When Felicia Willett moved to Memphis from New Orleans (where she cut her teeth as Emeril Lagasse's protégé), she was a bit lonely in her new loft apartment. Naturally, she decided that the best way to get to know people was to invite them over for dinner -- and who could refuse a free meal from Felicia? Several years later, Sundays at Felicia's are almost an institution: She sets the table for any number of people ranging from four to 12 and plans her meal depending on special requests from her guests, what food is left over at the restaurant, and the weather (her prime dinner season runs from October to May; in the hot and sticky summer months, she doesn't do much cooking).
Dinners range from the haute down-home cooking she's become famous for -- gumbo, mashed potatoes, grits, fried chicken, mac and cheese -- to Mexican fare, such as flank steak fajitas with corn tortillas, roasted peppers, caramelized onions, sour cream, fresh cilantro, and homemade guacamole and pico. Her real passion at home, however, is Italian food. Although Felicia doesn't have an Italian bone in her body, she loves all things i taliano , especially potato gnocchi with Bolognese. And, she claims to make the best tiramisu in Memphis.
Felicia also loves a good sandwich -- her lunch staple, whether it's chicken, eggplant, or tuna salad. On a recent trip to Paris, Felicia frequented bistro after bistro in search of the best croque-monsieur, the French equivalent of a grilled-cheese sandwich. Her version is made with truffle oil, cheddar cheese, and béchamel (a white sauce made by whisking milk into a flour-butter roux) and is now a lunch entrée at her restaurant, served with a side of sweet potato chips.
The truffled grilled-cheese sandwich was on the menu the Sunday I went to Felicia's for dinner -- as was a hearty chicken andouille gumbo that took all day to cook. When I walked in the door, the football game was on the television and Felicia's friends Sarah and Seta were lazing on the couch. Her kitchen was small, but well-stocked with the essentials -- good knives, her grandmother's cast-iron skillet, and a collection of cephalon and stainless-steel pots and pans. The dining room table, made from dark, restored wood, was set in full, with Reidel stemware, brown plates, green, leaf-shaped bowls, placemats made from twigs in honor of the season, and an ornate candelabra with red candles as the centerpiece. Felicia assured me that the fancy table setting was not in my honor: In fact, setting the table with her finest is a Sunday tradition.
When the chef is at home alone, she's much less fussy about food. Her typical breakfast is a cup of coffee (her favorite is Community Coffee, a New Orleans brand), and a bowl of Honey Bunches of Oats or oatmeal with fruit. For dinner, she loves angel hair pasta with Paul Newman's spaghetti sauce, crushed red pepper, and mozzarella cheese. At the end of the day, Felicia is a simple Southern girl from Arkansas and can appreciate all kinds of food. In fact, she confesses to having a weakness for Taco Bell -- one reason she keeps a treadmill at the foot of her bed.
Felicia Willett's Grilled-Cheese Sandwich
This sandwich can be spruced up with additions such as proscuitto, salami, roast beef, ham, avocado, roasted tomatoes, and eggplant. Felicia's favorite adaptation is salami and avocado.
Bread (white country loaf or fococcia from La Baguette)
Farm House Vermont white cheddar, sliced really thick
Truffle oil, preferably olive oil infused with truffle
Béchamel sauce (or mayonnaise)
• 1/2 cup butter
• 1/2 cup of flour
• 2 cups of milk
• Salt and white pepper
Grated white cheddar cheese
Preheat oven to 425º. Layer a slice of bread with white cheddar, truffle oil, and béchamel sauce. Top with another slice of bread and some grated white cheddar cheese and cook on the top shelf until the cheese is browned.
For 2 cups of béchamel:
• Melt 1/2 cup of butter over medium heat
• Stir in 1/2 cup of flour with a wooden spoon for approximately 4-6 minutes
• Slowly whisk in 2 cups of milk
• Season with salt and white pepper