By Diane Ako
Boston pastry chef Joanne Chang is a fantastic baker. Most diehard foodies know that. Chang is certainly on her way to becoming a household name; a rising star in the pantheon of celebrity chefs.
But what I think she's better at is selling a dream. My dream is to be a great baker. I had the fortune of watching her do a pastry demonstration for a ballroom of 120 people last weekend at my hotel. She was amazing.
Her culinary knowledge was vast, her stage presence was magnetic, and her public speaking skills were friendly and comfortable. She made it feel like it was just she and I at her kitchen at home. This had the effect of sucking me in to her presentation, and as I sat there, I felt like I, too, could make brioche!
My regular readers know I spent seven months taking cake decorating classes (thanks for coming on that journey with me.) That doesn't mean I'm a good baker. I'm a decent home cook, but baking- the preciseness of it evades me.
Yet, here I was watching her knead dough and explain how yeast "farts and burps" to magically expand things and make it all yummier, and I felt inspired! Maybe I could quit my job and bake my way through her Flour cookbook while my kid is at school! Maybe it is as easy as she promises! Joanne Chang, you make me want to be a housewife again!
During her time here, my job required that I (happily) interact with her. I asked for tips on how I might improve my skills. "Get your mise en place together before you start. Mise en place is 'everything in its place' in French. You look at the recipe and read it through, measure the ingredients, put them in little cups, and if you do that, then it really is step by step."
Chang continued, "Also, if you read the recipe from start to finish, that’s a big step up that you have over a lot of people. You look at the recipe and look at the ingredients and say, I’m going to do this. And then midway through they realize they don’t have half the ingredients." Claus would attest that I am often one of those half-prepared cooks. I know it all sounds so basic but yes, I'm lame like that.
Chang has a new cookbook that just made it to the printer last Friday. Flour Too will be available in early 2013. She describes how it came to be: "The book is the continuation of this book (Flour) which is all the savory things we do at the bakery. We do sandwiches, soups, salads, dinner specials, a lot of party desserts, things for special events. I thought this book contained everything. As soon as it came out people started emailing asking, Where this and that recipe? We originally had a savory portion in this book but it got too long so when it came to cutting I said we’ll cut the savory part because it’s a baking book. We don’t need the savory part. It was good because it led to the second book."
The more I learn about this James Beard Award nominee, the more I find her career path to be a study in contradictions. First, there's the radial change from a very left-brained mathematics field, to the very right-brained creative world of food.
An honors graduate of Harvard University, Chang majored in Applied Mathematics and Economics and took a job straight out of college as a management consultant. "Two years in, I thought to myself, I don’t want to be doing this when I grow up. I decided to take a year off and go into cooking, which I loved at home. It wasn’t meant to be long term."
Luckily for pastry lovers, it was. "Once I got into a professional kitchen I was hooked, I loved it. I blinked and it was five years later and I was still cooking and I hadn’t planned it. I moved from job to job based on how much I was able to learn at my current job. There’s a fair amount of moving around that’s expected when you’re young."
Then, she says, "I thought, I don’t know who I want to work for anymore and I don’t know if I want to keep working for somebody. So maybe I’ll think about opening a bakery. If I’m learning, having fun, I’ll stick with it. That’s what kept me going." Her Boston-based bakery expanded to three locations. She also manages a restaurant, Myers+Chang, with her husband Christopher Myers.
Secondly, there's her very Asian upbringing, which did not expose her to many overly-sweet American treats when she was young. "A lot of people say our pastries are not super sweet, which comes from my background of not eating dessert growing up. I didn’t have opportunities to eat it because we had oranges at the end of dinner. My palate isn’t attuned to super sweet things," reflects Chang, a second-generation Taiwanese whose parents emigrated to Texas for graduate school and met each other in America.
"I grew up eating Chinese food until I was 18," she says. She's not even crazy about cheese. “That’s a very funny taste. It’s not something I grew up with."
So back to the demo. Chang explained in simple but not condescending language how to make her famous sticky buns, a gooey, caramel-pecan-honey piece of pure goodness. These buns won Bobby Flay's Throwdown in 2007, as seen on Food Network. Then it was served as the first course of the brunch, so we could all see why.
I change my mind. I think my new dream is to have regular access to Chang's creations.
Chang's visit was made possible due to Kapiolani Community College in cooperation with the Hawaii Culinary Education Foundation, funded by the Lyle S. Guslander Distinguished Visitors Program.
To see raw footage of 2 interviews with Joanne Chang, click here:
Photography and editing by Sisto Domingo