Zoë Francois: Building a Pastry Chef Brand

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(This interview appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)

Zoë Francois – popularly known as ZoëBakes to her legions of followers – got her first break in the industry as Pastry Chef for celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern. From there, a serendipitous encounter with Jeff Hertzberg, a doctor who had an unusual bread baking concept, led to a partnership that has resulted in nearly 800,000 cookbooks in print. Today, Zoë Francois spends her time blogging, teaching online classes and writing her first solo cookbook. In our interview, she reflects on her success, and how she’s managed to cultivate her brand while maintaining a good life balance.

You grew up on a commune in Vermont, where your family and the community lived off the land – keeping bees, making granola and bread, and churning butter. Did this way of life plant the seed for your career as a baker and pastry chef?

Absolutely! As a school-aged child and even into my young adult years, I was in a food-based rebellion from the commune way of life. I was trying to make up for those lost sugar years, when my parents tried to pass off raisin and carob as candy, so I wanted all the sweets. I resented the way we ate, because it was weird and embarrassing when I went to school in 1972. All the other kids had white, square bread with neat fillings and sweet treats, like Twinkies. I had homemade, irregular shaped bread with peanut butter we pressed ourselves, overripe bananas and honey from our own bees. That sandwich would bring me great joy today, but in the 70s, it drew a lot of unwanted attention in the cafeteria.

Once I entered into my culinary career, I so desperately wished I had paid more attention to what was being created around me in the commune. We were a bunch of hippies and none of the recipes were written down, so I’ve been reconstructing them from distant memories. The bread, the honey, the fresh vegetables, picking berries, raising our own animals for meat and eggs, walking to the nearby dairy for milk and cheese, fresh maple syrup in the spring; I long for all of it. I don’t feel the need to live with dozens of random people and share an outhouse, but the thought and care that went into the food was incredible.

After college, you decided to enroll at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. Why did you decide to do this, and how important do you think that training was to your success?

I had moved to Minneapolis after graduating from UVM. I was a bit lost, both culturally and in terms of career. I went to work at an advertising agency and realized almost immediately that the corporate world was not the environment for me. In the evenings, after work, I would come home and bake until the stress of the day dissipated. I credit my husband with suggesting I go to culinary school to explore my passion for baking. I got a job at a catering company and went to a local culinary program, where I realized I loved the hum of a professional kitchen. However, the local school was not teaching the style of food I craved, so I applied to the CIA. I packed up and left for Upstate NY. I wasn’t there long before I took an assistant pastry chef job back in Minneapolis with Andrew Zimmern. My time at the CIA was invaluable, both from a technique standpoint and being around other people who were equally as obsessed with food. I found my tribe at the CIA and knew that world was where I would thrive.

What were some of your full time jobs in pastry?

After a couple of months, I became the Executive Pastry Chef for Andrew Zimmern at (the now shuttered) Bravo restaurant. He not only broadened my knowledge of food, but it was a crash course in the business of being a chef. He understood what was coming and that celebrity was part of the business. He challenged me not only as a chef, but also as a teacher, and forced me to market myself. These are not lessons you get from attending culinary school, at least not when I was there.

I was also the Executive Pastry Chef for Steven Brown and his James Beard nominated restaurants. His influence on my cooking is probably the most profound. I was lucky to have the freedom to create daily menus, inspired by what was in season or what my mood brought to work that day, which suits my personality. It is a luxury to have a restaurant that can be that flexible.

You do some freelance consulting, developing dessert menus for restaurants. Tell us about that – do you also train the staff to make the desserts?

I have done restaurant consulting, but it is becoming less of my focus. I’ll both develop the pasty program and train the baking staff. It is really the best of all worlds, since I get to create the desserts, hammer out the issues and then the restaurant team takes over to do the daily work. The challenge is getting the staff to take care of my recipes and stay fully engaged in creating the vision. It is sometimes hard for me to step back and not have the daily oversight. It is often said that pastry chefs are enamored with control. I am no exception.

You also have a lot of experience teaching cooking. How did that start, and do you still teach today?

My first class was teaching the dessert portion of one of Andrew Zimmern’s classes at a local cooking school. I was terrified going into it, but quickly realized I had so much information to share and they were eager to learn. I started teaching a five-week baking series, which covered all the basics of a professional pastry kitchen. I’ve had people tell me it was the start of their career in baking.

I now only teach in-person classes when I am on book tour or as charity donations. I do a lot of online teaching through various educational platforms. I’ll have 10-20,000 people in an online class, as opposed to a classroom full of 50 students. I enjoy and miss the personal interaction of hands-on teaching, but it’s just not as efficient, nor as financially rewarding.

How did you get into writing cookbooks?

I left my job as a pastry chef to raise my two sons. My youngest was two-years-old and in a music class, which I had done previously with his older brother. I ended up at the back of the room talking to another parent, Jeff Hertzberg, who shared a bread recipe he was making once he found out I was a chef. I avoided baking it, because it flew in the face of everything I’d learned about bread at the CIA and I thought it would be absolutely horrible. Jeff, a doctor, not a chef, was storing a big batch of unkneaded dough for 30 days in the refrigerator. He eventually convinced me to try it and when I did, I was so excited. I’d been teaching baking classes and knew people were too intimidated by the process of yeasted breads and annoyed with how long it took. I knew people would actually bake at home if they had Jeff’s crazy method. I told him to write a book and he said he would if I did it with him. I had a few demands, like not storing the dough for 30 days (we compromised on two weeks), and the book had to have a huge chapter on sweets. Brioche was the first recipe I developed, and I even boldly sent it to one of my friends who was teaching at the CIA. He was a big fan and helped us spread the word.

We now have seven books in our best-selling Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day book series, and nearly 800,000 copies sold. We didn’t invent no-knead bread, that was done in the 1960s or earlier, but we were the first to store the dough for as long as we do. We were also the first cookbook authors to interact with our readers, answering questions through our website, and that was a game changer. Now it is commonplace, but in 2007, we were unique in our outreach. As a result, we have a tremendous community of bread bakers.

In between all your other activities, you manage to publish a popular blog, ZoëBakes. How difficult is it to keep that updated?

I started both ZoëBakes.com and Breadin5.com in 2007, when our first book came out. Breadin5.com was meant to be a companion to the book. We were first-time authors, and our book only had eight photos (we’ve since written a new edition, The New Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, with many more photos), and I knew people would be more likely to bake the bread if they could see how it was done. I am such a visual learner, so pictures are crucial to the process of baking for me.

I started ZoëBakes.com at the same time, as a space to practice my craft and share what I knew about baking. I had no idea that the bread books would take off, so I thought I’d eventually go back to work and wanted to stay relevant in the pastry community. My very first post was for a friend who was having difficulties with pie dough. I think she and my husband were the only followers at the time. I now have hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world who check in for pastry advice.

I love the websites, but it is a lot of work and can be hard to maintain in a meaningful way. I took some time off from ZoëBakes to focus on the bread website, which had taken off like a freight train and demanded more of my time. In the past year I have switched more of my focus to ZoëBakes.com and am working on a new book dedicated to cake. This is a new chapter for me as a solo writer. That’s a pun I didn’t intend, but it fits.

You’ve also got over 150,000 followers on Instagram – what are some of the secrets to your success here?

I found my voice on Instagram when they introduced the ‘Stories’. Until then I was posting pictures of my work, but people weren’t necessarily making the recipes. Once I could share tutorial videos on how I make them, people felt empowered to actually bake what I was posting. Now I put up a post and video and I’ll have hundreds of people recreating my work. It is instant feedback and a thrill to see people interacting with my recipes. The posts and videos are an insane amount of work, but worth it to me. I have decades of pastry info to share, and it is a thrill to know I am helping people overcome their fears in the kitchen. They have also brought me new collaborations with companies who found me through social media, which helps to sustain my work financially.

What advice do you have for those who are just starting out in the field of pastry?

Practice your craft. It seems obvious, but to paraphrase Malcolm Gladwell, it takes 10,000 hours to master anything, and pastry is no exception. This doesn’t mean you can’t work until you’ve mastered pastry; you just need to practice and learn all the time. I began my career in the restaurant and catering world, which was such a great education, because I was surrounded by other chefs and they shared their experience with me. I suggest to people who are new to the pastry profession to surround themselves with the greatest talent they can find. Get a job in your favorite bakery, or intern, volunteer, just put in the hours and soak up as much as you can. Going to culinary school accelerates the process, but it has to be paired with hands-on practice. Very few people leave culinary school with the chops to run a kitchen, or even a pastry program – they have to work up the ranks. Give yourself time and be curious.

Lastly, don’t believe everything you see on TV. The industry isn’t all that glamorous and is built on hard physical work and really long hours. The CIA used to require that students have some experience working in a professional kitchen or restaurant in order to apply, but I am not sure that is the case anymore. It should be, because it’s an expensive investment and you need to know if the industry is a good fit.

Photos Courtesy of Zoë Francois