Going Against the Grain with Zoë Kanan
How One Baker and Pastry Chef is Rising to the Top
It’s a hazy, humid day in June, and I walk into The Freehand Hotel in New York City, located just east of Madison Square Park for my second Outstanding Alumni interview. I glance at my typical work attire and feel as if I should be wearing a trendier outfit from the runways of Paris. From the art adorned walls that would make most avid collectors jealous, to the wooden elevator accent that’s reminiscent of an older New York, the space from Gabriel Stulman’s Happy Cooking Hospitality family is as fun to eat in as it is to look at.
By Sophia Smith, Marketing and Communications Coordinator for the International Culinary Center
Up the grand staircase, I find the hotel’s all day café, Studio. I am instantly transported to another world, two-stories above the busy streets of NYC, filled with plush chairs and beautiful, yet quirky, knick knacks. As I sit in one of the overstuffed seats covered in faux-fur reviewing my interview notes, Zoë Kanan walks into the room with a gold notebook in one hand and a plastic quart container filled with iced coffee in the other. A typical move for a chef that’s always on the go. I joke that I also need a quart of coffee at 9am, and she laughs at my to-be-expected comment. Immediately, my worries about the interview are squashed — it’s as if I’ve met up with an old friend and we’re catching up over jugs of iced coffee.
BRINGING THE FAMILY TOGETHER
As we sit down to talk about her almost ten-year career after graduating from the Professional Pastry Arts program at the International Culinary Center, I begin to paint the picture in my mind of just how much Kanan has accomplished in under a decade. Born and raised in Texas, she’s the product of a pit-master father and a vegetarian mother — baking was a way to bring the family together. It was also how she curbed her sweet-tooth after skating lessons throughout her childhood and teenage years. Yes, she was training to become an Olympic-Gold medalist, but broke her arm right before qualifying for senior competition. It was then time for her to pursue other passions, like baking and music. Luckily for all of us, baking stuck.
Baking in the kitchen with her family was only the beginning for her. After high school, she packed up her life in Texas and moved to New York City to study at ICC “fast-tracking (her) access to work in kitchens.” When I ask why she chose ICC specifically for her education, she remarked that “the program touched on a lot of different elements of the pastry and baking world, so I felt like I had the pick of the litter, as far as the type of establishment that I could walk into and feel like I would know where to begin.”
THE YOUNGEST BAKER IN THE KITCHEN
Pick of the litter, indeed. During pastry school, Kanan worked at Milk Bar — her dream establishment since her Texan days — first at the front of house, then as a kitchen intern. Getting there, however, wasn’t so simple — it only took hand delivering a resume three times to Milk Bar before finally having a chance encounter with mega-boss and fellow ICC graduate Christina Tosi. What’ll come as no surprise — Kanan was hired shortly after.
When she began, she was the youngest baker in the kitchen. Then, suddenly, or not so suddenly at all, she was running the Weddings and Special Orders Department, helping to build the reputation of Milk Bar’s famed “naked cakes.” During her time at Milk Bar, she also started at Four & Twenty Blackbirds in Brooklyn to learn more, as fast as she could. The owners, Melissa and Emily Elsen, were named in 2011 by Time Out New York as “Artisans of the Year,” right when Kanan was working diligently under them.
After leaving Milk Bar with a Tosi relic in tow — the signature bandana look that Kanan still rocks to this day — she went on to Mile End Deli to develop her bread-making with Dianna Daoheung. Then, once again, it was time to work with a new mentor, master-baker and fellow ICC graduate, Melissa Weller. Weller was gaining buzz as the “Bagel Whisperer” and Sadelle’s, the now cult -following bagel spot, was born shortly after Kanan joined. This is where Kanan discovered her true expertise in baking.
When I ask her what it was like to work for two of the greatest bakers of our generation in her early years after pastry school, she doesn’t hesitate. “Because we covered the entire rainbow of the baking and pastry world (at ICC), combined with the guidance and knowledge that I gained from working for Melissa Weller and Christina Tosi, it painted this picture for me where I felt equipped to approach these different angles of my job with the knowledge that it requires.” Throughout her career, she’s specifically chosen to work in female-led kitchens, something that is still important to her to this day.
Kanan’s career didn’t stop there. As she shares, “bread baking is ancient and is this foundational component of food. It’s global and feels like a common thread around the world.” Kanan embraces that as The Head Baker and Pastry Chef for Simon & The Whale and Studio. However, Gabriel Stulman never envisioned having a head baker for Simon & The Whale — it was always going to be just a pastry chef. Former-boss Christina Tosi personally recommended Kanan for the pastry chef position, but after gaining experience in the industry, she knew that baking was truly where her passion lay. She turned Stulman’s offer down initially, but told him that if he needed a head baker, she was right for the role. The rest, as they say, is history.
MORE THAN A STANDOUT BAKER
Kanan is more than a standout baker. She’s the chef that adds a twist to every dish, helping put Simon & The Whale on the map. According to Pete Wells, the prominent New York Times food critic, her “poppy-seed torpedo roll helps lift the fish sandwich with carrot-squash slaw above the ordinary.” That’s just what she does — she adds a unique, global influence to any dish and elevates it to a whole other level. Even though she doesn’t have time to travel much these days, after all, she is a 2019 Eater Young Gun and James Beard Award Outstanding Pastry Chef nominee, she draws from past experiences and cookbooks to find new inspiration. She thinks of recipes that she knows will work, approaches them from a new perspective and injects a burst of expertise and technique that lifts breads and pastries out of their pans. Her evolution of breads and pastries is the key to her growing legacy in the baking world. Future bakers are already taking notes.
Even though Wells admires her poppy-seed torpedo roll, Kanan’s favorite creation is her Sourdough Croissant. “I’m most proud of our croissant. It’s very much a bakery thing to say, but a croissant is so simple in flavor, so it takes a lot of thought and care to highlight what makes it special. It’s this perfect combination of technique, thoughtfulness, flavor and careful craftsmanship that makes it perfect. You don’t expect much from it, but I like to over-deliver.” When I get to try one for myself, she first cuts into two different croissants to see how the crumb performs. To my untrained, but croissant aficionado eye, they look perfect. Fluffy on the inside, flaky on the outside, I could tell that they would “over-deliver” even before I took a bite. It’s clear why they are referred to as the croissant “making the French angry.” The added sourdough elevates the croissant in a way that I had never tasted before.
When we head to the kitchen to get started on her daily, mile-long to-do list, she quickly realizes that she’s without her trusty gold notebook. The notebook is filled with recipes and new ideas that she translates in her spare time to work for her kitchen. Weller — a chemical engineer before her master-baker career — taught her how to use excel formulas to be more precise with her bakers math. Now, it’s clear that she’s following the same path as Tosi and Weller before her. But getting a peek in her kitchen is where I see how truly brilliant she is as a leader.
She’s built a team around her of strong bakers, many of them fellow ICC grads. Looking around the kitchen and seeing all women bakers, I think back to our interview just an hour prior. Kanan didn’t know why she was drawn to female led-kitchens, but realized it was her initial admiration for their menus and the products they created. “Growing up, I had a lot of powerful female influence in my life, and I wanted to stay close to that. I ultimately wanted to be one of those women. I got to make food that I was really inspired by, but also be close to these really powerful women that were role models to me.”
LEADING THE FUTURE OF BREAD AND PASTRY
Throughout our morning together, she works with and teaches her team while helping to get the day’s work done. In what seems like an instant, she’s laminated croissant dough on a shockingly-small table, then worked with her team to separate out another Kanan signature — her Russian Black Bread.
A new team member, fellow ICC grad Savita Bhat, just joined — it’s only her fourth day when I meet them — but instead of letting her figure it out on her own, Kanan’s teaching her about the dough while giving her precise feedback. For Kanan, the motion of scraping her workspace to mold the bread into a uniform loaf is natural and seemingly effortless. As she explains how to cut the bread in a way that doesn’t overwork it, while also using the perfect amount of flour so the bread is moldable, I finally understand that I’m watching an artist create her masterpiece.
When I ask Bhat what it’s like to work for Kanan, she says that a lot of the places she’s worked haven’t taken the time to train her properly like Kanan has. Kanan looks to me and responds that, “the execution of the product that we’re giving to our customers is key to our success — the staff has to be on board for that as well.” It’s clear that the staff are on board with so much more than the product — they wholeheartedly believe in their boss and what she creates.
Looking towards the future, Kanan is “excited about continuing our participation in the regional grain economy.” I must have a puzzled look on my face because she laughs and continues, “what that really means is sourcing grain that has been grown and milled in the Northeastern region. We are always bringing in new flours to experiment with, so I’m trying to learn more about that. We’re also working on gluten-free desserts, so really, we’re leaning both in and out of grains!”
When I ask her what advice she would give to young bakers and pastry chefs starting out, she knows her answer — it’s what she did. “Seek out a person or a mentor who you want to work for, rather than a restaurant or bakery that has the most cachet. When you’re creating your foundation and expanding upon your knowledge, find someone who you really admire that is willing to take you under their wing to guide you in the right direction.” For the future of baking, Kanan will be that guide for many.
Zoë Kanan graduated from the International Culinary Center (ICC), founded as The French Culinary Institute (FCI). In 2020, ICE and ICC came together on one strong and dynamic national platform at ICE's campuses in New York City and Los Angeles. ICC’s culinary education legacy lives on at ICE, where you can explore your own future in food.