“I know what I want,” says celebrated pastry chef, restaurateur, and cookbook author Joanne Chang. “I know what I want the bakery and the restaurant to feel like, smell like, look like and sound like and that is always at the forefront of my mind.” Being so resolute is a very good thing when you consider that Chang’s schedule and responsibilities leave little time for indecision.
Chang is the mastermind behind Flour Bakery + Café which has four Boston-area locations and offers an entire day’s worth of irresistible sweet and savory options. Sticky buns, croissants, chocolate brioche, carrot cake and BLT sandwiches are among Flour’s most popular menu items and definitely have something to do with the fact that Chang has been honored with multiple James Beard Award nominations, including this year’s Outstanding Baker nod.
Her Flour accolades are impressive on their own, but more so considering that at night she runs Myers + Chang, the Asian-inspired restaurant she owns with her husband, Christopher Myers, in Boston’s South End neighborhood. There, Chang helps guide both the kitchen and the front of the house, and spends several nights a week working the line and delighting guests with dishes like tea-smoked pork spare ribs and green papaya slaw, as well as affogato with Vietnamese coffee and lemon-ginger mousse with homemade fortune cookies for dessert.
It's safe to say she has her hands full. But sometime in between all that cooking and managing, Chang finds time to write. She’s authored three cookbooks, including last year’s "Baking with Less Sugar", and is currently hard at work on the Myers + Chang cookbook.
With so much going on, Chang rarely has trouble sleeping, but says stress sometimes keeps her up at night. We spoke to Chang about the challenges of leading such a busy life, the value of early mornings and her favorite midnight snack.
You’ve been working in professional kitchens for more than 20 years. What keeps you motivated and inspired?
I love what I do. I love food. I love seeing how we spread joy through our food and service and I'm inspired by my teams, who work tirelessly to share this passion. To be surrounded by people who are as committed as I am to offering the best experience possible to our guests drives me every day.
You're known for classics like banana bread, lemon meringue pie, and chocolate chip cookies. What goes into creating your ultimate take on these beloved baked goods and how do you know when something is ready for the menu?
We are constantly tasting and tweaking the pastries and are always looking to improve them. When tasting, the ultimate test is whether I continue to nibble on it long after we've stopped discussing and have moved on to another topic. If I try it at a tasting, and can't put it down, that means it’s ready for our menu.
Are you ever not working? What do you do with your time off?
I take Sundays off as much as possible and part of Monday too. Christopher and I love reading together, walking the city, shopping, seeing movies. We exercise together as much as we can as well. I'm not too ambitious with my time off—I use it to recharge and spend as much time with Christopher as I can.
How does sleep help you maintain your hectic schedule?
I love sleep. I need it to function well, to focus, and to feel good. If I don't sleep well, I feel it in my bones and my thinking is muddled. I have a lot on my plate each day and I have to be able to concentrate and think clearly and quickly, which is only possible if I’ve slept well. Without good sleep, I’m grumpy. Part of my job is to stay positive for the team, which I can't do if I'm tired.
What do you need to get your best night sleep?
I don't need a lot to sleep well. I spend a few minutes on Instagram and then the New York Times on my phone, in bed, and then I drop off.
So, sleep usually comes easy to you?
On the rare occasions that you can’t sleep, what’s typically the cause?
It’s due to stress. Sometimes my mind gets going and then I can't relax enough to sleep. But my fairly steady schedule and regular exercise help me to sleep well.
Do you ever come up with recipes or ideas while sleeping?
I often think about things I've seen throughout the day, while relaxing in bed at night, and then when I wake up, I feel ready to address and tackle whatever it is that I was pondering the night before.
Do you nap?
No. I don't like that groggy feeling that happens when I wake from a nap. I'm not really ready for the rest of the day when I nap. I do it rarely if I'm utterly exhausted.
As a bakery owner, you have to be up early. Are you naturally a morning person?
I love sleeping in, but I get a lot done early in the morning, so I try to get up early every day.
Flour is famous for its breakfast menu. What’s your go-to breakfast?
I start each day the same, with a large mug of English breakfast tea and a multigrain roll. And a few bites of pastry—whatever we’re tasting that day.