Joanne Chang, owner and founder of Flour Bakery + Cafe, explains how she got her start in cooking and what makes the Boston restaurant scene such a unique place.
The smell hits you before anything else. Step into a Flour Bakery + Cafe, and the tantalizing scents of fresh pastries greet you as you walk through the door. With seven locations across Boston and Cambridge—including Kendall Square, Central Square and Harvard Square—Flour is a favorite local spot for sweet treats and quick eats. The famous sticky buns are one of the most beloved menu items. So beloved, in fact, that Flour just went neck to neck against Saltie Girl for the top title in the Boston Globe’s 2018 Munch Madness.
Flour is the vision of Joanne Chang, one of the most well-known names in the Boston restaurant scene. A Harvard graduate, Chang studied economics and applied mathematics and worked in management before pursuing her lifelong passion: cooking. After working for top chefs in Boston and New York City, Chang opened the first Flour in 2000 in the South End. The business quickly took off, and the seventh location just opened in Back Bay just last year In addition to Flour, Chang and her husband and business partner, Christopher Myers, operate Myers + Chang, a hip Southeast Asian restaurant in the South End (which was also a top contender in Munch Madness).
In addition to running several successful businesses (and actually running, as Chang has completed the Boston Marathon several times), writing cookbooks, and teaching cooking classes, Chang also finds time to invest in the local community. She won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Baker in 2016, and was an honoree at the New England Women’s Leadership Awards in 2017.
We caught up with Boston’s favorite baker to learn more about Flour, some of her favorite things, and how the bakery got its name.
You have quite an amazing story about how you entered the world of cooking- coming from studying applied mathematics and economics at Harvard College to working in management. Was cooking something you were always passionate about?
Yes! I always loved cooking at home for my family. My parents both worked and it was my job to get the basics of dinner started so that when mom came home she could finish up and get dinner on the table quickly for all of us.
What lessons have you brought from the world of management to kitchen?
Communicate, communicate, and over-communicate. Everyone wants to be included, so be as transparent as possible. Set goals and share your vision and give the team a roadmap.
You spent time working in New York City before returning to Boston and eventually opening Flour. What’s unique about the Boston restaurant scene?
It’s incredibly inclusive. The chefs in Boston are all very close and supportive. I can call any chef and ask a question about a former employee or a dish on their menu or anything for that matter and they can do the same to me.
You’re also an avid runner and have completed the Boston Marathon several times. What parallels can you draw between cooking and running?
You can get lost in both. You have to focus and stay present and I love that about both pursuits.
In the midst of your busy schedule, you find the time to teach cooking classes. What’s one piece of advice you have for aspiring chefs?
Go work for a great chef and put your head down and work, work, work.
What was your first thought when you won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Baker in 2016?
I finally get to shout out to the world how amazing my team and my husband and family are!
You’ve said before that each Flour location is “its own ecosystem.” Is that true for the three Flour locations in Cambridge?
Absolutely- the teams are all very different but bonded by the common thread of wanting to make our guests happy. The guests themselves are different at each location so the interplay between team and guest is fun to watch.
What’s your favorite sweet to make, and what’s your favorite sweet to eat?
To make: croissant. To eat: ice cream.
If you were on an episode of Chopped, what ingredients would you want to find in your baskets?
Ginger, garlic, scallions, soy, sugar, sriracha, and rice and salmon.
How you do want customers to feel when they visit a Flour location?
Like they are coming to the bakery version of Cheers- a welcoming place where everyone knows your name and is happy to see you and where you find joy in the great food and service.
And finally, why the name Flour?
My husband named it- he knew I wanted something simple and straightforward and it is a reminder that in baking, as in life, the simple things are best.