Book Club: Joanne Chang's Flour Recipes

By Aviva Shen

Joanne Chang graduated from Harvard as an Applied Math and Economics major, began a career at a high-powered management consulting firm, and somehow landed in the kitchen. Now the owner of Flour Bakery + Cafe, which has outposts in Fort Point, the South End, and Cambridge, the co-owner of upscale eatery Myers+Chang, and the victor of a Throwdown with Bobby Flay challenge, Joanne will publish her first cookbook, Flour: Spectacular Recipes from Boston’s Flour Bakery + Cafe, in mid-October. In anticipation of the drool-inducing release, Chowder reached out to Joanne to discuss the book, the nitty-gritty of owning a restaurant, the Boston’s food scene, and, of course, ice cream.

What was the inspiration behind the Flour cookbook?
Books have inspired me my whole career — in fact, since I didn’t go to cooking school I feel like I got a lot of my own training and learning through cookbooks. I wanted to write a book that shared how gratifying and fun and delicious and doable baking really is. So many people shy away from baking and they really shouldn’t. It’s the most fun you can have in the kitchen!

How long did it take to compile the recipes? What is involved logistically in writing a cookbook?
The writing process took about a year. For me logistically, that meant breaking down the book into chapters (cakes, breakfast pastries, breads, etc) and then tackling each chapter one by one. I would write and test a group of recipes a few times a week and then re-write and edit these with my co-author Christie Matheson until we were happy with them…and then we would move onto a new set of recipes.

Flour seems to be more your own project, while you run Myers + Chang with your husband. Does this affect how you run each business? What are the differences between running a bakery and running a restaurant?
Christopher is hugely influential to me in running Flour even though he’s not there on a daily basis. But he’s so great with hospitality and customers and visual things and he and I talk constantly about Flour at home and how to make us better. At M+C we are much more collaborative on a day-to-day management level. He’s still focused on front stuff while I focus on kitchen but it’s a terrific partnership because we each obviously want what’s best for both kitchen and front.

A bakery is more about many small transactions, each of which is quick and relatively simple. You have a short chance to make a good impression on a customer and if you do your job well that person comes back hopefully again and again. We spend a lot of time at Flour looking at how we can be more streamlined, how we can improve each pastry/sandwich/pizza, how we can make the customers’ experience smoother. A restaurant focuses more on a full experience — we spend a lot of time at M+C talking about the sense of hospitality we want our customers to feel and about how when they enter the restaurant we want to take care of them and make sure they have a good time. We are just as picky about the food — and since it’s all being cooked to order it’s a constant challenge to keep it consistent. I love aspects of both, to be honest. It all really depends on the team that you have and I have such a fantastic team at each Flour and at M+C that it makes running each a pleasure. A challenging pleasure to be sure but a pleasure.

What is your favorite recipe from the cookbook?
That’s so hard to say. I love the fig newtons. They are so good. I also love the coffee ice cream with cocoa nib brittle. I tested this many more times that I needed too because I loved it so much. I love the fruit focaccia recipe too — it makes the most amazing breakfast toasted w a little butter. I can’t name just one favorite!!

Favorite summer meal?
Does ice cream count? Can it?

Best meal you’ve ever had in Boston?
That’s really hard too! I recently was invited to have dinner with a bunch of chefs at Market — Jean Georges was cooking and the meal was truly amazing. I’ve had incredible omakase at Oiishi across the street from Myers+Chang. Love Ting.

Do you have any “guilty pleasure” foods?
Ice cream! Totally.

What do you like most about the Boston food scene? Can you foresee any developments in the near future?
I love how close-knit and friendly the chefs are in Boston. I’m good friends with many chefs and love seeing them at events and going out to eat at their restaurants.

Do you have any advice for aspiring bakers?
Put your head down, stay focused, learn as much as you can everywhere you go. Understand that if you really want to become a pastry chef you’ll have to start at the bottom — but even more importantly you should WANT to start at the bottom — so that you’ll gain a thorough foundation. So many aspiring bakers want to become a pastry chef immediately and create innovative desserts on their own from the get-go. If you don’t have a strong basic education in pastry techniques and a strong foundation in understanding why you are doing what you are doing you are cheating yourself. I spent a whole year learning how to peel apples (among other things) and I wouldn’t trade that year for anything.