Flour is something of a staple in every corner of Boston and Cambridge. No matter where you are—Harvard Square or the financial district––there’s one just close enough that you can get your sweet tooth fix. We talked to Joanne Chang, Flour's founder (as well as cookbook author and co-owner of South End favorite Myers+Chang) who traces her path from consulting to cookies.
I was a sophomore at Harvard, where I was studying math and economics. I was spending a lot of time in the library. While at Harvard, I mostly just explored everything I could manage to fit in. There were so many different groups and activities and you could join just about anything. I tried out for so many things that I wasn’t qualified for, but who knew that this stuff all existed? Like, I tried out to go to Russia for one semester—I don’t speak Russian, but it just sounded so cool. I also held down a bunch of different jobs, like writing for the Q Guide, which is the student evaluation book for classes at Harvard. And one summer, I worked at some kind of finance-related desk job.
By 25, I had already left consulting because I knew that I wanted to get into cooking. I wasn’t quite sure how I’d do it, but I applied to a bunch of restaurants in Boston and I ended up at Biba. I started out as bar food cook and then got promoted to garde manger. I probably tried to leave the restaurant business at least 10 times because it wasn’t what I expected. The hours were really late and rough. I loved it, but I wasn’t sure if it was the right thing for me to be doing. Working in food felt right, but I guess what I'm saying is that I was really questioning whether or not I was in the right position. Looking back, Biba was definitely place where I learned that I am not meant to work as a line cook. I kind of loved it but I kind of also hated it. I just shouldn't be a line cook.
By 30, I was the pastry chef at Mistral—I had learned my lesson from Biba and moved into pastry because I really loved that part of the business. By this point, I’d also briefly moved out to New York City and then moved back to Boston. I was spending a lot of time trying to figure out how to open my own bakery while still working full-time. In the restaurant business you don’t always have Saturday and Sunday off like everyone else, so you kind of choose the two days you want off. Most people want Sunday and Monday, but I wanted to take off Monday and Tuesday, which meant I was always working all weekend. It was a strategic choice, though—if I took Monday and Tuesday for myself, I could spend those two days looking at spaces for the bakery. Having Sunday off would’ve meant I’d lose a day of hunting, since most things are closed then.
Also: I spent that year testing a lot of recipes at Mistral at night. I was so busy looking at spaces, writing a business plan, and looking for ways to finance my own bakery. But I always made the time to experiment in the kitchen.
I had started dating Christopher (my husband), and we had moved in together by this point. We met at Rialto where I had worked as a pastry chef in 1995 and 1996. We’d become good friends while I was there, and once I left, we’d stayed in touch and eventually started dating.
I spent 35 focused on figuring out how to both run a business and have a relationship. I’d finally opened up the bakery of my dreams (the first Flour Bakery on Washington Street in the South End), and I was trying to make it all work. Or rather, I was trying to figure out what I was supposed to be doing to make it all work. I kept being like, “Ok, so I go to work every day, I run the bakery, and...then what? Is it going to last another year?” I’d finally done it, but I wasn’t sure what was next.
By 40 we had opened the second Flour Bakery in Fort Point. We’d also opened our restaurant, Myers + Chang. I was married by 2009, and Christopher and I were running the restaurant together—I was spending a lot of time at Myers+Chang, and he was getting very involved in the bakery. That’s really why we were able to open the second location when we did––Christopher had a long term and larger vision for Flour than I had on my own. We’d even started planning for a third bakery in Central, which was crazy because I had always said I would never open more than one.
When I was 45, we had already opened the third and fourth Flours (the fourth is on Clarendon Street). I’d published two cookbooks by then (Flour: A Baker’s Collection of Spectacular Recipes and Flour, too: Indispensable Recipes for the Cafe’s Most Loved Sweets & Savories), and I was writing a third—they were all great experiences, and I truly love writing books.
We were also going through some challenges at the bakery. We’d hired a director of operations who had left and we were going through a bit of a limbo period overall. We just weren’t totally ready for the rapid growth we were experiencing—everything came together so quickly. Christopher and I also made the decision to hire Karen Akunowicz to be our chef at Myers + Chang (and were on our way to making her partner).
You know, it was really busy, always. We were always trying to balance how to grow Flour and make Myers+Chang stronger while still having time to focus on us. Christopher and I found some time to travel. We went to Istanbul. That was wonderful.
––As told to and written by Oset Babur for The Thirty-One Percent