A Conversation with Joanne Chang

By Bovey Rao ’19, Richa Chaturvedi ’18, and Caroline Gentile ’17

BR:      Could you introduce yourself?

JC:       My name is Joanne Chang, and I am opening Flour Harvard Square.

BR:      What are your plans for the new location?

JC:       We are at 114 Mt. Auburn, this used to be the old Chili’s building. I don’t know if you guys were around when it was here. When I went to school here, it was a Chili’s, and I don’t remember what the rest of the building was. We started looking at this space about a year ago, when Harvard said that they were going to renovating the building, and possibly opening the bottom floor for a café. We were excited because we wanted to open a new store and this seemed like a great location.

BR:      How did you start your baking journey from Harvard student to applied math concentrator to consulting?

JC:       It sounds like you know it (haha). I studied math and economics here and graduated in ’91 and worked in management consulting at the Monitor Group for two years. I had always loved cooking and baking and eating. I cooked a lot at home and baked recreationally. At Harvard, I actually baked and sold cookies at the Leverett House Grille in my Junior and Senior Year. I didn’t think this would be a career for me. I did consulting for two years and unlike a lot of other consultants who went to business school, I decided to try cooking professionally to see what that’d be like. I ended up loving it. I started on the line as a garde manger, working on appetizers. Once in the restaurant world, I started to hone my interest as I really preferred pastry over savory, so I got a job at a bakery. Then I came back to the square and was the pastry chef at Rialto for a few years and went to New York City to help with the opening of Payard Patisserie. After a while, I came back to Boston to be the pastry chef at Mistral and then opened Flour.

BR:      How do you feel about Rialto closing?

JC:       It’s such a bummer. It had such a great long run, but I’m excited about who’s going in there. Mike Pagliarini is an amazing chef and used to work with my husband at Via Matta. He’s a great friend of ours.

BR:      Do you have any favorite memories of the dining halls at Harvard?

JC:       I loved eating here, and this was before the dining service revamp. I know that you guys have all these special nights for food. I was involved with the dining program through periphery and heard about them. I went back to Leverett with my roommate, and there was just such great variety. When I was here, I don’t know if the food was amazing, but I just loved it. All the different types of food and I just liked it.

RC:      I think you are catching us at a good time because the strike just ended.

JC:       What’d you do during the strike?s

RC+CG: Spent a lot of money.

JC:       Did they offer any food options?

BR+RC+CG: There was frozen food at first, that was pretty bad, but got a lot better as time went on.

JC:       Did they reimburse you or anything?

CG:     They gave us some money that we could spend at their cafés and at a few restaurants in the square. I definitely took advantage of it when I went to Henrietta’s.

RC:      During midterms, we don’t realize how much we rely on HUDS for food, so it’s really nice that they are back.

JC:       Two years ago, when I went back to Leverett, one of the ladies still recognized us, and we hugged and all. They really have a great staff.

BR:      Did you have any dining hall hacks?

JC:       We didn’t have as much selection back then. There are so many things to choose from now. It was a hot bar and a small salad bar with just lettuce, cucumbers, and carrots, so I don’t have any dining hacks.

RC:      For your cookie business, how did you go about doing that?

JC:       There’s a kitchen in the basement of G tower. It was tiny, but I would walk to the Stop and Shop, where the Microcenter is now. I would buy flour, butter, sugar, and chocolate chips and walk back with as much as I could carry. I would make batter downstairs in the kitchen and bake it off every night. I sold them to the Grille for 25 cents, and they sold it to the students 3 for a dollar.

RC:      Do you feel you use your applied math background in your cooking today?

JC:       I’m sure I do without really doing it. In applied math, you learn how to think critically, so it’s been very helpful. And it seems crazy, but just knowing basic math skills are helpful. If you have a big recipe and need to reduce it 8%, to be able to move easily when doing that kind of stuff makes things a lot easier. So that’s not really an applied math thing, but doing the accounting, it is helpful.

BR:      What was your favorite place to eat in the square?

JC:       We would go to Uno’s. I was dating a guy, and we would go to Uno’s. I would get the spinoccoli pizza and a salad. I loved that. We also went to Grendel’s Den, if that’s still around. We didn’t go out a lot because all of our meals were paid for.

RC:      What about today?

JC:       It was Rialto, and now I really like Café Sushi, even though it’s not really in the square. I like Giulia too even though it’s not really in the square. I haven’t been to Alden and Harlow in a while, but I’ve enjoyed it too. The Square has changed so much with so many places like Café Algiers even closing. I’m sad about that.

RC:      I feel like it is getting more upscale.

JC:       I feel like it’s getting more chainy with places like Chipotle and b.Good. B.Good went into the sushi place, which I didn’t expect, but b. Good is a good chain.

CG:     I know there are a lot of bakery/cafes in this area, so what do you think separates Flour from Tatte, Crema, or Starbucks?

JC:       I think many things. I think our food is awesome. We take so much pride in our food as we put it through the “Mom Test.” If you don’t want to serve it to your mom, then don’t serve it to the guest. So we empower all the staff to look at the food in that way, and this all started from when I opened the first location in the South End. My mom worked at the bakery because we were short-staffed. It was my first business venture, and she wanted to help me settle in for the first three months. She was always a little skeptical about the career change from consulting, so while she was excited about the opening, I wanted to make sure that everything we prepared, she was proud of. That was 16 years ago and we still talk about it today. At yesterday’s staff meeting, we talked to everyone about the mom test or girlfriend test or whoever’s opinion means something to you. You want imagine handing something you made to them with a sense of ownership over this is my job and this is what I made.

We also differentiate ourselves through our service, warm and welcoming hospitality. It is a huge part of who we are. Do you know the TV series Cheers? “Where everybody knows your name?” That was something that impacted me as somewhere that everyone knew you, and we wanted to replicate that here. My hope is that the staff gets to know 50 to 80 percent of the people who come in. We want them to be able to greet you and know your order. I think that we have a big emphasis on making sure that the whole of Flour is working in a really strong way. Everything we do we want to be guest facing from the food to the service. We spend a lot of time talking internally about how we want a really good working environment. For some of the people, Flour is their first time job, so we want to teach people this is how you work and become part of the team. We have a really strong internal commitment to teach the staff, so everything melds together to have a great place. The other cafes in the square are great, but I think everyone here is just more aware of the guest and the food.

CG:     What’s your favorite thing on the menu?

JC:       Actually, my favorite savory thing on the menu is a new salad we have on the menu. It is a buckwheat noodle salad with tofu, kabocha squash, fresno peppers, and a nori sesame vinaigrette. We also have a hummus banh mi, which is fabulous.

One the pastry menu, the pain aux raisins is a long-time favorite. It is a brioche spiral that has pastry cream and golden raisins. A couple years ago, we introduced the kouign amann to the menu, a butter Breton cake, which is amazing.

RC:      Is there anything you’re going to roll out on the menu specially for Harvard Square?

JC:       We haven’t come up with any Harvard specific specials yet because our focus now is making sure that we make sure we do everything great like the other locations. Then, we’re going to let the chefs and pastry chefs know that they are empowered to make specials. If enough people come in and say “we really want this,” then we’re going to try it.

CG:     Is there a certain recipe that you had to tamper with to really perfect?

JC:       I feel like every recipe requires this. We were fiddling with our croissant for the last 12 years. I inherited a recipe from Payard and just kept working and improving on it. I feel like almost every recipe requires some tampering. The blueberry muffin recipe went through so many iterations for the first ten years. We would taste it every couple of days and think about how to make it more moist, more fruity, and just improve the little things. It is about always being involved, so we taste all the time.

BR:      I know you won the James Beard Award, so are there any future aspirations that you have?

JC:       My focus is on making sure this location get rolled out really smoothly. Professionally, I feel like I just want to keep doing what we do well. I want the staff to be happy coming to work every day, so that is what I want to focus on because it is really important to me.

RC:      Do you feel like this is a little bit of a homecoming?

JC:       A little bit! It definitely is great to be back in the square. When I was here, I never really left the square; in fact, I never really left the yard and Leverett House. I only went to Currier because of my boyfriend at the time, so I went only to Leverret, Currier, and the yard. During the dining hall strike, I was wondering what everyone doing because if it had happened while I was here, I don’t know what I would have done. I stayed in my house most of the time.

It’s fun to be back and connect with students and hear what people have to say about their experience. It’s fun to know all of the places and all of the dorms. It’s been nice coming back and working with Harvard. I had my 25th college anniversary this year with a dinner outside the Science Center. I also taught a lecture for the science and cooking class, so the professor and I went to eat at Annenberg. For me, it was Mem Hall, and it was for exams instead of a dining hall.

CG:     What were the biggest challenges of opening this location?

JC:       There were some obstacles regarding water because of the plumbing situation downstairs. We were originally planning on putting the bathrooms on [the right side], so the layout was challenging. It was hard to make it work, knowing that all water had to be restricted to one side of the space. It was just a logistical challenge.

Other than that, it’s been great working with Harvard as they have been super great to deal with. Construction has been going well, so hopefully, we’ll be opening on Tuesday!

RC:      Are you going to be here on opening day?

JC:       Definitely. I will be here on the first day to make sure everything is okay and probably stay for a while, but with the staff here from the managers to all of the chefs, we have a really great team, so I won’t do much. My coming is more to support everybody and make sure things are going well.

RC:      Do you have any game day rituals for opening a restaurant?

JC:       That is a really good question, but not really. In fact, I was just talking to Neil, the carpenter, who helped us open the Back Bay location. He reminded me that we opened Back Bay around 11am because we were waiting on a permit that finally came at 10. We quickly scrubbed everything clean and opened at 11, so we were just focused on getting it all going. So I don’t really have any game day rituals, but we should probably start something. We’ll keep doing what were doing.

CG:     I am so excited about you guys opening because I follow you on Instagram and always see all the chef’s specials. I always think they look so good but they are so far away. Also, the Flour at Kendall was also where I had my first date with my boyfriend where we got sticky buns.

JC:       Oh cool! We have had a couple marriage proposals that have happened at the bakery. A couple of them with our knowledge, so we knew what was happening. We could set up a little quiet corner for them. Others have happened to spontaneously, where they are spontaneous for us, but hopefully not for them. That’s been really cool.

BR:      I think that’s it!

JC:       Awesome! Feel free to take pictures and look around!

RC+CG+BR: Thank you so much for your time!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s