2009 Boston Rising Star Chef Joanne Chang of Flour and Myers + Chang – Boston, MA of
Not many restaurateurs have an applied mathematics and economics degree from Harvard; even fewer have run every Boston Marathon since 1991. But Joanne Chang is not your average chef/restaurateur. She left her management consultant career for a garde manger position at Boston’s Biba—a pretty radical transition, but one that was worth the pay cut and schedule change.
After working at Bentonwood Bakery, and then Rialto as the pastry chef, Chang moved to New York City in 1997 to work in the cake department of Payard Patisserie. She returned to Boston a year later to run the pastry kitchen of Mistral.
In 2000, Chang opened Flour, the first of three Flour bakery and cafés, in Boston's South End. 2007 was a busy year for Chang: she opened the second location of Flour in the Fort Point Channel area, and launched Myers + Chang with her husband Christopher Myers. She describes Myers + Chang as a funky indie diner with food inspired by Taiwanese soul food and Southeast Asian street food. The third Flour is currently in the works.
Never one to rest on her laurels, Chang also writes pastry articles and reviews cookbooks for Fine Cooking magazine; she teaches classes and advises pastry cooks both within the bakery and at area cooking schools. She is currently in the process of writing a cookbook featuring the best pastries from Flour and her other experiences.
Interview with 2009 Boston Rising Star Chef Joanne Chang of Flour and Myers + Chang – Boston, MA
Katherine Martinelli: When did you begin your culinary career?
Joanne Chang: I was working in business. I had a job as a management consultant. I was going on my second year of it out of college. I was trying to figure out what to do next, whether to move up the ladder or go to business school and I didn't want to do either of those. It was a great job, but it just wasn’t what I wanted to be doing. I thought about what do I like to do, and I've always been really into cooking, eating, reading about food.
I decided to go see what it was like to work in a restaurant. It was before the celebrity chef thing happened. My parents were like “Are you sure this is what you want to do?” I was 24 and at that point in your life you just try to figure anything out. I ended up sending a bunch of letters to chefs in Boston that I admired and I got a job almost immediately at Biba, Lydia Shire's restaurant. She had this restaurant that was really cool and hip and it was good timing. I went in for an interview and it all worked out. I left my cushy, easy consultant job and switched to chefs coat and knives and clogs and long nights. I spent a year doing garde manger and that was my first introduction to the restaurant world. I wasn’t thinking of it as a career, I just wanted to try it. Once I got into a kitchen I loved the pace and the passion, and it was great to be surrounded by food which is what I was always thinking about anyway. I learned that I preferred pastry rather than savory. The pastry station was next to the garde manger and I was always trying to hurry through my plating so I could help in dessert. So I left Biba and got a job in a bakery in Newton Center. I stayed there for a year. It’s a scratch bakery, so I really got a great foundation. I didn't go to cooking or baking school but a year there felt like the best cooking school ever. It closed down and that's when I moved on to Rialto. I became pastry chef at Rialto with one year under my belt. It was a great step to take. I met my husband and Jody [Adams] there, but I can see back to how I didn't know anything. I was winging it every day. I was there for 2 years and worked my way through the pastry dictionary to learn to make everything. I learned a ton about pastry, how to be a manager, how to work with the front of house, and how to work on planning. At the end of my second year it was like I’d taught myself all I could and I knew from day one I was over my head, so I took a step back to look for someone who could teach me.
I went to New York to helped open Payard Patisserie and Bistro. I stayed a year and worked my way through the different stations of the patisserie. It was there I started thinking about opening my own place.
KM: How did Flour come about?
JC: I was in New York to learn pastries and it was an intense period, but the goal was to move back to Boston and see if I could do something on my own. Back in 1998 there were no bakeries in Boston; there were hardly any restaurants. When I moved to NY it was amazing—every street had a patisserie or bakery and I thought “Boston really needs a place like this!” I came back to Boston and started to plan Flour. I was the pastry chef at Mistral for two years while I was planning Flour. I finally found a location for Flour and left to open it. We had the one location in the South End. I never planned on doing anything else, but an opportunity came to open the second location almost three years ago. It was the right time and the right location. I'd had a lot of staff who'd been with me for many years and it made sense to open a second. About the same time I was talking with my husband about opening an Asian restaurant. In Boston there aren’t that many Asian rest unless you go to Chinatown, but that’s an adventure unless you're a real foodie. Now, Momofuku and Fatty Crab are hotspots, but we didn’t have anywhere like that. Christopher [Myers] has always wanted to open a Chinese restaurant because it’s his favorite food. He's had 3 upscale restaurants and wanted to do a fun place. So Myers + Chang opened soon after Flour. Now I spend most of my time during the day at the bakery and most of the time at night working at the restaurant with our chef and the customers.
KM: Do you hire chefs with or without a culinary background?
JC: It depends. We don't avoid it and we don't look for it. It depends on the position, if it’s at the restaurant or the bakery. Sometimes it’s great to have someone who’s gone to culinary school. They've got all the basics and the vernacular; they know how to move in the kitchen. But we also hire people with no experience who are eager. More important than culinary experience is experience in general. Real world experience is invaluable. It’s nice to have somebody who knows how to move and how a kitchen operates, but you can only do so much in a classroom atmosphere.
KM: When did you open your first restaurant? How did you know you were ready to own and not just work for somebody else?
JC: I knew I didn't want to stay within restaurants. I'd done Rialto and I was at Payard, and I had an opportunity to become a pastry chef at Telepan. I interviewed for that position, but I realized I didn’t want to work in a restaurant anymore. In terms of working for someone else in a bakery, there was nobody available, so I couldn't go back to Boston and work for somebody else. I really wanted to get back to Boston. I felt there was this demand, a gaping hole, for bakeries we didn’t have. I'd had business experience. You have to realize you're going to stop being in student mode when you become your own business person. You have to be ready to make that jump. I was ready for it in terms of my mindset. I was ready to be a boss and do something independent. The idea of continuing to work for somebody wasn’t a bad idea but there wasn’t anyone else I wanted to work for in the area. Given what I'd learned, I thought I could create something there that would fill a need.
KM: What was the deal? How did you get the financial backing? Do you have partners?
JC: When I was at Mistral every non-working, non-sleeping moment I was planning the bakery. It was a very manageable job; I could do it within 45 to 50 hours, which meant I had 30 hours a week I could focus. I wrote a business plan, I scoured locations, and I got financing through some family members who were interested in investing. I saved up money for a while and my parents had some money they had saved, so we cobbled together the money. I read a lot of books on how to start your own business. It starts from financing and having the right location, and then having a business plan that guides you. It drives the space you're looking for, the rent, who you hire, etc.
KM: Who are your mentors?
JC: In terms of pastry I would say Rick Katz. He was the first pastry chef who took a chance on me. All the chefs I've worked for have been mentors. My husband Christopher has been a huge mentor in terms of how to run a business, seeing everything from the customers’ standpoint. Sometimes kitchen people can get lost on that. Jody Adams, Francois Payard, Jamie Mammano—I’ve learned from all of those people through the various strengths they bring to their businesses.
KM: What are your concepts? Are you chef driven? How much creative control is your own/the chefs?
JC: At Flour the head pastry chef and I talk every day about the pastry, what’s working, what’s selling, and so on. It’s pretty collaborative. We're both pretty obsessed with pastry. It's never an issue of not having enough ideas, it’s about balancing all the ideas we have. At the restaurant Matthew and I are constantly coming up with ideas we want to try. We recently started small plates on the weekend. The weekend menu is a great place to experiment. He's been able to offer them for dim sum and then we will see if they make it to the real menu. That creative development will happen naturally. Christopher and I will go out somewhere and see something we like, or my mom will mention a dish I want to try, so we're always playing around with new things for our customers to try.
KM: How do you inspire yet retain your employees?
JC: For me the whole reason why I started both Flour and Myers + Chang, other than the obvious reasons, was to create a work environment people wanted. I'd had various jobs where I either loved coming to work or dreaded it. I always said to myself, if and when I'm ever the boss I'm going to make sure the work environment I create is one where people feel supported. Now I have a head pastry chef at Flour and a chef at Myers + Chang. I spend the bulk of my time making sure the managers are treating the staff in a way that everyone feels respected. We throw parties for the staff. I write a newsletter for each place about new menu items, thanking people for their charity work. It comes out every other week. I work hard with the managers to help them understand that it’s just as important to me to create an environment where people feel comfortable as to make a good dumpling. I moved a lot as a young cook so I'm never surprised when people move on, but we try to make it so when they're here, it’s positive. We're fanatical about that. Because of that we've developed a reputation as being a decent and fair place to work. That helps us in terms of finding employees. Every former employee out there is saying good things about us. When they go, it’s because it makes sense for them to move on. That's where I feel we really do try to make a difference. That's what drives me, that's my obsession now. I'm nuts about the pastries, but in terms of feeling satisfied on a day to day basis, it’s knowing we're creating a great environment for people to work at.
KM: What is your customer service philosophy?
JC: In my view if you treat your staff right they will treat your customers right. The two businesses are very different, but from a hospitality standpoint they’re identical. We want people to feel welcomed and comfortable. They're choosing to come to us and spend their money and time with us, and we want to make sure that experience is worth it for them and they had a fun, awesome time, the servers were well informed, etc. Or if they come in for their morning coffee we want to make sure they've been greeted with a smile. I honestly can't wait to go to work and see everyone, and I hope that enthusiasm translates to the customer. That's always been our philosophy—making connections with people so they feel appreciated. Customers have a choice where to come and we want them to know we appreciate it and we're excited to see them.
KM: What’s your ownership structure?
JC:I co-own Flour and Myers+Chang with my husband Christopher Myers.
KM: What are your top three tips for running successful restaurants?
JC: It definitely starts with respecting your staff. It's not a one-man show, no matter how small. Don't ever underestimate the importance of your staff. Make sure they understand your goals, your mission. The second tip is to remember it’s a business. A lot of people go into the food business because they're passionate about food, but at the end of the day you have to pay the bills. A lot of people don't do as well as they'd like and it’s tough because the passion is genuine, but either you yourself or somebody you hire has to see it as a business. You have to bring in more money then you spend. The third tip is if you're going to open your own business, you have to view it as a place that becomes part of the neighborhood and gives back to the neighborhood. This is personal to me. Some places are more about populating themselves with customers, but for me it’s about becoming part of the neighborhood by being a strong player within the community in terms of charity events, community events, and providing a place where people can gather. It's not just you and your staff. You become part of the community, so it’s important to make sure you're always aware of that and be responsible to your neighborhood.
KM: What’s your 5 year plan? Do you want to conquer the city or maintain your empire?
JC: I'm writing my baking book write now. We're thinking about a third Flour and if the right location comes along we’ll do it, but I'm not going to force it. I want to be able to do all those things that are important to me. I'm working really closely with my general manager and pastry chef on the third Flour. In five years I'm sure we'll have found a third location. We have a lot of staff with us between the two places and we'd love to be able to open another place. Myers + Chang can replicate, so again if the right opportunity comes along, we’d definitely do it, but we’re not actively looking.
KM: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?
JC: Keep your head down and work really hard. I feel like sometimes there are people who think after they show up they're going to be pastry chefs within a year. I know I did that, but I didn't have that attitude. When I took the job at Rialto, Jody worked with me until I was ready. It's so different now with celebrity chefs; you watch that and think it’s so glamorous and it’s just not. I think people just need to be aware of that. It’s important that they’re doing it for the right reasons and making sure they know why they're doing it. Then the kitchen stuff will work neatly.
KM: What are your favorite flavor combinations?
JC: Right now at Myers + Chang I'm into the preserved mustard greens I grew up with. We put them in an egg omelet and salad. It’s kind of a funky flavor, but people like it. We're working with a lot of corn right now, developing a corn and octopus dish. I like chili and spice, so we pair corn and octopus with sambal chili oil. At the bakery right now it’s the perfect time for stone fruits, so we’re using nectarines and peaches. I love stone fruits and almonds—they always work so well together.
KM: What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to do in your job?
JC: I would say because I have what I feel is a relatively strong opinion about how my businesses should run, the toughest thing I've had to do is work with somebody who doesn’t see eye to eye with my vision. I like everybody I've worked with, so it’s tough when they don't get what you do. You have to motivate that person and get them on the same page. It's tough. Sometimes I try to the point where it’s detrimental to the customer’s experience and I have someone on staff who isn't representing us correctly to the customer - somebody who’s not on the same page in terms of the philosophy of rest and management philosophy.
KM: If you had one thing that you could do again, what would it be?
JC: I might take more time before I opened my own place. As soon as you become a boss you stop becoming a student; you become a teacher. I do miss being in the position of just learning, especially in pastries where I got very intense education on the job at some really great places. But there’s a lot of stuff I'd love more experience with, including bread baking and working with chocolate. At this point it doesn’t make sense for me; it would just be for fun.
KM: If you weren’t a chef what do you think you’d be doing?
JC: I don’t have a clue. You know what’s crazy? I still do the books for all three places. I like to be in the middle of it. I think I'd be a great accountant. If I could take another road I think I would have liked to be a doctor, but my entire family is made up of doctors.
KM: What steps have you taken to become more sustainable?
JC: We've tried to eliminate as much plastic as we can from take out containers. We have a biodegradable paper takeout container. We do cardboard recycling, plastic and glass recycling, and we're composting at Flour and are trying to teach the staff at Myers about it. We don't serve bottled water; everyone gets tap water and no one's ever said anything.
KM: What is your proudest accomplishment in your career to date?
JC: I feel very proud of the fact that I've created businesses where we practice what we preach. We run a good business, and I really, really make a conscious effort that my managers and I remain good and fair employers. Just like customers choose to come to the restaurant or bakery, employees do the same. I feel an obligation to offer them a fair working environment and one that acknowledges the fact they've chosen to work for me. It's a really important element for me to run the business to create the utmost respect for my staff, and we always will. If someone isn't happy we need to figure out what will make them happy here. I don't want anyone to ever come to work hating their job. I want a place people enjoy coming to.