My Life in the Age of COVID: Award-Winning Boston Restaurateur Joanne Chang

Everyone's adapting—or trying to, anyway. For the first in a series of entries, we asked the nationally acclaimed pastry chef how she's navigating an unprecedented industry shutdown.

James Beard Award-winning chef Joanne Chang of Myers+Chang and the Flour Bakery+Cafe group. / Photo by Kristin Teig

These are strange times we’re living in. It already seems like an eon ago, when 24-hour periods were divided into distinct-feeling days; toilet paper aisles were flush with 2-ply options; and we didn’t know what our coworkers’ living rooms looked like over FaceTime. And yet, here we are.

Right now, every Bostonian is doing as best they can to navigate a new normal: keeping up with work, staying in touch with family and friends, and finding ways to stay informed while maintaining decent spirits. It’s not going to be easy, and if you’re feeling overwhelmed—know you’re not alone. In fact, we’ve decided to launch a new series that checks in with some of the city’s residents, and learn how these folks are processing the COVID-19 pandemic. They’ll share serious thoughts on their concerns for the city—and yes, some silly recommendations on what to binge-watch, too.

First up: James Beard Award-winning pastry chef and restaurateur Joanne Chang. Chang has temporarily closed all locations of her Flour Bakery + Cafe empire, as well as Myers + Chang, the South End restaurant named for herself and husband/business partner Christopher Myers. But she’s doing her best to stay busy—in fact, she’s teamed up with Smoke Shop chef-owner Andy Husbands for a “BBQ & Pastry To Go Pop-up” on Saturday, March 28, a chance to stockpile all the St. Louis ribs and banana bread your fridge can handle. (Just make sure to preorder here.) In the meanwhile, she shared with us how she’s managing her new daily routine, the habits she’s using this time to make and break—and of course, her own picks for very-necessary comfort food.

What is your level of concern right now?
Honestly, it couldn’t be higher. Scale of 1 to 10, we are at a 20.

How have you been coping so far?
We’ve been pretty busy focusing on the team right now. We’re working on ways to help our staff and our family and how we can continue to up our safety precautions here at home. Christopher and I are currently practicing social distancing ourselves—he’s recently out of major surgery and has been in and out of the hospital a few times, and I’ve been out and about in the bakeries and Myers+Chang. It’s a little comical to see how we are hovering around each other in our little apartment right now.

Walk me through your average daily routine right now, starting with the first thing you do when you wake up.
Wake up, make coffee (for Christopher) and tea (for me), Christopher and I talk about what we need to triage today—we have a few Google Hangouts meetings or conference calls with our managers or our controller or director of operations. We each try to exercise outside or do yoga at home. We are on our computers as much as possible to communicate to as many people as we can—especially our team members, who all have a lot of questions and need support right now. I am finding out, too, how long it takes to make three meals a day! For the last 20 years we’ve eaten 80 percent of our meals at Flour or Myers+Chang.

What do you miss most about your former, pre-social distancing routine?
Being in my husband’s arms. Until he’s better from his surgery we can’t be near each other, which really, really stinks. Going into our beautiful bakeries and restaurants and seeing our amazing teams. We are very, very close to our teams. I really miss the gym—who would ever think that?! And I miss my parents who were supposed to visit this week but now cannot. We FaceTime them a lot.

Have you made any interesting changes in your personal or work routine that you plan to keep doing even when things return to normal?
Maybe we’ll do more virtual meetings? And I’ll bet I keep washing my hands like this forever.

What have you learned about yourself during this unprecedented period?
Even though I am at a heightened emotional state right now, I have been able to stay calm because I can reach out to a number of people that I trust: Christopher; Mike, our director of operations; Frank, our Flour chef; Jes, our pastry chef; Rose, our Myers+Chang general manager; Ash, our Myers+Chang chef; and more. I could go on and on about this. It’s not that I was not aware of this previously, but I’m surrounded by supremely competent and dedicated and absolutely incredible people. I’m leaning on them more than ever. That’s the only way you can get through any crisis—trusting those you have around you. We are so, so lucky.

How have you been navigating relationships and staying connected?
FaceTime is our new friend! Texting and Instagram as it was pre-coronavirus days. I’m never in doubt that my friends are here for me, or I for them, even if we are not talking right now at this very second.

What has been a task, hobby, or back-burner project that you’ve been wanting to pursue, that you are now finally going to get to?
I used to run all the time—I am eager to get back at it. Today I ran four miles! It felt great to be outside.

What have you been keeping in your fridge for comfort food?
We have a lot of pizza dough in the freezer and cheese and tomato sauce. We also have a lot of wine.

What’s been your go-to binge-watch, read, or listen to take your mind off things?
To be honest, right now there’s not really any room for me to take my mind off things. I have a stack of New Yorkers that I hope to get thru soon.

What’s a habit you’ll use this time to break?
Going to sleep too late.

What’s a habit you’ll use this time to develop?
Picking my head up and saying hello to strangers. I grew up in Texas where that is the norm. Many years in Boston and it’s been bred out me—I naturally get lost in focus already, so now I want to go back to my roots.

What advice would you give to others?
Love, patience—and science and math—are our only way out of this.

What did you consider when deciding whether to keep the restaurants open for takeout or delivery? Why did you ultimately arrive at the choice to not do so?
We felt that the greater responsibility right now is to the community. We closed on Wednesday to reduce the chance of team members being in close contact with each other and our guests. Eighty percent of our teams ride the T. Working in food, you are naturally working closely with others. We are in an extreme situation and it calls for the most extreme measure we could take.

What’s your biggest concern for the restaurant industry right now?
My god—every single person who is in the restaurant business right now. How will we get by? It’s a concern across the board: owners, managers, waitstaff, cooks, dishwashers. It’s a pandemic across all industries. We all need to operate to survive and many of us are not operating. The entire supply chain is seeing this: our produce vendors, our linen suppliers, our coffee guy. (Hi, Phil!) Right now, our greatest concern, beyond safety and health, is: How does everyone get back up and running when this all settles?

What can locals do to help?
Locals: Please, please, please, buy gift cards to your favorite restaurants. We will be back and we can use the funds from you now to help us keep afloat. Please practice social distancing—we all need to take this seriously.

What can state officials/policymakers do to help?
We need meals tax relief, rent relief, immediate access to unemployment benefits, and access to no-interest loans when we get back up and running.