Ready, set, bake! No, it’s not The Great British Baking Show, but a brand-new show from the Magnolia Network centered on Zoë Francois, the author of several cookbooks and an Instagram account on the how-tos of baking. Her new show, Zoë Bakes, will teach the techniques that bakers – especially novices — need to know to achieve beautiful and delicious delicacies at home.
Francois was “discovered” by Andrew Zimmern, who hired her for her first job out of culinary school to make desserts for his restaurant when she was looking for a gig in Minneapolis, which is her home and also where Zoë Bakes is filmed. It was also through Zimmern that she was introduced to Chip and Joanna Gaines as a possible new face for their Magnolia Network.
“It was the only platform that I was super excited about because I just love that they had a similar sense of wanting to share their passion and their intensity for their craft and teach in a way I hadn’t really seen people doing before and also communicate the joy of it,” Francois tells Monsters & Critics in this exclusive interview. “So, there is that balance. You can tell just how intense they are about their work but they’re also super playful and joyful with it.”
Several of the recipes demonstrated on Zoë Bakes will be taken from her most recent cookbook Zoë Bakes Cakes, but she will also be crafting desserts and other sweets employing local Minneapolis ingredients as they come into season.
“Whatever I’m craving, whatever sounds delicious to me, some of my family’s favorites, some of my friend’s favorites, I really just pulled from my own history and from things that I know people are loving from what I found on Instagram,” Francois says in response to being asked what she will be demonstrating on Zoë Bakes.
And it will also be a family affair with Francois’ sons, Charlie and Henry, in the kitchen with mom, as well as several of her neighbors, including one who keeps chickens in her backyard and supplies Francois with fresh eggs.
“It’s been so much fun to have both boys in the kitchen with me and also on the show, which has been hilarious,” Francois says. “They weren’t behaving any differently in front of the camera than they do just in life.”
Monsters & Critics: What will the TV show Zoë Bakes have that your Instagram videos don’t?
Zoë Francois: I would say one of the biggest things that’s different about the show is that I take people into my community. Instagram is really about my craft and teaching people how to bake and sharing my love of pastry, but the show goes beyond that. It’s introducing people to Minneapolis in a way that I don’t think anybody knows. We’re really a food community. We were born as one because of all the milling stuff that happened here, and so it’s super fun for me to introduce people to my baking community, to the growers, to the farmers — everybody that makes this food town what it is and that’s really different. I’m super excited about that.
M&C: How much does the fact that the show is done out of Minneapolis factor into your creations? My parents were from Ohio, so I am very aware that the Midwest has its own flavor. How does this differ from a show that films in New York or Los Angeles?
Zoë Francois: Maybe I’m wrong, but I think that those stories have been told often. The story of New York is massive, and it’s been done. There’s such a concentration of food that’s happening on the coasts and I don’t know if people understand that so much of their food actually comes from the Midwest. We are a wheat-producing part of the world. We send not only all over the country but all over the world. So, I don’t know that people necessarily understand exactly where their food is made, and so it’s a great story in terms of communicating that it doesn’t just come from the grocery stores. Somebody grows it, somebody mills it, and makes it, and produces it, so there’s that aspect of it.
Then there’s also artisans that are working with the produce and the wheat and what they’re making out of it. Minnesota has a really long history of Scandinavian and German baking. Those cultures are really woven into the fabric of this place. I moved here from New England. I don’t know that I’d ever been in a church basement watching people bake before I got here. It’s a thing. It’s a real part of this community, people coming together and baking together. And even though most of the bakers I know aren’t doing it in church basements, although some of them are, that feeling, that sense of community, that sense of purpose in their food is still really, really strong. It’s a very generous group of people. I think it stems from the community coming together and baking together.
M&C: I noticed that Andrew Zimmern is a producer on your show. He gave you your first job out of culinary school and he actually explained to you how to make your own brand.
Zoë Francois: I was at the Culinary Institute of America in New York and looking for a job here in Minneapolis. One of my professors there introduced me to Andrew. He knew that he was looking for people, so I took the job over the phone having never met him. He’s an intense human being. He’s intense about his food. He’s passionate about his work. That came across a little bit over the phone, but when I got into a room with him, I was like, “What have I just signed up for?”
This man is incredible, and it was a journey and an education in food, but like you suggested, it was also amazing to watch him as a businessperson, because that’s not a class that they had. At least back when I was in culinary school that wasn’t something that they taught you. They taught you the craft, they taught you the art, but they didn’t teach you necessarily how to make a living at this art and artists aren’t always that great at it. Andrew is masterful, so just watching him create the world and create the career he wanted was really inspiring to me.
And because he has a production company, he actually said to me about 20 years ago that I’d be doing this, and I thought he was crazy. I had my boys and did my life and carried on with my thing, and lo and behold, he was right. What I discovered is that I love to teach, and he gave me an opportunity to share that on a much bigger scale than I had been.
M&C: There’s an episode where your boys are making lemonade. Will we see more of them and how handy are they in the kitchen?
Zoë Francois: Yes, you’ll see more of them. The little one Charlie — he’s not little anymore. He’s 6-feet tall. When he was little, he would bake with me all the time and, in fact, he had his own little baking company. When he was 12, during the summer, he would wake up and bake and people would come to the back door and pick up their orders. So, he’s always been a baker. He’s always been super curious about it and right there with me.
Henry was not interested in the least. He could care less about creating food really until the show and COVID because he was in the house and he all of a sudden wanted to learn all the things. I finally won. He was a hard nut to crack and finally, he wanted to be in there.
M&C: Your most recent cookbook Zoë Bakes Cakes has like 100 recipes. How did you decide which recipes to put in there? How many times do you have to test them to make sure people will be able to follow the recipe?
Zoë Francois: I really wanted to make a book that taught technique throughout the book. So, it starts with some easier recipes, like one-bowl recipes and simple techniques, and it progressively goes through all the different techniques that you would learn in culinary school but in a friendly, guided way.
That was one of my goals. By the end of the book, you can build a wedding cake. And, in fact, that’s the last recipe in the book. But you can start out with something simple.
As for testing them, some I would rock it out on the first try, and others it takes me a dozen or more times. I feel like the concept is so worthy of the effort that I have to keep trying, so it just depends. For me, I have done enough cookbooks that I know that if I don’t test it to the point where I can do it and then I send it to my mom and she can do it, she’s not at all a baker, so she’s my final test that everybody can replicate the recipe because I want people to have success. Baking is a craft, and you have to practice it. But I really want people to feel inspired and encouraged.
M&C: My mom had a degree in home economics, and she taught me how to sift flour and measure, but back then we used measuring cups. When did this whole thing with weighing flour, sugar and dry goods become a thing?
Zoë Francois: First of all, I have to say that if it weren’t for home economics that I don’t know that I would have made it through school. That was my salvation. I loved it so much. So much of it was what planted the seed for everything that I’ve done.
It was the Europeans that got us started with scales. Industry people used them forever because it’s consistent and you get a consistent product every time. But Europeans have always used metrics. We tried in the ‘70s. I remember them trying for like half an hour to get us to switch to the metric system. and then they were, “Forget it.”
Now as recipe developers, I take what I learned from culinary school and the industry, but also I have to write my recipes for the European market as well, and so automatically, I was doing it in grams. It really makes baking more consistent, so I love my scale.
M&C: How much do you eat? Look how skinny you are for someone who is all about sugar.
Zoë Francois: I eat it all. I taste it all, which is why I got into this because I love sweets. It does help to have two 6-foot tall boys in the house and their friends and my neighbors. So that’s where all the successful recipes go. If I have failures, if I’m testing a recipe and it doesn’t quite make it, and I’m not crazy about people eating it, my neighbor has chickens. So, the chickens get the failures and then I get the eggs. Perfect circle.
M&C: I’ve been watching The Great British Baking Show. Do you have favorite baking shows?
Zoë Francois: I have to say of all the cooking competition shows, I love that one the most because it feels even the criticism is generous. Everybody is helping everybody, and it’s like this community. Even though they’re competing against each other, there’s still this generosity of spirit, and all the beautiful things, and the fact that they’re really teaching people a new vocabulary of baking. I get these questions on Instagram that I just never would have heard before if it weren’t for that show because they’re really teaching people the different techniques and the different types of pastries, so I’m with you. I love that show.
Zoë Bakes begins streaming on the Magnolia Network’s app on July 30.