebrating 25 years. It’s just amazing that there are mom and pop shops and the kids have grown up in the restaurant. It’s a cool vibe and I love it.
Savannah: Can you tell me a little bit about the journey? What’s happened since you opened in Memphis in 2002?
Felicia: When I left New Orleans, I didn’t really have any ideas as far as running a business goes. The first several years I was trying to figure out what I was doing. Between year three and five I was trying to fix the mistakes I made in my first three years. Then from years five to ten, it was really growing my business and my brand.
Now my day starts in the morning with returning emails, checking social media, placing orders while I’m still in my nightgown having coffee. Then it moves throughout the day, so around 3 o’clock I put on my chef jacket and the cooking aspect goes until around 9:00.
After the 10th year, I made a change as for how I viewed my community and how I wanted Downtown Memphis and Memphis as a whole to grow together. At the end of day, I’m not married, I don’t have any children, so me giving back to charity is a huge thing. After 13 years, I go “What do you owe?” We’ve got such kind people in this community and I’ve been so blessed as far as Memphis adopting me as their own and giving me so much. So, of course I want to pay it back twofold.
Savannah: Who or what has been your biggest influence?
Felicia: 13 years ago, I would probably have said my mother, my grandmother, my mentors in life – whether it was in the cooking side or the business side. As of year 13, I would say my mentors who have been leaders in the business industry – people that are devoted to our community and growth of Memphis and promoting Memphis in a positive way – inspire and influence me.
Nick and John Vergos have been dear friends of mine and mentors since day one of me opening. Thomas Boggs and his family – they’re such great Memphians. We’ve got such a great community as far as philanthropy.
Savannah: What do you want people to take away from dining at Felicia Suzanne’s?
Felicia: It’s like you’re dining in my home. It’s very simple; it’s very straightforward. I’m not reinventing the wheel. I love classic dishes; I love old school dishes. I’ve probably got a very old soul with that. I have favorite dishes.
There’s not anything on the menu I wouldn’t eat or drink at the end of the night. My philosophy is if I recommend something, whether it’s a bottle of wine or a dish, and you don’t like it, no worries, I’ll get you something else because I’ll eat it. Or I’ll drink it.
I want you to feel like you’re being taken care of. We have white tablecloths because that’s what my grandmother had. People think it’s because of a level of service. My service pays attention to detail and I want you to feel welcome and invited; everyone’s welcome.
We have four-year-olds who come in that we make grilled cheeses for and they sit in their pretty little twirly dresses and have a lovely time, all the way up to my grandmother, who was 93, so it’s a big range. If you ask me ‘What is your typical type of diner?’ there’s no way I can answer that because it’s so varied.
A misconception is that I’m high-end and fine dining. The high-end part probably comes from the white tablecloth and china and crystal. My grandmother’s philosophy is: If I got it, I’m using it; I’m not going to wait for a special occasion. The high-end part: I buy organic chicken. There’s a price that comes with that. There’s a price that comes with good, organic food. I’m always leery when I see crawfish that’s $3.99 a pound.
I can feed you in 30 minutes. I can feed you in two and a half hours. You can order one item and water. Or we can do a six course tasting. We’re really flexible.
Savannah: Favorite place to eat and hang out in Memphis during the summer?
Felicia: I have dear friends that all have restaurants. I love Andrew Michael. They’re closed Sunday/Monday, so if there’s a Wednesday night that I can sneak out around 8 o’clock, I’ll head out East. I have a joke that I don’t pass Danny Thomas, especially during the week.
I cook at home on Sundays. Sunday is my day to decompress. If I have in friends in town, we’ll go to The Majestic for brunch or S.O.B. If I’ve got lunch meetings, McEwen’s. I love Burt and John; they’re great, great neighbors. Let’s say it’s a Saturday night and I got out at 8 or 9:00, I’d probably pop over to Cooper Young and see Ben Smith and Ryan Trimm (at Sweet Grass) or Karen at The Beauty Shop.
Summer Avenue is one of my most favorite streets. From end to end, there’s so many options. Starting at the loop/interstate, there’s Lotus for Thai food, and then as you’re coming down – Central BBQ, Bryant’s for a sausage biscuit, Los Picosoc is my favorite, which is an old school Taco Bell, Elwood’s Shack. It’s so diverse and so fun.
When I need my sugar high in the afternoon, Kat and I are soul sisters and so since she opened the Grindhouse, I was there on Friday and had a piece of chocolate chess pie. It was easy, cup of coffee, piece of pie in the afternoon…
That wasn’t a fair question.
Savannah: In the past 13 years, what’s been the most challenging part? Most rewarding?
Felicia: Most challenging: The balancing. Balancing life. Balancing the running of the kitchen, balancing the front of the house, balancing of running everything, your employees, your farmers. Because of my training and what comes naturally to me, I’m more comfortable in the back of the house. But with operating your own businesses, the front of the house is where it happens. I always joke I’ve got tons of balls up in the air, I just hope they all don’t fall down at the same time. I can handle one, but if three or four start, I’m going to be in trouble.
Most rewarding: The restaurant community. I opened 13 years ago. We didn’t have the amount of restaurants that we have. To see how many farmers’ markets we have now, how many new restaurants we have, how many artisans are coming to the table now. I’m so proud of our restaurant community. Any of my brothers or sisters in the restaurant industry, if they needed anything, if they needed any help, we’re all there for each other. I travel a lot around the country doing various events and I go to some amazing food cities and I eat at some amazing restaurants, but what makes me so proud is that Memphis‘ restaurant community is such a close-knit, tight family. We help everybody out. We know we’re there for each other. It’s such an amazing environment to be a part of.
Savannah: What do the next 13 years look like?
Felicia: I’m working on a cookbook. I’ve been doing some online cooking segments on A Southern Weekend. Flo’s has increased their stores/products, adding biscuits and pickled jalapenos. I’ve entertained the possibility of another location, possibly downtown. I never say “never.” I’m pretty happy with my life. Evolving the patio. Keeping things freshened up, not relying on my laurels or getting lazy. Things are always changing here. I just go day by day. It’s just – I’m blessed.
Savannah: Why do you love Memphis?
Felicia: Do you have several more pages and tapes? Memphis is my adopted home. Downtown Memphis is so diverse down here. I mean, black, white, straight, gay, Catholic, Jewish, Methodist, you know, purple, green – it’s just diverse. You see everything. The community is not one certain demographic and I enjoy the simplicity of living downtown.
I love to be a part of a city that’s growing and changing and evolving with people that are passionate about what they’re doing. You’re sort of part of this melting pot.
For a while, Memphis used to be sort of staggered. It was up in its heyday and it kept getting knocked down and knocked down. There was so much bad that was always talked about and discussed and now there’s so much good. We’ve got young people that want to be part of this community, shaking things up, moving things around, and they’re not worried about being that typical professional like a lawyer or a doctor. Not to take away from that, but now you see young people that are starting bakeries and doing what they want to do.
And we’ve got International Paper, FedEx, the hospital systems, Methodist, Baptist, yet the city still really embraces small businesses and entrepreneurs. Just really makes things happen for them.
What to read more about Felicia’s restaurant? Check out me
About the Interviewer
Savannah is a senior at The University of Memphis majoring in Creative Writing and minoring in Communications. Born and raised in Memphis, she embraces every part of the city – from the narrow right lane on Poplar, to the idiosyncratic individuals who drive down it. After graduation she hopes to travel the world, see an orca in the wild, read more books, and maybe write one, too.