In honor of National Bread Month, Panera Bread recently invited us to pull an all-nighter with its kitchen staff to check out their nightly bread-baking routine. Panera manager Tanell Cook begins his shift at 10 p.m. every weeknight, supervising cooks, prepping food for the morning rush and brewing espressos to get him through the night, wrapping things up at about 6 a.m. Over the span of one evening hundreds of ciabatta, focaccia and sandwich rolls will rise, along with dozens of cheese souffles and other calorie-packed goodies. "I put on some serious weight when I started working here," confessed Cook, an employee of the Marina del Rey location for five years. "It's bad, but it's so good," he admits, referring to the warm, flaky chocolate croissants he sneaks out of the oven almost every night.
The warm kitchen might get toasty throughout the night. The freezer, at negative 14 degrees, does not: there employees bundle up to store the frozen dough for the next round of baking.
Though the staff can't veer from Panera's signature recipes, cook James Allen doesn't mind the routine. The sourdough loaves are the most time consuming to bake, he explains. After fermenting at room temperature, they must go into the proofer for two hours before they can enter the oven; the first batch of loaves wasn't ready to sample until about 3 a.m.
Cook, who shared his knowledge on the history of bread and art of baking, graduated from the California School of Culinary Arts and continued on to work in the kitchens of Amandine Cafe, Ritz Carlton Hotel in Marina del Rey and Joe's restaurant in Venice. When contemplating whether to work at the nation-wide restaurant chain, he knew it would be a big change from a ritzy hotel or intimate family-run kitchen, but once he spotted the huge miches of dough and wide variety of baked goods at Panera he felt right at home.