This Boston Chef Is Hoping for Better Luck in the Year of the Ox
Joanne Chang says Boston will come back stronger than ever.
For Joanne Chang, Lunar New Year is all about a fresh start. The James Beard Award-winning chef and owner of Boston’s beloved Flour Bakery + Cafe spends this time of year clearing her house, wearing red clothing, and giving guests red envelopes with notes inside to ward away bad fortune and welcome good luck.
Growing up in a Taiwanese household, Chang exclusively ate traditional foods, and with the help of her mother, she learned the cuisine early on in her life. After graduating with an applied mathematics degree from Harvard—where she also ran a mini-business selling her famed chocolate chip cookies—Chang worked briefly at a strategy consulting firm before realizing her destiny as a pastry chef.
She also co-owns “Asian-ish” restaurant Myers + Chang with her husband and business partner, Christopher Myers. The acclaimed South End restaurant serves a mixture of Chinese, Taiwanese, Thai, and Vietnamese specialties—all drawing inspiration from Chang’s upbringing.
“I didn’t realize that rice wasn’t a part of everyone’s dinner until I was about 15,” Chang says. “What I love about being Taiwanese is that all we do is think about food. At breakfast, we’re thinking about dinner and so on. It’s not weird. That’s just how it is.”
To pay homage to the holiday, Chang features celebrated Lunar New Year foods like spring rolls, whole fish, and longevity noodles on Myers + Chang’s menu, which can be associated with prosperity and long life. This year marks the Year of the Ox, which thankfully represents positivity, hard work, and honesty.
Although instilling a hopeful outlook, Chang recognizes how difficult the past year has been. During the first five weeks of Boston’s COVID-19 lockdown, both Flour and Myers + Chang temporarily shut down operations, and later had to discover safe ways to slowly re-open during the warmer months.
“As the summer progressed, we started to feel like we were adjusting to this new pandemic way of living and doing business,” Chang says. “We felt some optimism that we could muddle our way through this period. But the snow, wind, and cold have done what they always do in New England, which is discourage people from going outside and ultimately, slowing down business.”
Chang added that internal cases of the virus have also temporarily halted operations as they need to ensure that teams are tested and locations are properly sanitized. Her team went into hyperdrive after COVID-19 initially hit and, after realizing a number of staff were not eligible for unemployment benefits, she helped kick start a fund to give workers their own version of stimulus checks so they could continue to pay rent and buy groceries.
Powered by online sales, classes, pop-ups, and fundraising, the initiative sustained paychecks for about three months. Once the restaurants reopened, she brought back as many people as they could and currently employs about two-thirds of her original staff.
“Now, our focus is to keep them safe,” she says. “We pay for their time to get COVID tested regularly, offer paid time off if they need to quarantine due to COVID, and we’re about to implement a plan to pay for their time to get vaccinated. We recognize that their jobs are different from what they originally signed up for and, overall, work is just a lot harder.”
As part of the ongoing changes, Chang has continued to get creative with making Flour and Myers + Chang more accessible to customers. In addition to both restaurants offering takeout and delivery, DIY and ready-made kits have been a tremendous hit. Flour offers plenty of kits to choose from including flour love kits, ready-to-bake gifts, and ready-to-enjoy treats. While Myers + Chang has a “M+C Pantry” with dumpling, noodle salad, fried rice kits, and more available for purchase online.
You may have even spotted one of Flour’s vans on the road. Last year, the bakery hosted pop-ups in popular nearby suburbs, bringing the best of the best baked goods (like Chang’s famous sticky buns) to fans across Massachusetts. Some good news, the van is hitting the road again this year, with upcoming stops in Hopkinton, Dedham, Essex, Newburyport, Charlestown, and Somerville.
Despite an incredibly challenging year with an ever-changing list of rules and ways of operating, Chang remains hopeful for the future of Boston’s restaurant industry.
“I’m certain we will come back stronger than ever,” Chang said. “Boston is full of passionate chefs and hospitality professionals who love this industry. We have a seemingly bottomless well of diners who appreciate great food and service. Once we get control of the pandemic, I have no doubt that hibernating restaurants will come back to life and closed restaurants will be reinvented by exciting new ones.”
What a fitting prediction for the Year of the Ox.