Interview – Joanne Chang

I bet you can count the number of pastry chefs with a Harvard degree in applied mathematics and economics on one hand. In fact, you can probably count them using just one finger.

Joanne Chang.

Born in Houston (TX), Joanne’s passion for food was the impetus for an unexpected foray into the culinary world. In the year 2000 she opened Flour Bakery & Café in Boston (MA) that immediately began attracting legions of loyal fans. Joanne has since opened two additional Flour bakeries along with Myers + Chang, a restaurant she opened with her husband Christopher Myers and which she describes as being a funky indie diner with food inspired by Taiwanese soul food and Southeast Asian street food.

In 2010 Joanne released her eagerly awaited cookbook – Flour: Spectacular Recipes from Boston’s Flour Bakery & Café – and is currently working on a second book. She also writes articles and reviews cookbooks for Fine Cooking Magazine.

Confession? I have long admired Joanne Chang. Basically she inspires me to the point that I want to move to Boston and study pastry (shhh…don’t tell my hubby!) So when I recently had the opportunity to interview my pastry hero I jumped at the chance.


Okay so I’ve got to ask: how do you go from applied mathematics and economics to pastry?!
Well, I didn’t go straight into pastry. After graduation I spent two years working as a management consultant with no plans to go into the food industry whatsoever, but at the end of my second year I found myself at a crossroads and was trying to figure out what to do next. Because I honestly had no idea what I wanted to do, I thought I would spend a year doing something that I had previously enjoyed strictly as a hobby – cooking – and see where it might lead. So I ended up getting a job at a top restaurant in Boston working for famed chef/restaurateur Lydia Shire, which came about after I sent letters to various establishments basically saying that I had no experience or a professional culinary background but that I love to cook and would be willing to start anywhere. Working with Lydia I got my first glimpse into the world of professional pastry, and a year later I began working at Rick Katz’s bakery called Bentonwood.

What was it initially about pastry that held such fascination for you?
I really loved the controlled aspect of pastry. I appreciate the precise nature of pastry; there’s a lot of math and science involved which obviously resonated with my background. And to be honest I really enjoy eating sweets! I could eat pastries all day long.    

You first got into the food industry by sending out letters to chefs you admired. This was before the whole celebrity chef phenomenon, and so have things changed? How much of an importance do you place on culinary education vs. good ol’ fashioned experience in today’s market?
At the time that I sent out my letters people didn’t really do that sort of thing. Cooking professionally as a career wasn’t something that was on people’s radar to the extent that it is today. Nowadays the food industry in general is much more high profile because of celebrity chefs and the Food Network. Because I didn’t go to culinary school, our stores don’t have any food specific prerequisites for hiring. But because of today’s significant amount of interest in the food industry, I find we have to go through our non-experienced applicants with a finer toothed comb than was necessary when I was just starting out. A lot of people without experience tend to have a glamourized image of what it means to cook professionally, whereas in the past this desire to work in the culinary world came more from a genuine love of cooking.

I love how your book is so personal, and through your recipe introductions and personal anecdotes readers come away feeling as if they really know you. What was your initial vision for this book?
The end result of my book is pretty much what I had initially envisioned! Because I became a pastry chef indirectly, I can still remember what it was like learning how to make all of these pastries. So my goal was to create a book where I could share my love for pastry and passion for baking. Every recipe that I put in the book is very personal to me. A lot of people who cook seem nervous about baking, and I wanted to break down these perceived barriers between cooking and baking and show how a good recipe and learned technique can make a baker out of anyone!

You occasionally review cookbooks for Fine Cooking magazine. In your mind, what makes a cookbook great?
I definitely like the stories, learning where the recipe comes from and why the author thinks it’s worth including in their book. To be honest, I have a problem with baking books that don’t use weights (metric measurements). Personally, metric cookbooks signify to me that recipes have been calibrated and written in a precise manner allowing for the baker to achieve optimal results.

Your recipes are so exact and show the level of thought that goes into them…for example the banana bread calls for 3.5 bananas. I’ve tried making it with that extra half and it’s just not the same! What does it take to get a recipe to this point of perfection, and once you’re happy with something do you leave it alone forever or occasionally tweak it? People want to make the food that they buy at our stores. It’s the reason they buy the book in the first place! So the recipes in the book are what we make in our bakeries. That being said, we’re making batches of 28 loaves of banana bread so everything had to be calibrated to work for portions more applicable to home cooks. If you divide our banana bread recipe by 28 you end up with 3.5 bananas and so I didn’t want to mess around with that number! I often hear people complain that they love a particular restaurant or bakery and bought their cookbook but the results never turn out the same. It’s not that the author is trying to be deceptive – it’s just that there is a lot of adjusting that needs to happen when you take a recipe that is meant to be made in larger quantities and scale it down for readers. Trust me – it’s not an easy task!

Good thing you’ve got that background in math!

In your book you take complicated pastries that can take years of training and experience to perfect, and break them down into instructions that make them less intimidating for the home cook. How difficult was it to make your recipes home cook friendly?
It wasn’t overly difficult; it just took a lot of time. Throughout the whole process I kept having to think about why we do things a certain way. I’m naturally a very specific person, so approaching a recipe in this manner was fairly easy for me to do. It didn’t feel completely alien!

Last year was supposedly the year of the cupcake, this year is being labeled the year of the pie…do you believe in food trends? If so, what are your predictions?
I don’t think anyone can deny that cupcakes have become a major trend. The media works really hard to push trends and people seem to naturally gravitate towards the idea of food trends. Personally, I am a pie pusher! Hopefully we’ll see pie start to really increase in popularity with the masses. Love pie.

You once mentioned that one of the most challenging pastry items to make has been the infamous croissant. Have you mastered it yet? What’s the secret?
The tricky thing about croissants is that there are so many variables that can affect the final product; temperature of the butter, temperature of the water, temperature of the air, etc. When you make croissants every day or every week you are able to intuitively know how the dough and butter need to react, how your fingers can manipulate the dough for the look you want, the proper way to lineup the butter and dough layers for maximum flakiness.

What is your favourite thing to make?
That’s a hard question to answer! There isn’t just one thing I like to make the most above and beyond anything else. I enjoy making carrot cakes, I love tackling croissants, shaping brioche…actually there’s very little I don’t like to make when it comes to pastry!

How do pastry chefs not weigh 5,000 lbs?! I have a number of dessert cookbooks to review and I’m scared for my waistline. What goes into recipe development for pastry chefs? (When I asked this question to Gale Gand she said no one believes her when she says she comes home from work STARVING!)
I think when you work with pastry all day long and have access to it all the time there is less of a need to consume as much of it as you can! It will always be there so you don’t really feel any pressure to overindulge. I also think that doing pastry is such a physical job (lifting bags of flours, manhandling huge sheet trays, on your feet for 8-12 hours a day). It’s a very physical job! People underestimate how much hard work is involved in this profession.

Would you consider writing another book?
Actually I’m currently working on a second book right now! The working title is Flour Power: recipes from our kitchen all day, and it basically consists of breakfast, lunch, dinner and special occasion recipes. It has more of a focus on savoury foods; lots of sandwiches, soups, dinner ideas that have become signature items at our Flour Bakeries. But don’t worry – there will still be lots of pastries!

To read the cookbook review for Flour, please click here

To read more of our interviews with professional and celebrity chefs, please visit the Sound Bites section