The Interview: Joanne Chang

Boston’s James Beard Award–winning baker dishes on her expanding culinary empire and why it’s so darn hard for her to be mean.

Does life in any way feel different now that you’ve won a James Beard?

No, I don’t think so. When I came back from Chicago it was interesting to me how many people knew about it who weren’t in the food business. In the food business we all knew about it, but I was shocked that random people knew about it. It made me realize that it was a big deal that people were really aware of.

Have you worn the actual medal?

I got it, and then I packed it because we were coming back from Chicago. And then I packed it in my backpack because I was going to show the team, and then I forgot about it. And then one day I was cleaning my backpack and it fell out. So for about three weeks, I thought I lost it. I hadn’t told anyone that I lost it. [But] now I don’t know where it is; it’s somewhere.

Tell me about the most memorable meal you’ve ever had.

We went to Paris in 2000-something for a couple of weeks on vacation. We ate everywhere and it was awesome and we loved it. And about 10 days in, it was New Year’s Eve, and Christopher said, “What do you want to eat tonight?” and I looked at him and said, “I have to have Chinese food.” I couldn’t do another night of the butter and whatever we were eating. I just needed soy and garlic and ginger. So there was this little Chinese place where we had dinner, and it could have been the crappiest Chinese food in the world, but it was so good. And that was the night we got engaged.

Wow. Did you see it coming?

He was on edge the whole night, which I didn’t understand. I was like, Maybe he’s upset we chose Chinese food and maybe he’s not enjoying it. He just seemed so different. I was like, Oh crap, maybe we should go eat more French food. And then he proposed after we went walking, so it all made sense.

Have you ever heard that the bagels in Boston are bad because of the water?

[Laughs.] No. Really?

Yeah. So why are bagels in Boston so terrible?

Are they? I don’t know. I mean, to make a bagel requires commitment. You can’t just, like, make 10 bagels. People have asked us for years, “Why don’t you offer bagels?” It requires a whole other setup. You have to sell a lot of bagels to make it worth your while. You have to make the dough, and then hand-shape the bagel, and then you have to boil them, and then you bake them, so it’s a multistep process. I think it’s just hard to make money on them if you don’t make a lot of them, and then if you make a lot of them, you’re going to be a bagel bakery.

You’re known to travel among Flour’s various locations on your bike. Do you think the city is doing a good job accommodating bicycles?

It could do better. I don’t fear it, although it’s the one thing Christopher and I fight about. For me, it’s such a convenient way to get around, especially because of the locations of the bakery. I’m shocked sometimes at how rude drivers can be to bikers. Why are they so mad at us? And I’m a driver, too. I think it’s important for bikers to drive at least occasionally, and for drivers to bike at least occasionally.

You have a reputation for being very nice, to the extent that several people who have never met you told me how nice you were. Can Joanne Chang be mean?

I don’t think it’s in me; I really don’t. I don’t have it in me to be negative. Of course, there is stuff that you’re like, “Ugh,” but I know how I feel when I’m being the best me I can be, versus when I get into gossip or I’m just being mean.

Can you explain?

The other day, one of our chefs at our production kitchen came up to me. He’s a very religious man. I’ve known him for six or seven years. He started out as a dishwasher, worked his way up to prep cook, and now he’s our production chef at our production kitchen and he’s awesome. He came up to me and said, “Joanne, you’re so nice. Why are you so nice?” And he said, “You don’t have religion, so how do you do it?” And I said to him—and this is how I feel—I know how hard life is for everybody, for the richest person in the world, for the most beautiful person in the world, for the poorest person, for somebody who’s in jail. For every single person who walks this earth, life is hard. I feel that very strongly. Life is challenging. And so I feel that if I can try to make life better, then that’s what I want to do.

And this is something you try to instill in your employees?

Sometimes a customer will come in, and they’re having a bad day and they’ll be mean. It’s hard for the staff—my staff will say it’s the hardest thing about working here, when they have to deal with a mean guest. And I always try to get them to understand that they’re being mean to you, but they’re not really seeing you. They’re just in the middle of something personal that’s with them right before they walk in the door. So they’re yelling at you, but they’re just yelling at whoever they’re mad at. I just try to equip my employees to smile. And it’s tough.

How many employees do you have?

Our count went up to 358. We have about 50 per location and we have four locations, plus the commissary, which is 50, plus we’re hiring for Harvard Square, plus Myers + Chang.

Do you still know all of your employees’ names?

Yep. So far! We just hired a bunch of people at Harvard Square that I’m still working on.