Meet Joanne Chang: cookbook author, entrepreneur, and 2016 James Beard Award winner as the nation’s most outstanding baker.Photo Credit : KristIn Teig | Styling by Rick Holbrook
To understand Joanne Chang as a baker, picture her in an earlier life, as a young management consultant laying down clean bedsheets on the floor of a Boston studio apartment as she prepares to make 400 hand-decorated sugar cookies using a galley kitchen so small she can barely turn around in it. It’s a cold December evening in 1992, and she rolls and cuts, mixes and bakes, late into the night, then sets the cookies on the floor to cool before starting the next batch. When all the cookies are cool, she kneels to paint them with garlands, stars, branches, and sleighs as the hours tick by. By morning, she’ll have enough cookies to generously treat every one of the 90-odd employees at the Cambridge consulting firm where she works.
This isn’t her first all-nighter. She’s fresh out of Harvard with a degree in applied math and economics. But even as her friends are applying to business school, she knows consulting is just a day job. All she wants to do is bake. Within six months, she’ll leave the firm and snag an entry-level job making less than $8 an hour in the kitchen at Lydia Shire’s landmark restaurant, Biba.
Cooking isn’t just a passion for Joanne Chang—it’s a vital form of self-expression. “Everybody struggles to connect with the world in some way or another,” she says, nearly 30 years later. “Some people are extroverts and make friends easily. I’ve always been much more introverted. Baking gave me an arena where I could share what I thought was delicious in the same way that an artist might share an emotion.”
As Chang says this, she’s sitting just outside one of her Flour bakeries, and customers turn and stare at the woman they recognize from television (she famously beat Bobby Flay in a sticky bun competition) or from media and charity appearances around town. She may be an introvert, but she greets every employee and many regular customers by name.
Today, Chang presides over a mini empire of eight Flour bakeries, for which she won a James Beard Award in 2016; a buzzing central commissary; and Myers + Chang, an acclaimed “Asian-ish” South End restaurant. If you consider the success of her restaurants and the perfection of her sticky buns, pies, and cookies, she may be Boston’s most beloved entrepreneur. Add the surprise career pivot and the Harvard imprimatur, and hers is exactly the kind of success story Bostonians love to tell.
Lucky for us, her food is also exactly the kind we like to eat. She describes her style as “American with French overtones,” owing to the time she spent baking at New York’s famed Payard Patisserie. Every Flour display counter is loaded with croissants, banana bread, chocolate brioche swirls, blondies, and cookies. And there’s always pie: lemon meringue, Boston cream, coconut cream. In the winter, the flavors turn toward apples and pears, nuts and spices—and there are savories, too, including chicken potpie.
The recipes for all these treats have gone into Chang’s four cookbooks, the most recent of which is Pastry Love. “I love to teach and I love writing recipes,” she says. “These days, writing a cookbook gives me an excuse to be in the kitchen and not in a meeting.”
As with many success stories, hers led away from the job that she first loved and into the role of founder. But the recipes bring her back.
The following are two of Joanne Chang’s favorite pie recipes, in flavors sweet and savory—a cozy apple-cranberry pie and a classic chicken potpie—plus a sweet potato tart with caramelized onions and blue cheese that she and I developed together. All the pies use her easy-to-make Extra-Flaky Pastry, or pâte brisée (recipe is included at the end).