Champion baker and style icon Zoë Neal François ’85 is experiencing sweet success with a delicious new book and TV series
Zoë Neal François ’85, who grew up eating carob on a commune and then went on to sell close to a million books about bread baking, is helping her 21-year-old son, Henri, learn to pipe buttercream roses. Their heads are bent together, his dark, hers framed in her iconic silvery curls and cool tortoise-shell glasses. “It’s not the prettiest,” he says, and she says, “This is your first one! It’s awesome!”
This is not a scene from “Zoë Bakes,” her new show on the Magnolia Network, filmed in her home and around her hometown of Minneapolis; those 11 episodes show her out in the community—visiting a beekeeper, an apple orchard, church basements—and then teaching viewers whatever she was inspired to make. This, though, is a scene from “Baking With My Mother,” a series on Henri’s own YouTube channel. When I ask her about it, she says, “I didn’t realize how much I adored him until I watched the videos—looking at myself looking at him.” It’s pretty much impossible to miss, honestly: her giant smile; the way she radiates love. Then she evokes the pandemic: “It’s just this weird moment in our history that he’s even here. There’s no way he would ever have chosen to be here now in this time of his life. And it’s so fleeting.”
As a young adult herself, attending the University of Vermont, François ran a vending-cart business, Zoë’s Cookies, and worked as a cake decorator at Ben and Jerry’s. She’d been notoriously deprived of sugar growing up and had her first come-to-Jesus moment over a classmate’s lunchbox Twinkie. And it became her whole life—not Twinkies, but the making of baked things. She went on to work as a pastry chef, to attend the Culinary Institute of America, and to meet her co-author Jeff Hertzberg in a toddler music class when their kids were small. She and Hertzberg wrote Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day—which started something of a bread-baking revolution—along with a number of sequels.
In addition to the best-selling bread books and the show, François also has a recipe-packed blog, a vibrant Instagram account, a way with a blowtorch, and an absolutely stunning new book called Zoë Bakes Cakes for which she did all of the styling and most of the photography. “This is the book I’ve always wanted,” she says. (I think, honestly, it’s the book a lot of us have always wanted.) We asked her all about it.
You’ve got a lot going on! How does Williston fit in?
There really is such a Williston connection to this book and this show! I had finished one of my bread books, and I was contemplating what my next thing was going to be. I wanted to do a deep-dive search for the best piece of cake I could find. So I put together a map of Manhattan, and I called Stephen Tedesco ’85, Todd France ’85, and Adam Cohn ’85, all friends from Williston—we’d all been in a play together. Stephen came with me. I dragged him around the city, and oh, my God, we had so much cake! It was so much fun. Todd France took pictures of it all—and helped us eat cake. I posted the pictures to Instagram, and a producer got in touch with me. That’s how I met the production company! And then it became the show. It became the book. It became my whole life. Adam is my lawyer and business advisor—he brought me through
So you were a theater kid at Williston?
Oh, yeah. Ellis Baker ’51 ran the theater department, and he was really my savior. I was going through some existential angst then, and I spent a lot of time in that theater, in his office. I was discovering my brain and being stretched in new ways at Williston—it was wonderful, but it was scary. It was a significant time for me. I’d gone to 16 schools by the time I got to Williston. But I developed lifelong friendships there, and just discovered myself in ways that I hadn’t really done before.
Can you tell us a little bit about what you took away from the commune?
There are things about that time that I fought so hard. All I wanted was to be a TV family—to be normal and live in the suburbs and have straight hair. And to not be named Zoë. I even changed my name to Donna! I was Donna when I got to Williston. But once I got more comfortable in my own skin, I realized: Wait a minute. These people were the coolest! I cannot believe my dad kept bees my whole life and I wasn’t interested. And now I just want to keep bees! I want to know how to make yogurt and tempeh. Now I wish I had been paying closer attention.
Where do your ideas and inspiration come from?
I would say the number one thing is travel. Really being out in the world and seeing and tasting other people’s food. Also, Instagram—visually seeing what other people are doing. And the seasons—going to the grocery store and seeing something beautiful. Museums and art, too. I studied art at UVM. Art is such a huge part of what I love and what inspires me—but food is how I express that.
What connects your baking to your politics?
The Black Lives Matter movement is very personal for me because I live in a mixed-race household. My husband is Black. My children [Henri, 21, and Charlie, 20] are brown. I have first-hand seen the discrimination that happens—purely based on their skin color. But basically I play with sugar all day. How could I turn this into something meaningful? Then Bakers Against Racism started after the George Floyd murder. They brought together all the bakers and raised millions of dollars. It was awesome. I could not have been more proud of my fellow bakers, of my fellow humans. It gave me a way to direct all of that angst and sadness and anger—what the whole world was feeling at that moment.
Did you bake a lot for your kids and their friends?
I would not only bake with them in mind, but I would bake with them. There are pictures of the boys and their friends making pizza, making bread. I’ve been constantly writing books since 2005, so I was constantly needing recipe testers. And then Charlie had a scone business when he was 11 or 12. When he told me, I said, “What recipe are you going to use?” assuming it would be one of mine. He said, “I’m going to use this other lady’s.” I was like, What? But then it turned out to be Julia Child, so I was OK with it.
Did the boys ever crave food that wasn’t homemade, like you did with the Twinkie?
Yes. I wanted to throw them out of the house. Here I am—I’ve written eight books about bread—and of course, all they wanted was white bread out of a bag, the kind that’s only good for wadding up and throwing at people.
What’s your favorite cake in the book? Your go-to cakes for special occasions?
If I had to choose just one—probably the plum cake. Charlie requested the devil’s food cake with cream cheese icing for his birthday. For a friend of Henri’s we recently baked the white cake with sprinkles—the funfetti cake—with strawberry American buttercream. It’s the ultimate American birthday cake.
Vanilla or chocolate?
Chocolate. Even though I put vanilla in everything!
What’s your favorite comfort food?
Spaghetti and meatballs. I turn to it whenever I’m like, Oh, this day sucks. That’s something I make—but my husband actually does more of the cooking than I do.
What’s your favorite thing to make to cheer up your household?
Flan for Charlie. And always crepes, for the kids. Even when they were being picky—if rolled into a crepe they would devour anything. For my husband it’s madeleines.
Our iconic takeout meal is Vietnamese from Quang in Minneapolis. I could live off the pho. They know me by name—they’ve been taking care of me since I was pregnant with Henri. Charlie had his graduation catered from there. My coauthor Jeff Hertzberg and I wrote our books there. In one day I would eat lunch there with Jeff, and then dinner with my husband and kids.
What’s your favorite color?
Hmmm. That’s hard. Oh, wait, red! I’m sitting in a room—the walls are red. I’m wearing red pants. My logo is red. It’s so ridiculous that I hesitated.
Zoë’s Baking Essentials
Nordic Ware Flat Sheet Pans “Ooh, or maybe a Nordic Ware Bundt pan is sexier! It’s all made locally here.”
A Stand Mixer “I have a 35-year-old Kitchen Aid! I started my cookie company in it. And then I have a Wolf one too, and I love that thing. It’s a tank.”
Butter “I went to Ireland with Kerrygold and I did nothing but eat butter. This was a fantasy come true! I could live off of butter alone. I met the farmers and the cows! I love Kerrygold—but it doesn’t have to be that. Just really good butter.”
A Danish dough whisk “Google it!”
Homemade vanilla extract Find the recipe on her blog Zoëbakes.com.