Rising Accomplishment

A chance encounter transformed Zoë François ’85 from pastry chef to bread-baking guru

zoe francois

Life-changing opportunities have a way of presenting themselves in unexpected places, so perhaps Zoë (Neal) François ’85 should not have been so quick to dismiss the crazy idea suggested by the dad she met at her son’s toddler music class back in 2003. Jeff Hertzberg was a busy doctor who had come up with a time-saving technique for making bread: Stir up a big batch of wet dough, then just keep it in the fridge for a couple weeks, pulling off hunks to bake as needed.

Zoë, a trained pastry chef lauded for her work in acclaimed Twin Cities restaurants, could only shake her head.

“He asked me to try it, and I held off for a long time because I thought he was completely nuts,” she recalls. “The recipe flew in the face of everything I knew about baking, and I didn’t want to hurt his feelings.” Finally she gave in. Creating the master recipe of flour, water, salt, and yeast was a matter of simply stirring together the ingredients. Each day she’d pull a handful of dough from the fridge and have a loaf in the oven in five minutes. Crazy, perhaps, but what came out was handcrafted artisan bread: warm, crusty, and unlike anything that comes in a plastic bag.

“I knew how intimidated people were about bread,” Zoë says. “So I was like, ‘You have got to get this in front of people.’ He said, ‘I’ll write a book if you do it with me.’”

Some 400,000 copies later, it’s clear that Zoë made the right decision. The pair’s Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day helped spawn a bread-baking movement that continues today, and the six “five minutes a day” books have sold a combined 750,000 copies. In the process, the authors have attracted a devoted following that shares stories and appreciation on Zoë and Jeff’s blog, breadin5.com. Zoë also blogs and writes extensively on her own, and teaches courses on baking around the country.

Not bad for a kid who grew up in communes and cults, and attended 14 different schools by the time she entered Williston. “My dad was a wandering hippie,” she explains. “We went all over the country looking for his awakening. That all seemed very normal to me because it was all I knew. But when I was in high school, my mom realized that I didn’t know how to learn. I was a smart kid and I was getting by, miraculously, but she realized I needed something a little more formal and a little more stable. So they sent me to Williston. And it was really profound. I wasn’t moving for two years and I had enough time to see who I was.”

That unconventional childhood also had a lasting impact on Zoë’s approach to food. “Growing up, sugar was honey, and we had no refined flour in the house,” she explains. “My parents told me that raisins were candy. So I was a little pissed off when I got to public school and realized there were Twinkies in the world. I’m a pastry chef now, so my philosophy is I will eat everything, but I’m very aware of what I’m eating. I do things in moderation. I think that being rigid and worrying is actually worse for you than just eating in moderation.”
After Williston, Zoë studied art and English at the University of Vermont. Her dad was a friend of ice cream’s Ben and Jerry, so as a student she worked at their Burlington shop, making ice cream cakes. For a business class assignment, she developed a plan for a cookie company that got her so excited that she took a year off to launch it. She baked her gourmet Zoë’s Cookies in her apartment and sold them from a vending cart. She left school thinking she would go into business, and got a job in marketing.

All of this, she now sees, was a way of rebelling against her upbringing, and it wasn’t who she really was. “I was doing this marketing job, but I hated it so much that I would come home and bake all night.” When her husband suggested she go to culinary school, she left Minneapolis and headed off to the Culinary Institute of America in New York. Soon after, she got a job as pastry chef with Andrew Zimmern, at the time a Minneapolis chef and not yet the TV personality known for eating bizarre foods. That was a breakthrough.

“Working with Andrew was amazing for me,” Zoë says. “He’s an incredible chef but even more so, he’s an incredible businessperson. What I learned from Andrew was how to actually craft this into a living, which is almost more valuable than what he could have taught me as a chef.”
After a successful run in the restaurant business, Zoë took a break to raise her two sons. But, as she would soon discover, accompanying toddlers to music class turned out to be her very best career move. “When Jeff and I started this we had no expectations,” she says. “We thought the book would make a great Christmas gift for my parents. I had no idea when I said yes to writing that this would be my life.”