Tastemakers is a series dedicated to major restaurant chains' executive chefs and other under-recognized experts who shape how America eats, dishing on what they're cooking, food trends and more.
Katherine See may no longer be working the line in the kitchens of some of Boston's most famous restaurants but that doesn't mean she isn't still dedicated to a hands-on approach to food.
As Au Bon Pain's executive chef, See isn't far removed from each of chain's 310 locations. With more than 30 locations of the Boston-based chain within 50 miles of headquarters -- from airport kiosks to sprawling cafes -- See is constantly on the ground at restaurants. And, even when the restaurant isn't in the area, See is there as well.
"I feel particular ownership for the food," says See, who started work at Au Bon Pain in January. "When we had… new items that were going in at Rush Medical [in Chicago], I was not only in contact with the designer of our kitchens, but I was there. I was there when we rolled it out, working with the people, training them."
See may have an eagle's eye view of Au Bon Pain's menu development, as she guides direction, research, testing and roll out (she is in constant communication with the company's head of operations), but she also stays connected with employees working on the ground. By the time See left Chicago, having walked the employees through the new menu items, she says she knew they were just as excited as she was.
"She's not just a trained chef, she's worked a lot [in the restaurant industry]," says Maria Feicht, Au Bon Pain's chief brand officer. "Our folks know she's done it, and she goes in and does it with them."
See has worked in the food industry for more than 15 years, as director of culinary operations and executive chef at celebrity chef Todd English's small restaurant empire and director of product development at seafood company Slade Gorton & Go. Now, at Au Bon Pain, she uses these experiences to craft food that is fresh, healthy and can be served at the chain's locations in the U.S., Thailand and India.
"It's very similar to independent restaurant life, that speed that we get things done," says See. "It's not just [menu development] -- multiple departments are moving that fast."
Working with Au Bon Pain has also given See the chance to craft a menu geared towards specific subsets of customers. The chain has made a name for itself as a restaurant that can fill a need in unconventional markets. In addition to locations in office buildings, universities, airports and museums, the chain is the largest branded concept in hospitals.
Not too long ago, McDonald's was the biggest branded concept in hospitals – something that became controversial and unpopular with patients and doctors as the chain came under fire due to some of its high-calorie options. Au Bon Pain opened its first location in a hospital more than 25 years ago. Since then, it has patiently built relationships in the healthcare industry over the years that has allowed it to fill the gap left by fast-food chains pushed out of healthcare locations.
This connection with hospitals helped Au Bon Pain and See focus efforts on crafting a menu filled with healthy and quality choices. Last November, nutrition-focused website Grellin ranked the chain first out of 100 national restaurant chains based on Au Bon's Pain's health-conscious menu. As See is constantly inventing new menu items and revamping recipes, nutrition is never far from her mind.
"We provided this balanced, sort of fresh menu that gives guests a choice," says Feicht. "We want to eat healthy, but that being said, we all deserve a treat every now and then."