We'll confess: When we think of Panera, we think broccoli cheddar soup in fluffy bread bowls…not wild Alaskan salmon or pasta dishes copped from an Italian mom's recipe book. But that's exactly what Dan Kish, head chef for the St. Louis-based chain, spends his time researching. Kish travels about 40 weeks a year to taste new things for Panera, so we caught up with him to find out what it's like to travel (and eat) that frequently. And for what it's worth: Yes, he does eat at Panera, even when he's off-the-clock.
Pasta is one of the newer menu items, but it seems a little out-of-the-box for a soup-and-sandwich sandwich café. Were you inspired on a trip?
I'm a Euro freak—I love to go to Europe. The pasta inspiration [for Panera's menus] partly came from an equipment trip I was on—you look for one thing and you find another. We were developing with Electrolux out of Italy, and in the midst of the trip you eat a lot of great food. I discovered some pastas in Nothern Italy that I wasn't aware of, and it was really sort of magic when I met the gentleman who owns the [pasta] company. We sort of clicked, and we cooked a bit together, and we thought, 'what if Panera sold pasta?'. Now, he and his brother and his mother own the company that makes the pasta for us [at Panera].
You're also adding wild-caught Alaskan salmon on the menu. What was that trip like?
I went over the summer—I went to the mid-point of the Aleutian Islands, almost halfway to Tokyo. You want to talk about being in the middle of nowhere, that was a crazy trip. We've been featuring chilled, grilled, farm-raised Norwegian salmon for the last couple of New Year celebrations that we do. But I ran into someone who's part of the sustainable seafood industry out of Alaska, and he connected me with some folks, and we put a trip together, and we got into some puddle-jumper planes and went way, way out there.
These places—no one lives there because it's harsh. The weather turns on a dime. At one point you're landing on a beach because it looks like blue sky, but in a minute it turns black. In doing that, you saw how the fish is handled, and the industry it's in. I'm not bashing anyone, but when you have to do all of your work inside of eight weeks, you don't necessarily attract the best most skilled laborers in the world—the handling practices weren't that great. You have the most pristine raw material coming out of the water, but at the other end it's pretty beat up. We had to really think hard about what we wanted to do. So we found a partner who will do something a little bit differently for us; they'll send it fresh to Seattle to cut it differently. We're testing it in 150 stores this January.
How do you find great local cuisine when you're visiting a new place?
Always bring a local—even if you don't know one. When I'm traveling, I find that food is a very common language for people—especially if you come from the cooking side. I try to make a connection in that local village, if I don't already have one. Ask, 'where do you take your family to eat?' And they're not always the prettiest places, but I've never been steered wrong. Once I ended up in a little village outside of Mexico City, drinking homemade mescal. The women in the household were sending out these little tasty snacks, almost tapas-style. You could never plan that.
How did you end up there?
I just fell into it by asking someone 'where did you take your family to eat?" His son was with him, and his English was pretty good. He said, 'we don't have a lot of money, so we don't go to restaurants. But would you like to eat at our house?' And one thing led to another, and he tells his wife that he's going to feed this stranger. Four hours later, we were best friends.
We have to ask: Do you eat at Panera when you travel?
I end up in a lot of Panera cafes, because at least I know what I'm going to get.
Do employees recognize you?
Ninety-nine percent of the time I do not introduce myself until the end. I don't want special treatment. I really want what any customer would get. Last spring we did some sort of a promotion, and there was this lifelike poster of me in the cafe. I started getting photos of friends posing next to it around the country. Even when that banner was up, I must have been in 50 different stores or cafes, and no one recognized me. No one.
Another time, I was with my family, and I sort of saw the telltale whispers in the back corner. And everyone got really nervous. I think their nervousness caused them to make a mistake, and they forgot something for my son. And we turned around, and this one girl pointed at the other one and said 'She did it!" I said, 'I'm not here to yell at anybody, I'm just here to get the breakfast sandwich and go.'
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