And a look inside her casual Boston loft.
Welcome to My Life at Home, where we slow down for just a minute to share a glimpse into the lives of food lovers we'd love to get to know better. Kick off your shoes and get comfy!
As much as I would have loved to have started off my career in food, such was not the case. Toiling away at a job that I didn't love did have its perks, though—every minute outside of work would be spent poring over cookbooks, tinkering in the kitchen, and watching food shows. I recall one vintage episode fondly: Food Network's Throwdown with Bobby Flay was on (god, I loved Miriam and Stephanie so), and the "The Science of Sweets" episode had Bobby on the road to Boston to challenge the queen of sticky buns herself, Joanne Chang of Flour Bakery + Cafe.
I was mesmerized from the start: Here was an Asian-American, like me, who shunned the corporate life to pursue her sugar-filled dreams. It was all I could do not to pick up and quit my own day job on the spot. She was obviously talented (handily defeating Bobby, see what clinched her title below), savvy, and—what I felt to be—genuinely nice.
Years later, I would continue to see Joanne's name pop up in any number of contexts: accolades (a James Beard Award, for instance), cookbooks (she's working on her fifth), restaurants (more than a handful of Flour locations, as well as Myers+Chang, a restaurant that gives a nod to the Taiwanese food she grew up), and often here in my current post at Food52 (our co-founder Merrill Stubbs got her start behind the counter at Flour Bakery in Boston years ago).
When I finally had a chance to connect with her for work (these days, doing something I love), it was long after that fateful episode. But one thing hadn't changed: I was still a fangirl—and with good reason. Not only is she kinder than I could have ever imagined, Joanne's refreshingly down-to-earth demeanor is almost disarming. When asked about her decorating style, for example, she said, "[My husband] Christopher likes to joke that if he painted the walls of our home black, I would wonder if a lightbulb was out. I’m not really that into décor."
The limited time this busy boss lady does have is spent hanging out with Christopher, running, and enjoying slow Sundays in their Boston loft. Read on for a glimpse into Joanne's home life–and find out what she considers the ultimate dessert.
HANA ASBRINK: Joanne, please tell us about the sticky bun–lined road that got you to where you are today.
JOANNE CHANG: I am originally from Dallas, Texas, where my parents still live. I moved to Boston to go to Harvard and graduated with a degree in applied math economics. I had NO idea what I wanted to do upon graduation. I landed a job as a management consultant (without really knowing what that job title meant) at The Monitor Group in Cambridge, and spent two years traveling around the U.S., helping big companies work out various problems within their organizations.
In my spare time, I baked cookies on the side and sold them to friends and family. I called it "Joanne's Kitchen" (I couldn't come up with anything more creative than that), and I probably made a few hundred dollars total. I am sure I spent more on making the cookies than I made. After two years at Monitor, I decided to take a year off from wearing a suit and heels, and to try and get a job in a restaurant kitchen. I had always loved to cook and bake and eat, so it seemed like a great way to spend a year and see what else was out there.
My first job was at a restaurant called Biba (where Bistro Du Midi is now across from the Public Gardens). I was the appetizer cook for a year. I loved it. I knew I wasn't going to go back to the office once I started working in a professional kitchen. I left Biba to work in a bakery called Bentonwood Bakery (since closed) in Newton Center. After a year, I moved on and became the pastry chef of Rialto (also closed) in Cambridge. (I met my husband and business partner Christopher here—he was one of the owners. But I swear we didn't start dating until LONG after I left Rialto.)
I moved to New York City to work at Payard Patisserie (now closed) under famed legendary pastry chef Francois Payard. It was while I was in N.Y.C. that I started thinking about opening a bakery of my own. I had loved Bentonwood and all of the personal touches we were able to give our customers and to each other. I dreamed of opening a place back in Boston in which we'd make everything from scratch and give the best service ever; we'd be like the bakery version of Cheers.
So I moved back to Boston and starting planning Flour. I worked as the pastry chef at Mistral for two years as I was planning. I found the location for the first Flour somewhat by chance. My best friend was getting married and I made her wedding cake. One of the guests told me I should do this professionally. I told him that I did and that I was looking for a space to open up my own place. He gave me his business card...and he is now our landlord at Flour.
HA: What do you like most about your Boston home?
JC: I love that we have tons and tons of windows. We live on the fifth floor, so we get lots of sunlight. Our loft is bright and airy and open.
HA: What are you influenced by?
JC: The art on our walls (which Christopher chooses) always makes me think about the artists themselves and what led them to create that certain piece. Being connected to other creatives in that way reminds me that everyone has a story, and it helps motivate me to get out there and share mine through food.
HA: What are the tried-and-true kitchen utensils you'd never trade in?
HA: How much time do you and Christopher spend at home, after managing all of your restaurant operations?
JC: We spend Sundays together at home, catching up and relaxing. Otherwise from Monday to Saturday, our days are go-go-go. There’s always a bakery to visit or something to taste at the restaurant, and we spend most of the week out and about.
HA: What does a "typical" evening in look like for you?
JC: A typical night for me is a few hours at the restaurant and then home by 8 p.m. with some takeout. We eat dinner together and then watch some TV, and catch up on email. I'm in bed by 11 p.m. at the latest. I spend a little time decompressing on Instagram, and then I always end with The New York Times headlines. I try to limit my reading to two to three articles, otherwise I’m up too late.
HA: How often do you guys entertain?
JC: We used to entertain a lot―in fact that is what led to our opening Myers+Chang! We were having dinner parties in our house, and we wanted to recreate the food and hospitality from our home in a restaurant. Since opening M+C, we actually have our dinners there with friends.
HA: What is your favorite way to unwind after a busy week?
JC: Make dinner at home for me and Christopher, share a bottle of wine, watch a movie (and fall asleep on the couch).
HA: I know you are very organized and dedicated to your schedule. What's your organizing style when it comes to the home?
JC: I am much less organized at home. Christopher is still trying to get me to put things in the same place so I’m not frantically running around each morning trying to find my wallet or my keys, or whatever. Maybe a few times a year I vow to get more organized: I dump everything out of every cabinet and off of every shelf, and put everything back in as organized as I can. It lasts about a month and then I live in relative disarray for a few more months until I get fed up, and then I do the whole thing over again.
HA: Something you hate-to-love or love-to-hate about your home?
JC: I love how very convenient it is―we are right in the middle of Boston―but the downside is that, being in the middle of Boston, it is NOISY. We hear every 18-wheeler that enters the city, every ambulance and fire truck, every loud crazy party that is going on in the nightclub down the street.
HA: If your walls could talk, what would they say?
JC: “Do you ever get tired of eating the same breakfast every morning?” Answer: No, I love my multigrain toast with butter, and English breakfast tea every single morning. I never get tired of it; it’s so good.
HA: Do you have a favorite Food52 recipe?
JC: I adore the new Genius Desserts cookbook. I haven’t made anything yet, but I can’t wait.
HA: What are the three things we'll always find in your fridge?
JC: Apples, Sriracha, Champagne.
HA: What is your favorite dessert of all time?
JC: The Baked Alaska at Oleana.
HA: How about during the holidays?
JC: Flour Bakery's pear and cranberry crostata.
HA: What is the one thing everyone always asks you to make?
JC: Sticky buns!
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Photos used with permission from Joanne Chang and The Kitchn.
Do you have a favorite Joanne Chang recipe? Share your love loud and proud below!