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Interview with Felicia Willett

Felicia Suzanne's Downtown Memphis, Memphis

What's your favorite new ingredient?
I'm in the process of expanding my cheese selection, so I'm tasting different domestic cheeses from Tennessee, Alabama, Louisiana. John Folse is an old Creole and Cajun cook whose Bittersweet Plantation Dairy, outside of New Orleans, has been winning many awards. He makes a triple-cream cow's-milk cheese.

What's the most versatile spice?
Pepper. I don't do spice blends. I spent eight years in New Orleans, and New Orleans is the king of spice blends. They've got one for fish, poultry, everything. I cook with a kosher salt that's fine enough to crush in your fingers, so it's good for salads and entrées. I mix black pepper and salt and use that for my meats, and I use white pepper and salt for my fish and starches—potatoes or grits.

What's the most underused spice?
I guess my answer would be crushed red pepper and hot sauce. I guess people are afraid of pepper—they think it just makes everything too spicy. I use peppers and pepper sauces in my smoked salmon eggs with Arkansas White River caviar; something about the pepper in a hot sauce brings out the flavor in the salmon and the salt and the mayonnaise. I also marinate my onion rings in a little bit of buttermilk and hot sauce.

What items should be in every pantry?
Grits. Grits are so versatile, but they've gotten a bad rap because people don't know how to cook them. They think they're supposed to be gritty, but if your grits are gritty, they're not done. At all. I have grits all over my menu. I was taught how to cook them in Charleston by Louis Osteen. He cooks his grits in milk. I find that it just makes them so much creamier and you don't have to add as much cream. And he would always use a wooden spoon.

What's your favorite knife?
My hands are a little smaller, so I find the eight-inch chef's knife works well. I like the Wüsthof or the Henckels. I'm really traditional and I don't need all of the fancy stuff.

What's your favorite pan?
I love All-Clad. That's what I have at my house—the stainless, the nonstick. I brought a lot of my pans from home to the restaurant before I was able to build my set. I used them in the kitchen for probably two or three months before I took them back home, but they still looked brand new.

What's your favorite mail-order source?
I order gelato and sorbet from Palazzolo's Artisan Gelato & Sorbetto [4gelato.com]. It's a 20-year-old family-owned company that makes gelato-style ice cream.

If you could design one piece of serving equipment, what would it be?
It would be a small nonstick saucepan for my pastry creams and my grits. My grits stick to the bottom of any pan; they don't burn but they scald just a tad. If I could find a little two-cup, four-cup or six-cup saucepan, it would be amazing. You would think it would be a lot easier to find.

What restaurant would you want to eat in once a week?
Sant Ambroeus in New York City. I used to live in New York for a week every month, and let me tell you, their gnocchi—I can still taste it. Everything was homemade. They also did a carpaccio with shaved celery, extra-virgin olive oil, salt and pepper. I miss that because I would probably eat there three times a week when I was in New York. Their potato gnocchi were pillows of heaven.

If you were going to open a fast-food place, what kind of place would it be?
Probably a Mexican restaurant. I have a huge affection toward Taco Bell. It's a serious problem. That's why I have a treadmill at the end of my bed.

A lot of chefs are getting into making things completely from scratch, like cheese. What would you like to make from scratch?
All my pie doughs, demis, stocks, puff pastry, cookie dough and cracker dough is from scratch, and I'm just now starting with the mozzarella cheese. I haven't had really good luck with that so far. By the end of the year, it's my goal to master it. I confit all my duck, make my own mayonnaise and remoulades. I just find they taste so much better.

What's your favorite cookbook?
Right now, I'm reading Thomas Keller's Bouchon. But La Varenne Pratique by Anne Willan is a very hands-on demonstrational book. I'm reading up on making pasta because I haven't made it since culinary school. Frank Stitt's Southern Table is great, too. I like to read more about people's memories, their first exposure to cooking, how they got into it, their philosophies.

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