For Joanna Gaines, Home Is the Heart of a Food and Design Empire

The first Chip Gaines heard of avocado toast was in 2017.

He and his spouse, Joanna, have been about to open a 200-seat restaurant in downtown Waco, Texas, the place their dwelling design and development enterprise relies. The household pancake recipe was locked in, and the biscuits and gravy have been good to go by the time Mrs. Gaines talked about including a vegan choice to the breakfast menu.

“That’s disgusting, babe,” Mr. Gaines informed her, shaking his head. “No one wants avocado on their toast.”

She persevered. She additionally instructed a juice bar.

“I don’t like any juices,” he mentioned, unhappily sampling some trial smoothies. “I like bacon.”

That’s the aesthetic at the couple’s own home, a Victorian farmhouse set on 40 acres of land outside Waco that makes frequent appearances on the show. They live there with their five children, ages 1 to 15.

Part of the appeal of “Fixer Upper,” which drew more than 16 million viewers a week in its final season in 2018, is seeing that spark of tension play out in their marriage. In the tradition of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo and Homer and Marge Simpson, there’s one impulsive, enthusiastic risk-taker (Chip, 45) and one sensible, occasionally exasperated realist (Joanna, 42). And it takes both kinds to transform a business into an empire.

Mrs. Gaines has said that she started as a kind of “gofer” for her husband’s real estate business, Magnolia Homes. (He started flipping houses in Waco soon after graduating from Baylor University.) At first, she trawled antique markets and yard sales to decorate the houses that he was renovating; then taught herself digital design so they could completely rebuild older houses with the modern, bright interiors she favored.

Although their work seems to divide evenly, along conventional gender lines, it’s clear that her taste and vision (not to mention her snappy confidence and great hair) are the main drivers of the brand and its legions of female fans.

“They are a couple who respect tradition and one another, and aren’t afraid to show their Christian faith,” said Lindy Baker, a teacher who lives outside Kansas City, Mo. “She is proud of being a wife and mother, and you don’t always see that on the cooking shows.”

In a Zoom interview from home last month, Mrs. Gaines sounded like many parents who are currently working while attempting to be full-time educators, cheerleaders and cooks: frazzled.

“I had to get off social media for a while, so I made a full Texas dinner,” she said — chicken-fried steak, mashed potatoes and zucchini casserole. “It took three hours to make and it was gone in 10 minutes.”

Mrs. Gaines didn’t build her reputation on her home cooking, and when “Fixer Upper” premiered in 2013, she looked like no one’s idea of a Southern design queen, with her Birkenstock sandals, wardrobe of jeans and T-shirts and charcoal-gray manicure.

Ree Drummond, the Food Network’s “Pioneer Woman,” has some of the same fan base as Mrs. Gaines. Both women — Ms. Drummond in Pawhuska, Okla., and Mrs. Gaines in Waco — started out as “mommy bloggers,” and both used media skills acquired in college to stand out from the pack. Just as Ms. Drummond has made Pawhuska a destination with food and retail businesses, the Gaineses have done so on a much larger scale in Waco, where they have lived since graduating from Baylor University.

Mrs. Gaines’ parents met in South Korea in 1969, when her father, Jerry, was serving in the United States Army. They married in Las Vegas in 1972 (to the displeasure of both families, she said), and settled in Wichita, Kan., where Mrs. Gaines spent most of her childhood.

There, she said, the teasing about her looks began; she was the only Asian-American child at most of the schools she attended. The family moved seven times for her father’s job with the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company; by the time Mrs. Gaines landed at Round Rock High School, outside Austin, she had developed such a phobia of school cafeterias that she was unable to eat in one.

“I barely knew what Korean food was,” she said. “But kids assumed that my food was different because I looked different.” (There is a happy ending to the high-school story: She moved to Waco in her junior year and wound up as homecoming queen.)

“The biggest fight I ever saw my parents have was about kimchi,” she said. (Her father wanted to move the pungently fermenting vegetables to the garage. Eventually, a second refrigerator was installed there.)

Still, what Mrs. Gaines really wanted to cook as a child was the cookies her friends’ mothers baked, and the fluffy pancakes served at Southern breakfast cafes — the kind of food her husband grew up on in Colleyville, near Dallas. You can sense that yearning to make those foods her own in her cookbooks, from the details in the recipes she worked on perfecting, like chocolate chip cookies and buttermilk biscuits. (Her personal, and extremely popular, formula for biscuits includes eggs and an overnight rising.)

There is not much that is aspirational about the food in her books, but much that is inspirational, especially in the photographs of Mrs. Gaines herself, of the children doing wholesome farm activities in muddy boots, of her cottage garden and white-tiled open kitchen. (In the “Fixer Upper” universe, and at their home, the kitchen is the domain of the lady of the house.)

Homely dishes like hash-brown casserole and peanut-butter brownies are presented against pure white and linen backdrops; some dishes are spilling over, or slightly over- or undercooked.

“It all looks very natural, like she does,” Ms. Fife, the superfan, said. “I think people relate because her food is not pretentious, it’s not for the elites, it just brings people together.”

Both of Mrs. Gaines’s cookbooks are subtitled “A Collection of Recipes for Gathering,” and giant dining tables, open floor plans and family meals are a big part of the Magnolia brand.

Without the possibility of actual gatherings at the moment, she said, she is focusing on cooking from scratch and trying to enjoy the freedom to cook for hours instead of rushing to get dinner on the table after work.

It’s a good thing she has five children, she said. “It means we can still have a big family dinner, even under quarantine.”

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