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From Asia, With Cookies

NOEMIE CARRANT/DAILY FREE PRESS STAFF Always-fresh Dan Dan noodles served with love at Myers + Chang.
Always-fresh Dan Dan noodles served with love at Myers+Chang.

Often referred to as “the Oscars of the food world,” the James Beard Awards celebrate professionals in the culinary arts. This year, three Boston-based chefs received nominations for the ‘Best Chef: Northeast’ award. This is the last in a three-part series profiling the chefs.

Joanne Chang may seem quiet and composed in an Asian-Taiwanese fashion, but her cooking tells a different story. Indeed, Chang is the creative mind behind Flour Bakery + Café and restaurant Myers+Chang, two of Boston’s most celebrated and loved foodie spots. Nominated this year for the James Beard award “Best Chef: Northeast,” Chang says she is astounded.

“I was nominated last year and the year prior for Pastry Chef which was enough of a shock … This year to be nominated for Best Chef was completely unexpected,” she said. “While I am the chef/owner of Myers+Chang, and my capacity in the restaurant is of a traditional chef, my main training is in pastry so I identify more as a pastry chef than a chef. So I was blown away!”

Chang is a celebrated pastry and savory chef, but she started out as a Harvard College graduate. With an Applied Mathematics and Economics degree in hand, she was set to pursue a career as a management consultant. Until she rediscovered her love and passion for cooking and baking.

“I spent a couple years during college making cookies for the dormitory grill, and then, when I graduated from school, I spent two years in business and at the end of the second year, decided to try something else,” Chang said. “I’ve always loved cooking and so I thought, ‘I’ll get a job in a restaurant!’”

Chang said she liked her one-year stint in the restaurant world so much that she decided to stay, abandoning her previous business career. She started in Boston at Biba as a garde-manger cook, where she learned that she preferred doing desserts more than savory food.

“I really enjoyed the bakery setting and what I was learning, so I went to a restaurant where I did pastries,” Chang said.

NOEMIE CARRANT/DAILY FREE PRESS STAFF Joanne Chang's Flour Bakery + Cafe has been open in the South End for 13 years.
Joanne Chang’s Flour Bakery + Cafe has been open in the South End for 13 years.

She then worked at Bentonwood Bakery in Newton, where she received her basic baking training. When it closed, Chang acted as a pastry chef at Rialto, where she met her future husband Christopher Myers.

Chang then moved to New York in 1997 to help open Payard Patisserie and Bistro. While working there, she began thinking about opening her own little place. She returned to Boston, cooked as a pastry chef for Mistral, and in 2000, opened Flour Bakery + Café in Boston’s South End, with the motto “Make Life Sweeter …  Eat Dessert First!”

Flour blends perfectly excellent products, fresh from the oven, with a great price range. The bakery has gained so much popularity that Chang opened up three other branches in Boston’s Fort Point, Central Square, and Back Bay.

“We are committed to all of our missions — not only to make great food but also to provide warm welcoming service, give back to the community, run an efficient business and make the lives of not just our guests but also ourselves better,” she said in an email. “We spend a lot of time and energy on the last one — if the staff is happy and enjoys their work, it will come through in all aspects of the bakery.”

This is indeed noticeable, not only at Flour, but also at Myers+Chang, the restaurant Chang co-owns and operates with her husband. The “funky indie diner,” as it is described on their website, opened up in 2007 in Boston’s South End. The restaurant could almost be seen as a tribute to Chang’s childhood. Though born in Houston Texas, Chang grew up surrounded by Chinese food, with, “a lot of stir-fry, a lot of fish, a lot of tofu and a lot of vegetables.”

The differences between operating a bakery and a restaurant are vast, yet both are incredibly gratifying, Chang said.

“I truly love them both — they are both incredibly fulfilling,” Chang said. “Flour makes me proud because so many people crave our pastries and foods, and I think we have an incredible staff. I love Myers+Chang because people come in over and over again because they can’t get enough of our addictive food and the service we have is genuinely friendly and warm. I’m really proud of the teams at both.”

NOEMIE CARRANT/DAILY FREE PRESS STAFF Myers + Chang's colorful interior. The restaurant has enjoyed wide popularity since it opened.
Myers + Chang’s colorful interior. The restaurant has enjoyed wide popularity since it opened.

These culinary accomplishments have obtained Chang national recognition. Featured in many food publications, like Food & Wine and Bon Appétit, Chang has also come out with two cooking books centered on Flour’s beloved recipes. But even while operating four bakeries and a restaurant, and with the James Beard ceremony to look forward to, Chang remains inviting and smiling, excited at the idea of competing against fellow Bostonian chefs and friends Jaime Bissonnette and Barry Maiden, and excited about her current projects.

“Our food does what I think good food should do — it makes people happy,” Chang said. “I love watching someone bite into a BLT or Mama Chang’s dumplings and moan — it’s a common occurrence! And I know many people leave Flour/ Myers+Chang planning their next visit. I can’t wait every day to get to work and eat everything we make, and I think that guests feel the same way – they can’t wait to come back.”

Chang does not seem to regret choosing the food world over the business world. We don’t either.

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