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Au Bon Pain's Thomas John left the Mantra kitchen to spice things up at the bakery-cafe

With the help of Boston chefs, two restaurant chains are reinvigorating their menus in an attempt to catch customers from sunup to sundown

The cranberry chutney is in the spotlight. The ciabatta, made of organic flour and sea salt imported from France, is just fine, and the turkey top-notch. The testers -- senior food and beverage managers and workers at Au Bon Pain headquarters in South Boston -- agree on this. But the chutney needs tweaking.

Thomas John, the executive chef, who came on board a little more than a year ago, has changed the tangy cranberry mixture, along with most of the other sandwiches and salads sold by the bakery-cafe chain. He watches carefully as eight men and women in a cramped kitchen take bites. ''I think you got it, Thomas," says Susan Morelli, ABP president. Nods all around as the others praise the chutney's balance of sweetness and tang, as well as its consistency, thick enough not to splatter out of the sandwich onto a diner's tie.

It's a typical Friday tasting, reviewing the work of John, who previously spent his career in five-star hotel dining rooms in India before coming to Boston to become chef of Mantra in 2001. Acclaimed locally, John, who is from the southern state of Kerala, also was named a best new chef in 2002 by Food & Wine magazine. A smiling and calm presence, the chef is thinking about the big picture as he slices croissants imported from France, dresses a spinach salad with balsamic-maple vinaigrette and candied pecans, and points out pickled cucumbers in a satay chicken sandwich dressed with a peanut sauce. ''The challenge," he says, ''is to get from this stage to 200 stores."

Hiring a chef from the world of fine dining to re-create quick, cheap fare might sound like a risky proposition. Au Bon Pain, which was founded as a bread and sandwich company in 1978 in Faneuil Hall Marketplace, was sold in 2000 to Compass, a London-based company that upgraded the brand, says Morelli. Last summer, ABP management bought back a majority share of the company. To Morelli, who with several others in the room is an owner, hiring John makes perfect sense. ''I think there's evidence people will pay for quality," she says, pointing to the popularity of Starbucks coffee, despite its relatively high price.

ABP management was ready to take the next step to upgrade its food, hiring someone who could create new products beyond simple tuna fish sandwiches. ''They were waiting for someone like me to come along," says John.

Under John, a full breakfast line has been added, along with warm baked sandwiches, new pastries such as a savory jalapeno corn muffin, and a variety of salads. The pipeline from John's kitchen, with his crew of two, to one of the retail shops can be long, with occasional slips. Sandwiches might be offered in half a dozen cafes for several months to gauge customer reaction. At the same time, other products, like a more elaborate baked sandwich or a salad, might be tested at several locations to see if the staff can handle the cooking and assembly. A chef goes to the cafes to train staff. Sometimes, John and the others admit, things don't work out. Vietnamese wraps ''were terrific," says Jim Fisher, senior vice president of marketing and another of the owners. But the assembly was too complicated for the staff members to make consistently, John says. The idea died.

And the pace can be demanding. The full breakfast line just rolled out, with scrambled eggs in whole wheat wraps, French toast, and other items. After that, ''we have to give them a breather," says John.

Developing food for this ''quick service" establishment is very different than doing so for a restaurant, says the 40-year-old chef, who is used to creating what he likes each day in the morning and presenting it on a menu that night, hopefully to the adulation of the diners. At Au Bon Pain, John can come up with an idea that doesn't get to the retail level for months. In addition, he must give diners what they want. ''In a chain restaurant, you really have to understand your customer," he says. ''A mistake would cost a lot."

Still, he tries to push the boundaries. ''I work with flavors a lot; that has been my forte." His subtle spicing and splicing of Indian and French cuisines intrigued diners at Mantra during his three-year tenure; he left to join ABP. The payoff is in the staggering volume. Six new sandwiches John created are among the top 10 sellers in the chain. ''You're looking at 20,000 sandwiches," he says.

Working as a corporate chef has other advantages: regular (if long) hours and free weekends. In all the years he spent in restaurants, John always worked six days a week. Now, he says, ''I get to see the kids grow up." He and his wife, Mary, and their children, Hannah, 12, and Johan, 9, live in Newton. The job also requires discipline; in his role he monitors costs, food sources, and sales; restaurant kitchens are sometimes run like hobbies instead of businesses, he says.

ABP's newest ventures are suburban cafes that stretch their hours from breakfast to supper. Several cafes are open in the Boston area, but ABP is reworking the concept. A just-opened New Jersey cafe with more seats and an expanded menu is closer to what ABP wants, Morelli says, and may be the model of ones planned for the Boston area within the next year. At the end of the day, customers might find John's new ''supper pies," made with barbecued pulled pork or roasted vegetables inside a flaky crust. They'll be served warm on real tableware. Au Bon Pain, which is concentrated on the East Coast in urban areas, at universities, in hospitals, and at shopping centers, also has cafes in Thailand, Taiwan, South Korea, and some locations in Chicago and other US cities.

As the tasters move from the discussion of chutney to a baked chicken sandwich with caramelized onions and gouda, it's apparent there's more work ahead. Sauteed red bell peppers, which John added for color, don't pass muster. ''Too many competing flavors," says one taster.

It's back to the drawing board.

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