Zoë François, author, blogger & pastry chef - Chef Chat Part 1

Categories: Interview
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Photo Credit: Susan Powers
Author, chef and blogger, Zoe Francois sets up a shot in her kitchen
Author of the wildly successful ...in 5 Minutes a Day cookbooks and accomplished pastry chef Zoë François has been traveling the country promoting her latest book with co-author Jeff Hertzberg, Artisan Pizza and Flatbread in Five Minutes a Day.  She's also creating sweet meal finales at the popular Tilia in Linden Hills. There is also her award-winning blog Zoë Bakes. When she isn't cooking, writing, making television appearances or photographing her stunning creations, she's hanging out with her husband and two sons at their Minneapolis home. 

François grew up on a commune in Vermont before attending the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, at the insistence of her husband. (Sounds like a good guy).  She eventually settled in Minnesota and began working with some of our biggest local chef names, like the D'Amico's, Andrew Zimmern and Steven Brown. 

She met Hertzberg through their children's music class.  Hertzberg, a doctor, had created a bread baking method that yielded artisan results with no-kneading involved and was interested in creating a cookbook.  François was intrigued, the two teamed up and the resulting book,  Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day went on to become a New York Times best seller.

To say she's busy would be an understatement, but she is also unfailingly gracious. We spoke with her recently to find out more about attending Woodstock as a toddler, the challenges of chocolate and what it's like to dance in a professional kitchen.

Is it true that you grew up on a commune? What was that like?
Yep, it's true. Anyone in their 40's named Zoë grew up on a commune.  My parents were hippies and we lived communally until I was in junior high school.  I recognized pretty early on that other kids at school didn't live, or eat, the way I did.  I hadn't known sugar existed until I went to Kindergarten.  Boy, was I mad when I found out raisins weren't candy, and Twinkies and Ho Hos had been out there all along.

And you were at Woodstock as a toddler? Any naked baby pictures with Hendrix?
I was only two years old when my folks took me to Woodstock, so I don't remember a thing, but I still claim the bragging rights.  Hippies didn't think to carry cameras everywhere, so there are no pictures of me, but if there were, I certainly would have been naked.

What was the first dish you learned to cook?
When we lived on the commune in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, we made our own butter and I remember taking my turn at churning it.  I was probably 5 years old.  I also helped my aunt make granola to sell to the local co-ops.  That recipe is in my first book.

What was your first job in the industry?
Not sure that Wendy's counts as "the industry," but that was my first job when I was 15.  Despite hating it, Wendy's didn't turn me off to working with food.  The first real restaurant gig was at Sneakers in Winooski, VT while I was at UVM.  I was the prep cook and a waitress.  I was a terrible waitress, so I spent all my time in the kitchen.

Was there anything easy about studying at the Culinary Institute of America?
I loved every second of being there.  The learning curve was crazy steep, which resulted in equal parts terror and excitement.  learning to move in a kitchen is like dancing.  If you can't keep up with the pace, you get yelled at, burned or stabbed.  Sounds like fun, doesn't it? I loved it, but now I am out of practice and feel so old when I try to dance in a professional kitchen.

What was your most challenging subject?
Mastering chocolate and all the architectural garnishes we had to make.  They just aren't my things, aesthetically.  I'm not sure why the art of pastry hasn't completely evolved past clowns and ponies? I like my food to look like food.

Can you take us on a breezy little tour of your culinary career?
After Wendy's and Sneakers, I started a cookie company in college.  It was for an assignment in a business class. The professor asked us to start a business on paper, but figured if I went through all the trouble and research; why not make a go of it?  I ended up taking time off from school to run the business. At the same time I was making ice cream cakes at Ben & Jerry's. When I moved to Minnesota after college, I ended up working for the D'Amico's, Andrew Zimmern and Steven Brown.  Man, that is a dream line up.  I left the restaurant life to be with my boys and that is when I met my co-author, Jeff.  The bread books have been such an adventure.

What brought you to Minnesota?
When my husband and I decided to leave Vermont, we though San Fransisco would be our next home.  On the way there, hauling our life's belongings, we stopped to visit my dad, who had moved to Minneapolis to be the publisher for Utne Reader.  That was 18 years ago and we never did make it to San Fran, except to visit.

Join us for more with Chef Zoë François tomorrow.

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