In the spring of 2015, acclaimed baker Melissa Weller was looking for a sous chef to join her team at Sadelle’s, the restaurant in downtown Manhattan she’d be opening with Major Food Group a few months later. She’d winnowed the applicants down to two: One had the necessary managerial and bread-making experience; the other didn’t, “but she had this energy and passion and enthusiasm that I thought would translate into something more that I needed,” Weller says. Unable to decide, she offered each one a job figuring one might not work out.
As predicted, post-opening, only one was left standing: Zoë Kanan, the young (then 24), curious, charismatic hire with the steeper learning curve, which she overcame at lightning speed. “She’s just such a quick learner,” Weller says. Before Sadelle’s, Kanan had worked at Momofuku Milk Bar as both a pastry cook and the manager of the weddings and special orders department for a total of five years, and clocked six months at Mile End. When she applied for the position with Weller, she was, rather miserably, developing an ice cream menu for the relaunch of the Ronnybrook Farm stall in Chelsea Market.
“I was a little intimidated by her, by her Per Se chops, and I didn’t have any experience at that level,” Kanan says about her initial meeting with her former boss. “I knew myself to be a creative person and I was like, this is what I’m going to be able to offer that she doesn’t know.” By the time she left Sadelle’s in 2017, thanks to Weller’s tutelage and her own preternatural aptitude and unflagging, power-through drive, Kanan was fluent in bagel, babka, challah, sticky bun, brioche, and pound cake. Should you go to the Freehand Hotel, about 30 blocks uptown, where Kanan is now the head baker, you will see how she’s built on Weller’s foundations, and come up with a few of her own, to establish herself as one of New York’s most promising culinary talents — and an Eater Young Gun for 2019.
Where did Kanan get her gumption? In Houston, generally speaking — more specifically, in the neighborhood known as the Heights, under Marian and Jim Kanan’s roof. Her father was, for a time, on the competitive barbecuing circuit — he even had the bright red Bullbutter Bros. Barbecue trailer to prove it. Asked if he thought perhaps this was where his offspring’s competitive streak came from, he responded, “I don’t have a clue where that competitive stuff comes from, but I do believe Zoë received a double dose.” His daughter, he observed, “very early on in her life, showed a competitive and relentless energy for the things she liked.”
What she liked was to glide across the ice balanced on the razor-sharp edges of two shiny blades. At age 5 she began figure skating, which, she says, gave her “a foundation of discipline” and a place to both channel and develop her “drive to be the best.” There were other things she liked — cooking, for one. She liked to help her dad, and to make sweets with her grandmothers; her maternal grandmother introduced Kanan to the joy of Jewish baking, and her paternal grandmother taught her about the power of pie.
So it wasn’t a complete shock that when her plans for professional axel-jumping didn’t pan out, Kanan, while working as a hostess at a restaurant called Gravitas for the summer, found herself suggesting that she assist the pastry sous chef, who suddenly found himself in charge when the pastry chef walked out. Just like that, her future came into focus.
Months later, the 18-year-old was enrolled in the International Culinary Center in New York City and, eventually, working at Milk Bar. It was 2009, and Christina Tosi’s sweet shop was barely a year old, still in its original location on East 13th Street. Kanan brought her resume in three times. On the third attempt, she handed it directly to Tosi. “She sent in her resume, she showed up for her interview, and that, for me, that was loyalty and consistency, compared to others,” the company’s founder and owner says. “And so I didn’t give her a kitchen job. I made her work at front of house first. Because I was willing to take a risk on anyone that’ll do the first pages of the work.”
Kanan was on duty from 7 p.m. to midnight or 1 a.m., bussing tables and cleaning up after customers. One day, the team was short-handed and there was Kanan, ready to step in, just like she’d done at Gravitas. And that, Tosi says, is how she “got her foot in the door of the kitchen.” Tosi recalls how Kanan made a concerted effort to befriend staffers across the organization, to ask questions, and to volunteer for work that expanded the company’s revenue streams: She was instrumental in figuring out how to ship products across the country and helped set up Milk Bar’s weddings department. At the same time, “she would always come up with either brilliant flavor combinations that she’d work on just for fun, snacky R&D stuff, or she decorated cake in a beautiful way that none of us had ever thought of,” Tosi remembers. “She was pushing one side of her brain she wasn’t comfortable with, but also not giving the other, creative side of her brain a break.”
From Tosi, among other invaluable skills, Kanan learned how to carry herself professionally. “Christina was teaching this very specific lesson of how to be better than the men in the kitchen,” Kanan says. Tosi proved a role model in other ways: In her ability to be creative about problem solving, she drove home the point that there is always a solution, and with her “unattainable” work ethic, she set the highest possible standard for her staff.
If Tosi taught her problem solving, Weller taught her technique. Trained as a chemical engineer before she switched over to pastry and baking, Weller, who is currently at High Street on Hudson in Greenwich Village, is known for her precision in how she develops and executes her recipes. “She explained them into science in an exacting way,” Kanan says. “There’s barely even any room to make mistakes because it’s been so carefully crafted.” It was an education in how to write a recipe, and to be able to manipulate it to “do the exact thing that I wanted it to do,” she says. Kanan compares the effect to learning how to read music.
Her greatest strength — and maybe the least obvious one — lies in her scrupulous selection of places to work and people to work for, and, once hired, her habit of optimizing the opportunities those choices afford her. In Milk Bar, she saw a brand on the rise and its visionary founder, a pastry chef on her way to becoming a Martha Stewart for millennials. In Weller, Kanan had access to all that chemistry and to a self-motivated autodidact who could build a bread program for Roberta’s, then pivot to bagels. Those bagels were good enough to lure the partners behind a “major” restaurant group to build a venue around them; access to Weller was also access to another fast-growing company with the spotlight trained on it. In both of those situations, Kanan took on more responsibility than assigned, pushing the limits of her job description and her own skill set.
Most of all, her trajectory has been a lesson in the significance of having mentors in your corner. It was Weller who recommended her protege to run the baking department at Vaucluse, the Alta Marea Group’s French restaurant on the Upper East Side. When Kanan got the job, it was also Weller who gave her a crash course in lamination and leavening and answered all her questions each time she was faced with a new hurdle. And when Tosi heard that restaurateur Gabriel Stulman, founder of Happy Cooking Hospitality, needed someone to oversee the pastry program at his new project—the food and beverage venues at the soon-to-open Freehand — she gave him Kanan’s name.
Once again, Kanan saw a thriving business with a recognized brand and focused leader; she saw a new, blockbuster project that had pre-opening buzz, and a corresponding budget for things like PR, and a pastry department. By now, she was clear on the direction she wanted her career to go — baking, not pastry. She took the interview with Stulman anyway and, when the two met, announced that she had no interest in the job on the table. Her passion for baking moved him, and he suggested Kanan do a tasting for him. “She brought challah, babka, and croissants; she brought all this amazing stuff, and it was magical,” he recalls. “Her food speaks for itself.”
And that was how Zoë Kanan applied for a job that didn’t exist and was designed for her. She’d convinced Stulman he needed a baker and a showcase for her baked goods. Evyn Block, whom Stulman hired to shore up the publicity and marketing for the Freehand’s culinary offerings, immediately recognized that the young baker was a “clear asset,” while also assuming the baking program wasn’t going to be the main attraction of the hotel’s food and drink agenda, or, accordingly, of the launch. But then she sampled — and photographed — the Turkish samit bread and the brownie-dense chocolate morning bun and changed her mind.
Kanan’s flaky, tender-crumbed output quickly drummed up local food media buzz and began turning up on social media feeds. In his review of Simon & the Whale, New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells praised Kanan’s contributions, including her breads at the restaurant and her work at the Studio cafe upstairs.
Since then, Kanan has taken over pastry duties, ironically accepting that job she initially refused. “Rarely will you find someone so young but so committed to elevating the art of baking,” Charmaine McFarlane, the opening pastry chef at the Freehand, says. “She’s certainly a force to be reckoned with in the business, and it’s rewarding, reassuring indeed, to see a woman prove that investing in bakers and pastry chefs is money and time well spent.” In Stulman, Kanan has that rare support; he is standing by to help her take baking wherever she wants to, together, or on her own.
She doesn’t know where she’ll take it — yet. There’s been some scuttlebutt about her ongoing experiments to build a better croissant, involving an inversion of the entrenched, classic technique. But she’s also been messing around with a Texas tradition (via the Czech Republic), the kolache, and meddling with doughnuts.
Weller hypothesizes Kanan will end up branching out into savory cooking. “She’ll do whatever the hell she wants to do, whether the world is ready for it or not,” Tosi says. “She will make the world ready for it.” And that, the Milk Bar founder added, is “the infinite possibility and wonder of it, because she’s so young.”
Charlotte Druckman is a Manhattan-based journalist. Her unconventional anthology Women on Food (Abrams) arrives on October 29, and her second cookbook, Kitchen Remix (Clarkson Potter), in April 2020.
Matt Taylor-Gross is a photographer in New York City.