She runs the Flour Bakery empire, but when it comes to her work space, Joanne Chang is like every freelancer who’s ever opened a laptop in one of her cafes — angling for a good seat, at the mercy of the wireless connection, using a punch code to get into the bathroom.
It’s not efficient, she knows it, this portable office, this working on her MacBook Air out in the open, where everyone not only knows her name, but begs her to bring back the grilled cauliflower melt.
But she works free-range “on purpose,” Chang said recently, agreeing to an interview at a communal table at the Clarendon Street cafe. Working on-site keeps her connected to her employees, her customers, her sticky buns.
As if on cue, a customer interrupted. “I always tell you this place is great,” he said.
She usually hits two or three of her eight — soon to be nine — Flours daily, spending a few hours on location and then moving on, to Harvard Square perhaps, or the Seaport, or Dalton Street, biking or taking the T or bumming a ride from a colleague.
When she arrives, she assesses the basics: lights, soundtrack, cleanliness, aroma. The cafe should smell like cookies and brioche and muffins and coffee, she said. “But sometimes the savory side of the kitchen takes over with bacon.”
(Chang didn’t put it this way, but working backward, here’s the look she’s going for: if Hollywood still churned out rom-coms, the stars would meet cute at a Flour.)
From decor, Chang moves onto the moving parts. “I look at the team’s faces to see if anyone looks particularly stressed,” she said.
Then she turns her trained eye on the pastry case. “They should be displayed abundantly,” she said of the goodies. “We eat with our eyes, and I want to tempt everyone who comes in to eat one of everything.”
(Note to readers: You’ve been warned.)
The chocolate chip cookies should be golden brown on the edges and a little pale in the center. The double chocolate chip cookies shouldn’t have a crack in the center. “That tells me they were overbaked,” she said.
The glaze on the scones should be sheer. “If you wait too long [to drizzle the glaze], and the scones have cooled, the glaze will be too thick,” she said.
The James Beard-award winning baker turned her attention to the raspberry meringue clouds. “Some of these are a little wonky,” she said, pointing to a few offenders that were not quite smooth and round (but still looked ridiculously delicious). “They’ve got growths coming out of them.”
At this point in the city’s love affair with Flour, many people know Chang’s story. She’s an honors graduate of Harvard University with a degree in applied mathematics and economics who decided against business school and instead went to work in the city’s top restaurants, eventually using her savings and borrowing money from family to open her first Flour, nearly 20 years ago, on Washington Street in the South End. (She’s also an owner, with her husband, of the well-known Meyers + Chang restaurant in the South End.)
Many tools of Chang’s trade have not changed in Flour’s two decades — the piping bags, tart shell molds, cake turntables, and ovens are the same, she said.
But the iPhone’s camera has changed the baker’s work life. It allows her to snap shots of things that are working. The new way they’re piping the whipped cream on the chocolate cream pie is beautiful, she said recently, pulling up the photo on her phone. “It reminds me to tell the pastry chef this baker did a good job.”
Problems are captured, too. She clicked on a picture of lemon meringue pie where the meringue had been overwhipped. “It looks like styrofoam.”
Meanwhile, about the discontinued grilled cauliflower melt . . . it’s being revived.