by Laura Roth
Zoë François is my Julia Childs. Her recipes are inspiring and beautiful, yet Zoë is the perfect balance of technique and approachability.
When Zoë agreed to be interviewed, to say I was thrilled would be an understatement. (There may have been a little bit of squealing and excited jumping. Maybe.) She is every bit as delightful in person as she seems in her cookbooks and websites, Breadin5.com and Zoebakes.com. I hope you enjoy getting to know her as much as I did!
When I decided I wanted to make my own bread instead of buying it, I scoured literally hundreds of recipes until I found the book she coauthored with Jeff Hertzberg, The New Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. I tried their master recipe for an artisan boule, and I knew I had a winner! As I posted here, it’s my family’s favorite dinner bread and my favorite bread to gift, as it is both simple to make and beautiful.
Although Zoë admits she didn’t even know what a chef was when she was little, she always loved to experiment with food. She explains that she had a very alternative childhood, and growing up in communes, there was always an enormous pantry for Zoë to explore. She recalls that when she was three or four, she and her friend Sasha gathered all the oats and honey they could find and dumped them into the bathtub to mix up and try to create…something. They couldn’t really eat it, but they loved the process.
A few years later, she and Sasha started putting various ingredients in pans and baking things, and although none of it was edible, it was definitely inspiring for Zoë’s curious mind! Eventually, Sasha learned how to make a Dutch baby (puffy pancakes) from his grandmother, and when he shared his “secret knowledge” with Zoë, she was hooked.
Zoë’s mom never baked. The only thing she remembers her mother using the oven for was when she made Twelve Foot Chicken, “We’d wait for the smoke to come twelve feet into the living room, and then she’d call it done!” If Zoë wanted a sweet when she was home on visits from her boarding school during high school, she had to find a recipe in the Time Life book series, or else she would just figure out how to make it.
Zoë got so good at baking that while she was in college, she opened a cookie company to earn extra money while she was in college, and she also made ice cream cakes at Ben & Jerry’s. Still, although cookies were her entrée into baking, she didn’t consider herself a chef.
Zoë was an art major in college, and although she went to school for photography, she admits that she was “not so much of an artist as I loved being with artists. I never found my medium until I found food. I didn’t call myself an artist until I went to culinary school.”
After college, Zoë got married, moved to Minneapolis, and worked at a marketing company. She was despondent with her work, and she came home and baked all night. Her husband, Graham, encouraged her to go to culinary school. She finally agreed, quit her job, and left him for seven months to attend Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in New York.
It was a huge sacrifice for both of them, but Zoë says, “I don’t regret how it happened, because I have marketing skills that a lot of culinary students don’t have. There are many great artists, but they don’t know how to make a living at it.”
Zoë explains that the CIA encourages students to work in the industry “to make sure you’re crazy enough to really do it.” She worked at D’Amico and Sons making pastries locally for a while, and while she was at school, she had a phone interview with Andrew Zimmern (long before he started eating crazy things on his show Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern on the Food Network). He hired her to be a pastry assistant at his new restaurant in Minneapolis, so she left CIA, and within six months she was the pastry chef.
It was an amazing opportunity that really launched her career, but Zoë admits, “If I had it to do over again, I’d have done the whole culinary program and not just pastries.” She loved spending a couple of weeks learning each technique at CIA, but knew that it was in restaurants that she would really hone her skills.
With Zoë being back at home, she and Graham were able to settle into a new routine and have two sons, but she quickly realized that being a pastry chef required challenging hours for a mother. When her youngest was two years old, she was in a music class with him when she started chatting with another parent, Jeff Hertzberg, a doctor who had developed a bread recipe that only required five minutes of active time.
Jeff really knew he was on to something that home cooks everywhere would love. Zoë sensed it too, although she never dreamed where that conversation would take her! She worked with Jeff to perfect the recipe, then they developed more recipes and compiled a cookbook.
Zoë says it was “perfect timing” to meet Jeff, because she was able to work at home, and the kids never even realized she was working. She always thought people wrote books as a resume builder, not to make money.
She decided that her kids came first, so writing the cookbook was done in her spare time, between playgroups and other kids’ activities, “I had no idea what I was doing. I just put the boys in the kitchen, and they watched me making bread all day.” They didn’t even realize their mom was running a business out of their home.
Zoë and Jeff knew something big was happening when the first printing of Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day sold out in a week, and the agent said, “Quick! You need to write another one!” Zoë confesses, “I was so lucky, because I didn’t anticipate the success of the books. I thought the first cookbook would be a fun experience. I promised my husband I’d do the first book and then get a job.”
Zoë always has always had amazing mentors surrounding her. All of the chefs she has worked for have encouraged her and taught her so much about the business side of the restaurant field, especially Andrew Zimmern, whom Zoë says is “an amazing chef, but an even more amazing business person.” She goes on to explain that, “If you can’t make a living cooking, it becomes very old. It’s physically grueling, especially restaurant work on weekends and holidays.”
It helps that she lives in Minneapolis, which she describes as “such a generous community.” She has other pastry chef friends, and they support and help each other creatively. Zoë is especially grateful for Sue Zelickson, a journalist who Zoë refers to as “the matriarch of the Minneapolis food scene.” Sue founded a group called “Women Who Really Cook,” for women in the local food industry to network, gain press, and encourage each other.
Lucia Watson (of Lucia’s in Uptown) and Brenda Langton (of Spoonriver, near the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis) were other members of the group when Zoë was active. They both owned restaurants and wanted other women to be part of the industry and to strive to be on par with, or even better than other restaurants. Zoë was inspired by them both, as well as many other women. Their support helped give her the encouragement and drive she needed to develop her own businesses.
Despite all of Zoë’s success, she says that one of her biggest challenges as an author and blogger is how isolated her life is now, as opposed to when she was working in restaurants and actively participating in the “Women Who Really Cook” group. Her connections really come by attending conferences and meeting with other food bloggers and writers, such as Stephanie Meyer, founder of cooking and health blog Fresh Tart.
Being able to connect with other author chefs and share ideas inspire Zoë and help keep her work fresh, but her most effective research as a work at home mom comes from just going to bakeries to see what other people are baking. Zoë says, “It’s one thing to look at Pinterest, but it’s another thing to see and taste new pastries. When the boys were little, I’d just put the boys in their car seats under the table as I went to different bakeries and tried new things.”
Zoë feels she has been quite fortunate in her career. Her husband not only supported her education, but also used his IT skills to design her websites. Her coauthor, Jeff, has a great organizational skill set that complements her creativity. Of course, she admits that her life is full of challenges, but says, “I am just grateful that the flexibility of my work life has afforded me the ability to handle them.” She happily concludes, “I could not be luckier with my work.”
Zoë makes a point to pay that luck forward. Following the example of her early mentors, she loves to share ideas and help other women grow and thrive in the restaurant and food blogging industries. Zoë and Jeff have just published their latest book, The New Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day. In it, they focus on using whole grains to make even more nutritious breads. Make sure to check it out!
Featured image by Sarah Kieffer, courtesy of the Star Tribune.