A Taste of Life and Passion with Flour Bakery’s Joanne Chang

Joanne Chang, owner of Flour Bakery and Myers + Chang Restaurant, spoke with two of our Boston correspondents, Chia Liu and Karen T. Lin, on a busy Saturday lunch hour at her bakery in the South End. The three of us squeeze into her tiny back office, and with the hustle-bustle of the kitchen as our backdrop, Joanne shares with us how she got to where she is today and imparts important words of wisdom to us about pursuing our passions for the right reasons.

After arriving early to Flour Bakery, Chia enjoys a delicious muffin and a pot of peppermint loose leaf tea while Karen snaps a few photos of the bakery. It is lunch hour on a sunny Saturday, and the place is packed with a line almost out the door. We spot a couple would-be customers about to enter before they decide to go elsewhere—where there is, presumably, a smaller line. We think we see Joanne as she comes in the front door sporting a black fall jacket, a smart pony tail, and a backpack. As soon as we get up from our table to go meet Joanne, another patron swoops in to ask if we were leaving so she can snag our emptying seats.

Upon meeting Joanne, we weave our way through the kitchen and follow her to her office. She explains there are usually no more than two people in the office at a time, so we’ll have to squeeze with the three of us. She takes a seat in front of her computer, and we plop ourselves on the stool and the desk. After a quick introduction and setting up, we dive right into our barrage of questions:

Karen: Thank you for meeting with us! We’d like to get to know you as a person and your motivations behind your career.

Chia: We know you started in one field and then changed jobs. What made you change your career path?

Joanne: I was working as a management consultant. I did that directly out of school for about two years, and I was at a point in my career where I had to decide whether or not I wanted to continue what I was doing, go to business school, or move to another company doing the same thing. I didn’t think management consulting was what I wanted to be doing long-term, so I thought I would try doing something different. I had always enjoyed cooking and baking so I got a job in a restaurant, just to try it out, and ended up really, really liking it. I spent a year at a restaurant doing non-pastry items, then realized I preferred pastries, so I switched.

Karen: How did your parents react? Were they always very supportive?

Joanne: I have the best parents ever. They’re incredibly supportive of all of my decisions. I think they were definitely concerned and wanted to make sure I knew what I was doing. I told them—and it was true—that I wasn’t sure if I was going to do this for a long time anyway. Nowadays, people take a year off to go abroad, so in my head I was thinking that I was taking a year off to try cooking. They were mostly concerned that I was safe, because it’s a very different schedule. I was working late at night and on weekends. They were also concerned about whether I was financially stable and could afford to do what I was doing. They were definitely worried, but they also knew I didn’t want to stay at my old job and that I have this passion for cooking. They wanted me to pursue that, so they’ve definitely been very supportive.

Chia: What were some of the initial hardships that you encountered?

Joanne: Definitely the schedule. It’s really hard. A lot of people who enjoy cooking or baking think it’d be great to do it professionally, but the thing is when you cook or bake at home, you get to do it whenever you want and stop whenever you want. Everybody who works here [at Flour Bakery] works weekends. We’re a bakery, so it’s during the day, but I also own a restaurant and a lot of people work at night. You miss out on a lot of family and friend experiences. I went from working a 9-to-5 to having a Thursday through Monday schedule (Tuesdays and Wednesdays off), and I worked every night until about 1am. Maybe if you work at a restaurant that’s closed on Christmas and Thanksgiving you don’t work those days, but for the most part everyone works the holidays. That’s a big adjustment.

Karen: So speaking of schedules, what is a typical day like in your life?

Joanne: I don’t really have a typical day anymore, because I have three places—two locations for Flour and a restaurant. When I had just the one bakery, I had a very set schedule that was easy to navigate. But now I split my time between the three locations depending on who needs me the most or what event we might have. My day might start at 9 in the morning or 4 in the morning and it might end at 7 at night or at midnight. It totally depends on who’s busy, who’s staffed, and what events are going on.

Chia: Did you have any TV experience before, or did you have to learn that on the job?

Joanne: Actually I did get some TV experience at my job as a consultant. We had a lot of training videos. It wasn’t a typical TV show, but the company I was with was growing and had multiple locations, so we were making videos to show the other offices what we were doing. In terms of media, it’s like anything—the more you do it, the better you get. You get nervous the first couple of times, but when you do it enough, you get more comfortable.

Karen: What’s new now with you?

Joanne: We’re looking for a third location for Flour. That’s the next big project. I just finished writing up a cookbook which comes out in about a year, so that’s pretty much done. The third location is the big focus now.

Chia: What locations are you looking at?

Joanne: We’re looking around, looking everywhere within the Boston area. I definitely don’t want it to be in a suburb and spend too much time commuting. Maybe Cambridge, but nothing too far out. Letters come from Wellesley, Newton, and Natick saying come out there, but it’s 20-40 minutes just getting out there, and I prefer not to spend a lot of time commuting.

Chia: How did your Taiwanese upbringing influence your work or life?

Joanne: I think that is like the question how does being female affect my work or life. It is the only thing I know, so I don’t know if it’s because I’m Taiwanese or because I’m female that I do what I do the way I do it. I have a really strong work ethic, but is it Taiwanese or is it specific to my parents or is it being the eldest? I don’t really know. One thing my parents have instilled in me is a common and true stereotype for Taiwanese which is to be humble. They’re not into bragging. In the food business, there is a lot of opportunity to grow a big ego and get a big head. And that’s never been appealed to me, and it’s always been distasteful to me when I see people showing off. I do have to promote myself and the bakery to help the business, and that’s something I do, but I wouldn’t say I get a lot of personal pleasure out of it. I don’t mind doing it, but if it weren’t for the business, I would never be out there in the public eye. In general, if you are more humble and less egotistical, you’re less likely to get pleasure out of that. I mean it personally though; when I do need to go out there to help the business, I am willing to do it.

Karen: Do you have any free time? If you do, what do you like to do?

Joanne: I don’t have a ton of free time. I try to take Sundays entirely off. I’m a big runner, so I run pretty much every day. I love to read and write a lot. The cookbook was a nice outlet for me in terms of spending time in front of a computer just writing. I really enjoy writing.

Chia: What type of stuff do you usually write?

Joanne: I’ve been involved in food writing for the last 12 years. I used to write for cooking magazines, so that segued into writing the cookbook. And I do a blog on the Flour Bakery website and the Myers + Chang website to keep myself in the writing loop.

Chia: Are there any dishes on the Myers + Chang menu inspired by Taiwanese food?

Joanne: Definitely. The whole menu was inspired by my parents, my aunt, and my grandmother—stuff I grew up with. We definitely have a lot of dishes that are not Taiwanese at all, but all of the Chinese influenced dishes are from growing up in a Taiwanese household.

Karen: What’s your favorite?

Joanne: My personal favorite is called—I can’t remember exactly what it’s called on the menu, but it’s a piece of salmon pan-roasted with a soy, sugar, ginger, vinegar marinade served on rice with a pickled cucumber and cilantro salad. It’s really simple but it’s really good.

Chia: That sounds good! We’re actually thinking about going there afterwards! I actually live right down the street.

Joanne: It’s dim sum right now—not a traditional dim sum, just a small plates menu a la carte. And they make it to order. It’s not traditional dishes either, it is mostly from different specials on our menu.

Karen: So you travel a lot between the places and depending on the day.

Chia: We were going to ask you if you have any pets, but it doesn’t seem like it?

Joanne: No, we’ve talked about getting a dog, but we’ll see. We’ve talked about it for so long. Or a cat. I would love a pet. It would be fun.

Chia: Especially here. You don’t live in South End, do you?

Joanne: No, I know the South End is crazy about pets. Everybody has a dog.

Karen: What advice would you give to our audience about pursuing your passion and being a leader?

Joanne: For me, when I got into the cooking industry, it was not like what it is now where it’s very celebrity oriented and TV oriented. I got into it because I really, really love it and derive a lot of personal pleasure and a lot of professional satisfaction from what I do. Because of that, I work really hard at it, and I really enjoy it. I’ve learned a lot, moved around, and now that I’m in a position of leadership, I’m eager to share my experience with the staff that works for me now. In terms of advice, the best thing to do is to focus on what exactly it is that you want t