Joanne Chang won the James Beard award for Outstanding Baker in 2016. Equally impressive are the Boston-based businesses she and her husband Christopher Myers have created over the past two decades. If you haven’t enjoyed a sticky bun at one of the now seven Flour Bakeries or Mama Chang’s Pork & Chive dumplings at Myers & Chang, then you need to put them on your bucket list. And that’s just two of the numerous dishes Chang and her Executive Chefs have created that keep customers coming back for more.
In her “free” time, Joanne has also authored four cookbooks and is now working on her fifth. The first three focused on the sweet side of life and were titled Flour, Flour Too and Baking with Less Sugar. Last month, Chang and M&C Executive Chef Karen Akunowicz, released Myers & Chang At Home: Recipes from the Beloved Boston Eatery to coincide with the restaurant’s 10th anniversary. This cookbook provides a one of a kind opportunity to learn how to make some of the restaurant’s iconic dishes such as the aforementioned Mama Chang’s Dumplings, Sichuan Shrimp Lettuce Wraps, Vietnamese Fresh Rolls, Korean Braised Short Rib Tacos, Red Curry Cauliflower with Tofu, Wok Charred Udon Noodles with Chicken & Bok Choy (a personal favorite and the cover photo), Wild Mushroom Lo Mein, Nasi Goreng (Indonesian Fried Rice), Red Miso Glazed Carrots and so much more.
In addition, the book provides excellent guidance on how to shop for ingredients, and includes an extensive glossary of those ingredients that includes definitions and even some substitutions. It is guaranteed to help you navigate either the international food aisle at your local grocery store, or at an Asian market which can be confusing! The learning continues with sections on how to equip your kitchen, how to properly wok, velvet, cook rice, shape dumplings, use chopsticks and properly eat Chinese food…
I am speaking from experience when I say that you will not be disappointed in the recipes or the stunning photographs shot by Kristin Teig. I was a home tester for roughly 20 of the recipes in the book ahead of its publication, a process I found to be inspiring and challenging on occasion, but mostly a ton of fun. Delicious food always ensued. I am now a home tester for Joanne’s next cookbook which will shift back to the sweet side and has a working title of Pastry Love.
I have long admired Joanne, a Harvard graduate who studied Applied Mathematics and Economics, worked briefly as a management consultant, but ultimately followed a dream that changed the trajectory of her life.
I am inspired by her drive and the passion she has sustained in an incredibly tough and often humbling industry. Although we only exchanged emails during the recipe testing process, we developed a working dialogue that gave me the courage to ask if she would sit down for my first official interview for The Kitchen Scout. I was thrilled when she said yes.
So on a rainy Friday evening, Joanne and I sat together at the counter at Myers & Chang and chatted.
My goal with this interview was to get a “behind the scenes” glimpse into Joanne the person. There are many other articles you can read online about Joanne, her restaurants and the Myers & Chang cookbook if you search around. I am hopeful that TKS interviews will go a little deeper and perhaps serve as an opportunity to ask ourselves some of the same questions.
So with that, here’s how our conversation played out…
photo courtesy of Kristin Teig
TKS: What is your typical day?
JC: Generally, I am up at 6 and will write and answer emails until about 8:00. Afterwards, I fit in some exercise, either yoga or the gym or a walk with my husband. Depending on the week, I could be traveling to all of my Flour locations (7 now) for bi-weekly meetings with my managers. We focus on lots of different issues from online ordering, efficiency, hospitality, etc. I also meet regularly with my Executive Pastry chef and Director of Operations for Flour and my Executive Chef at Myers +Chang. Late in the day, three times a week I head over to Myers & Chang and check in with my team there. Dinner is usually at home, followed by more email and then bed.
TKS: Do you take any days off?
JC: Sundays are my day off and maybe 5 or 6 times a year, I take a Monday off as well. I didn’t really take any time off for maybe the first 5 or 6 years I spent growing Flour and since 2007, I haven’t had a traditional 2-day weekend.
TKS: Have you always been such a hard worker?
JC: I think so, yes. I have always needed to be working a lot and have a lot going on. It’s part of my nature. Right now is probably the most I have ever worked though, between the 10th anniversary of Myers & Chang and the growth spurt we’re experiencing with the bakeries.
TKS: As far as your career goes, would you do anything differently if you were to do it all again?
JC: I don’t think I would necessarily do any big things differently because then I wouldn’t necessarily be where I am at this moment and I am really happy with my life. However, if there had been more time in my career, I wish I had learned even more about pastry in a formal setting. Although I learned a lot in my professional jobs leading up to opening my first Flour Bakery, I really am self-taught, learning through reading and trial and error. So, having more formalized pastry training would have been nice. I do miss baking every day as I once did when Flour was just one location, but writing cookbooks has enabled me to get back into the kitchen which is so nice.
TKS: Who were/are your mentors?
JC: First and foremost my husband, Christopher Myers. His way of thinking is different from mine and that provides balance in our personal and business relationship. He is hospitality driven, insightful and has so much experience in the industry that I find invaluable. I trust him completely and value his feedback always. Also, Chef Jamie Mammano, (Teatro, L’Andana, Sorellina, Moo, Ostra), one of my bosses when I entered the culinary world at his flagship, Mistral. Chef Rick Katz, one of my first bosses is also a mentor. And, I consider Chef Francois Payard (Payard) and Chef Jody Adams (Rialto, Trade, Porto), both of whom I worked for to be my mentors.
TKS: What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
JC: After I had finished my time working at Payard in New York City, I worked for a short time for Amy Scherber who founded Amy’s Bread in the city. I asked her if I could be free labor and learn how to shape breads and gain knowledge about the workings of the bakery industry. At the end of our time together, I interviewed her about how to open a bakery. The key piece of advice she gave me at that time is that human resources is the hardest part of opening a business. That advice has proven true, and I take care to foster relationships with my employees as they are my most valuable assets!
TKS: What advice do you give to young people?
JC: I get a lot of inquiries from people who want to know how to open a bakery. I respond with a letter I’ve crafted with key questions and answers one needs to ask themselves. They are not always receptive to the most important piece of advice I give, but the truth is if you want to open a bakery, you need to go work in a bakery first to understand the challenges involved and the commitment it takes to make it work.
TKS: Is there a philosophy by which you live?
JC: Yes! Blue dot!! It means that in the grand scheme of the universe we are all but a blue dot so have perspective on the things that bring you down and make you sad or scared or insecure. Just live your best life now.
TKS: What have you learned about yourself that would surprise your teenage self?
JC: As a young person, I had a huge fear of public speaking. In fact, I remember one time in high school where I was set to give an oral presentation and burst into tears! As part of my job, I do give some professional talks and occasionally need to speak in front of large groups so I suspect my teenage self would be surprised that I am even doing this at all!
TKS: Other than the kitchen, is there a place or time when you are the happiest?
JC: Anywhere with Christopher. When we’re hanging out together I could not be happier.
TKS: I used to be a banker working mostly with male clients and bosses. I didn’t think of myself as a female banker, however, just as a banker who needed to prove myself with results. Does that make sense? So, I wonder if you think of yourself as a chef or a female chef? Does it matter to you?
JC: I think of myself like you did as a banker, that I am a chef first and just need to do the best job I can at all times. For some female chefs, however, it is very important to distinguish themselves as female because we are still in the minority in the industry both on the line and as a percentage of restaurant owners. For them, it matters. I get that.
TKS: What is a common misconception about chefs?
JC: A common misconception is that chefs eat well all the time. After a long night in the kitchen, there can be a tendency to just eat whatever is quickly available and that isn’t always the most healthy option!
TKS: How far out do you plan or envision your next steps?
JC: We are thinking a year or two out.
TKS: Thoughts on the Boston food scene?
JC: I think it’s great! There are so many wonderful chefs and restaurants right now. It’s an incredibly supportive environment among the big network of restaurateurs and chefs at the moment. Boston could use more line cooks, however.
TKS: How do you think social media has changed the food game and do you think it’s a positive or negative?
JC: I love social media! I think it allows people to travel to all sorts of destinations without leaving their couches! It allows me to visit other places to see what people are doing with food. It also allows me to engage with our customers which is always positive.
TKS: How does a new dish come to you – is it something you envision or through reading/research, going to restaurants? How long does it take to develop?
JC: Usually, I will see something on Instagram, in a magazine or experience a meal in a restaurant that provides me with inspiration to create a new dish. It often takes two to three tries to be satisfied with the recipe.
TKS: Favorite indulgence food wise?
JC: Ice Cream. I love coffee ice cream and frozen yogurts or gelatos that have a tangy flavor.
TKS: Favorite cooking tool(s)?
JC: My offset spatula and bench scraper
TKS: Please finish this sentence. Joanne Chang is….
JC: Joanne Chang is grateful for the truly lovely people who work at the bakeries and restaurant; for having found a passion in life that I can call my work; and most of all for Christopher the love of my life. I know how lucky I am!
I want to thank Joanne for taking the time to sit for an interview with me. She is so warm, kind and lovely in person and I was grateful for the opportunity to meet with her for the blog!
Here’s a shot of the interior of the M&C cookbook with another delicious recipe I recently prepared…
And lest you think Myers & Chang At Home is just filled with savory recipes, Joanne and Karen included many desserts such as Vietnamese Espresso Ice Cream and Cornmeal-Lime Sandwich Cookies . I made this Vanilla Bean Parfait with Orange Granita for my book group and it was fantastic…
Until next time…