photograph by justin fox burks
She earned her culinary chops from Johnson and Wales in Charleston, South Carolina, and served in New Orleans as an assistant to celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse. In 2002, a year after moving to Memphis, she opened her namesake restaurant, Felicia Suzanne, in downtown’s old Lowenstein building, dishing up Southern, low-country cuisine. We caught up with Felicia Willett to talk about food and friends, dogs and art, balance and breathing.
When did you develop a passion for cooking?
My family lived in Jonesboro, Arkansas, but we spent a lot of time at my grandmother’s in Hoxie. By the age of 7, I was helping her in the kitchen on Sundays after church. I’d fix fried chicken, coconut cream pie, a lot of pies. And she didn’t care about the mess — flour on the floor, using every dish in the house, that didn’t bother her.
Does it bother you?
(Laughs) A little. But in a restaurant you only have so many pots and pans.
What’s the most important lesson you learned under Emeril?
Trust some people to help you.
Why did you open your restaurant in Memphis?
Jonesboro’s in a dry county. And downtown Memphis was closer to my family in Arkansas and I knew I needed to rely on them. I love downtown’s main street, the old buildings, the history, the romance. And I can remember my grandmother and mother bringing me to Memphis, shopping at Goldsmith’s Oak Court, eating at Paulette’s.
Tell me about cooking for friends at home.
I have a loft apartment in downtown’s South End, with this teeny kitchen and an old wooden table, an open floor plan, and a patio that overlooks the bluffs. Six or eight people come on Sundays. They might request fried chicken or classic Italian or gumbo. I love the idea of a red gravy simmering all day and I love making pasta. Another thing that dictates my cooking is what I have in my “grocery store” [freezer at the restaurant]. I’ll joke and say, “Pick your own steak.”
I like to bike ride. I walk on the river a lot. And I’m a big football fan. I love Arkansas, Memphis, the Titans, and anything with Peyton. Sunday afternoon meals in the fall and winter revolve around that.
Some time ago I wrote about your unusual art collection. Do you still have it?
I do. A friend looked at it once and said, “You realize all these people are murderers?” They’re lithographs by family friend and Arkansas artist Evan Lindquist, and they include military rulers like Napoleon and Borgia, and outlaws like Jesse James. They’re still my protectors!
Other interests in art?
A few years back [Memphis Brooks Museum of Art] paired a local person with an artist. I spent a couple of weeks with John Robinette. I did my version of his moon over cotton fields and a church — I painted a duck egg over a barn with sunflowers. I’m saving my money for one of John’s moons.
Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen. Andy and Michael have been best friends since high school. It’s such a great collaboration.
Tell me about your dog.
My mom didn’t want me to be lonely in Memphis, so she got me a shih tzu. Bella moved to Memphis with me, and she passed away last March. Her picture hangs in the kitchen. A couple of months later my mother said, “There’s a groomer on Summer Avenue that has this bichou,” which meant, “Go pick this dog up.” Lula Belle has the same birthday as Elvis. She loves to go on walks with me.
Changes at the restaurant?
At first I wanted to duplicate Justine’s, the romance of it. And I’ve kept that feel more in the back dining room with its columns and dentil molding. But we’ve made the front dining room more casual, with brown banquettes instead of red. And the patio — we’ve put a bar out there along with a computer system. And we have tables for singles and couples and also two communal farm tables.
Changes within yourself?
In year three of owning the restaurant, I realized I didn’t breathe. So I went to a yoga class on Harbor Town and that really helped. The restaurant has its own sort of energy — controlling, demanding. I have to pull away from it and “check in” with myself. Now, during the last six months my yoga sort of stopped. I developed a product line called Flo’s — jams and jellies I’ve been making for years. And I was doing charity events and traveling and changing up the patio, so Felicia sort of neglected herself. But I got back in to my yoga, and I’m breathing again!
You’ve mentioned romance. Any time for that?
I’m single. Friends say, “It must be the hours you keep.” But the restaurant is 12 years old and during that time I’ve learned more balance. These days I leave at 9 o’clock, when my customers are having dessert and coffee. I slip into my flip-flops, say good-night, and head home. I’ve had adventures and experiences and relationships that have turned into dear friends. I’m making way for more of that in my personal life.