Harvard alum Joanne Chang, 2016 Outstanding Baker, trades in math for the kitchen and finds her calling.
Cooking food that makes you proud. That’s how Chef Joanne Chang defines success.
Recently named the 2016 Restaurant & Chef Outstanding Baker by the James Beard Foundation, Chang grew up in a traditional Taiwanese home, where the final course of dinner was a plate of orange slices. Her first taste of chocolate cake didn’t occur until her early teenage years at a friend’s house.
“Once I was introduced to this whole idea of cake and cookies and other desserts I hadn’t ever partaken in, it really opened my mind,” she says. Besides baking the occasional batch of cookies with her mom, her new-found passion didn’t extend beyond “dreaming and reading about desserts.”
A brilliant math mind, Chang graduated as valedictorian of her high school class and attended Harvard University to study mathematics. While in Cambridge, she baked chocolate chip cookies for her study groups. “I was under a lot of stress doing math, and this was my outlet,” she says. “We had a tiny little communal kitchenette in my dorm, and I became known as the cookie girl. But it still wasn’t anything I planned on as a career.”
Chang graduated with honors and entered the business world as a management consultant. But on the side, she ran a small bakery business called Joanne’s Kitchen for small events like bridal showers. “It certainly wasn’t a big flourishing business,” she says, “but it allowed me to continue to dabble in this hobby.” It took two years before she couldn’t resist pursuing her passion any longer.
With no formal training, she quickly became chef garde manger at Boston’s Biba restaurant, operated by famed chef and restaurateur Lydia Shire. She then served as a pastry cook at awardwinning sandwich shop Bentonwood Bakery, and later as pastry chef at Rialto restaurant in Cambridge. She also moved to New York City for a short time to work in the cake department at Payard Patisserie and Bistro, a critically acclaimed French dessert and ice cream shop. In 2000, she opened Flour Bakery & Café in Boston’s South End.
“When we first opened, and what we aspire to still today, is to be the place that people can visit several times a week or maybe every day and everyone knows your name. It’s a warm, welcoming place with food made inhouse from fresh, high-quality ingredients.”
Now, with four thriving locations across Boston and Cambridge— and three more scheduled to open in the coming months—Chang finds herself with a bakery empire that she owns with her husband, Christopher Myers.
“We want everyone—whether staff or guests—to leave happier than when they walked in,” she says. “We spend a lot of time talking about that now, which is not too different from when we opened our first location.” Pastry is something that brings people pleasure, she says. “If it’s made well and served in the right environment, it can be one of the highlights of going about a busy day. We want to capture that.”
Today, Flour features endless breakfast pastries, breads, cakes, cookies and tarts as well as soups, salads and sandwiches. Her signature sticky buns won over Chef Flay when she was featured on “Throwdown with Bobby Flay” on the Food Network. Her favorite, though, is the pain aux raisins—a brioche with pastry cream and raisins. A relative newcomer, kouignamann, or butter Breton cake, is a close second. “I also really look forward to tasting the creativity that our chefs bring for the soups we serve, which change every day. It’s really interesting and fun for not only our guests, but also for me.”
Yet, she still measures success through a laser-focused attention to every detail.
“We’re constantly pushing to make sure we’re serving the best food we can offer,” she says. “From the service to the food we serve, I go about every day with the same level of determination and passion to make sure our guests have an awesome experience.”
Chang believes it’s the consistency she brings to her work that has been a marker for her success. “I have been in the Boston food scene for a very long time and haven’t wavered in terms of what I’m trying to do,” she says. “Hopefully, that’s evident not just to Boston but to everyone.”
Her advice for budding pastry chefs? Discover what drives you, and don’t lose focus.
“Find out what you love about it, and pursue that with all of your heart and passion,” she says. “Don’t get too distracted with who is winning what award or getting press. At the core of what we do is create delicious food for others.
“If you focus on that, you will be successful.”