Joanne Chang loves food. Not in a “Duh, she’s a chef” way. It’s more of a kid-on-Christmas type of glee. Despite being a notoriously picky eater — her dislikes include bacon, oysters, hazelnuts and more — you still get the sense that if someone served her oysters topped with bacon and hazelnuts, she would be excited anyway.
While it’s not mind-blowing to learn that a chef loves food, it’s surprising to hear about Chang’s almost instinctual career move from consulting to cooking. When she first began working in a restaurant, she had no idea that there were different stations or room for growth. And Chang — who now runs a burgeoning empire consisting of four Flour bakeries with three more in the works, in addition to her restaurant, Myers + Chang — didn’t even know what olive oil was until attending Harvard as an undergraduate. It seems her real college education took place in the dining hall, not to knock her applied mathematics and economics professors.
"I remember going to college, and for the first time I wasn’t eating Chinese food every day, and there were all these things that people ate that I didn’t eat," says Chang. "I had to learn how to eat them. Olive oil was something that I didn’t know anything about. We’d always cooked with peanut oil or canola oil to do stir-fries at home; I didn’t know what olive oil was. There was so much to the world of food that I didn’t really learn about until going to college and then eating in the dining hall — like, ‘Oh wow! Tacos! Let’s try tacos.’"
That wide-eyed excitement never wore off. Chang, who won the 2016 James Beard Award for Outstanding Baker, answered immediately when asked about her food philosophy. "I love to eat!" says Chang. "Honestly, I love to eat. I do. I love to eat so much. I’m picky, and there are a lot of things I don’t like to eat, but I don’t care. I still love to eat. I just love it."
Chang is not an all-out hedonist, however. She exhibits a remarkable sense of routine and balance — such as eating one of Flour’s multigrain rolls for breakfast every day. Chang also usually eats the same meal each night. "Every day I’m running around the bakeries, and I’m working at the restaurant, and I’m eating everything," says Chang. "I’ve got a bite of chocolate chip cookie, I’ve got a bite of banana bread, somebody comes to me with a taste of a cake, and then I try a dumpling, and I’m just eating all day long. So when I go home, I steam a huge pot of vegetables. That’s what I eat for dinner, because I know that I haven’t eaten anything good for me throughout the day."
There is a flip side to food, though. As much as Chang loves it, she takes issue with it at times — on matters big and small. For example, bacon — one of Chang’s aforementioned dislikes — is deemed too "nì," a Chinese word meaning overwhelming, too rich, excessive.
Chang also misses going out to dinner and having an appetizer, entree, and dessert. Though she expresses enthusiasm for the small plates trend that continues to dominate the food world, Chang recalls the beginning of her cooking career in the early ‘90s, when she’d go to dinner with fellow cooks. "It was imperative that everybody would order something different. We’d all eat a couple bites, and then we’d rotate, because we all wanted to try everybody’s food because we were all curious. And now you don’t have to do that. Now all the plates come out, and everybody’s eating everything, so it’s great. But again, I miss that."
On a bigger-picture level, Chang expresses concern about the amount of processed food we eat in the United States. In discussing food lessons learned from other countries, Chang says, "Honestly I feel that a lot of other countries do it right, and I sometimes get concerned that we’re doing it wrong. I’m really lucky because I work in restaurants, so I eat food that’s fresh. You often see that in Europe or in Asia; people are buying fresh fruits and vegetables and meats, and cooking and eating it. Of course I’m sure a lot of people are eating packaged foods abroad as well, but I feel like our culture is one of convenience. No one has time."
Yet the biggest problem with food today, according to Chang, is food waste. "It appalls me how much food we waste in this country…in the world," says Chang. "I see firsthand what gets thrown away and how little regard or respect can be given to nutritious and delicious food. It kills me the amount of waste we see."
Chang’s trajectory shows an almost magnetic pull toward food: From her childhood in Texas helping her mother prepare traditional Chinese food, to her Harvard dining hall education, to a side business called Joanne’s Kitchen, to ultimately moving into the restaurant world and then conquering pastry. Chang didn’t always have a plan, but her love of food lead the way — and it hasn’t diminished at all.
"I look forward to every single meal," says Chang. "Every meal, I’m thinking about. From the moment I walk in [to Myers + Chang] I’m thinking ‘What am I going to eat when I get home tonight?’ And the thing is, it’s always the same! It’s that big thing of steamed vegetables with whatever’s in the fridge. But I’m still so excited."
Main image: Myers + Chang/Cal Bingham for Eater