Thomas John: Master of Mass Appeal

by Laura Curtis
April 2011

Although he’ll deny his job deserves such a qualifier, Executive Chef Thomas John’s career—every day, he satisfies the appetites of thousands of customers from St. Louis to Saudi Arabia —is cool. If you’d like advice on how to become executive chef of your own 250-unit-and-growing fast-casual chain, Thomas John cannot help you. He never auditioned for the part. John’s cooking caught the attention of Au Bon Pain’s CEO who frequented his fine-dining Boston restaurant, Mantra. John had already worked in the top hotels in India, earned a spot in Food & Wine Magazine’s Best New Chefs of 2002, and been named a 2002 Boston Rising Star Chef. Now, six years after transitioning from fine dining to fast casual, John offers his broad perspective on culinary careers—both his own and yours.

Laura Curtis: What were your original career goals, and when did you know that you wanted to be a chef?

Thomas John: My original career goal involved medical research, but I got interested in the hotel and restaurant management field, so I went to school for that. I really fell in love with cooking and cuisine. I joined the Oberoi culinary school, which was and still is the best in India, and that laid the groundwork for me to become a chef.

I had no plans to move from India. At that time the culinary and hotel fields were really growing there. I became executive chef at the Raddison in Delhi then moved to the executive chef position at the Meridian in Puni. Each job involved managing three to four restaurants. An opportunity arose in Boston, so I moved and ended up opening Mantra.

LC: What was the interview process like for executive chef of Au Bon Pain (ABP)? What clenched the position for you?

TJ: It wasn’t the usual interviewing process. The CEO of ABP used to come and eat at [Mantra]. I was creating global international cuisine there. The flavors that made Mantra successful were something that the executives at ABP thought they could use. They started out by offering small assignments then invited me to join full time.

LC: How does developing a recipe at ABP compare to developing recipes at Mantra?

TJ: It’s a different format from what I was doing in fine dining, but at the end of the day you express a certain philosophy and certain skills in your food whether it’s on white, high-end china or on a paper plate. I’m still conscious about keeping food healthy and having exciting flavor combinations. The canvas is just different.

LC: What have been some of the challenges in moving from high-end dining to a fast-casual restaurant?

TJ: I don’t know that I was prepared for being the chef of a multi-unit company, but it was a challenge I was looking forward to. I learned quickly, made some mistakes, and made it through. At a large company you always have so much support. It wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be.

One specific challenge has been the absence of instant feedback from the guest. I can’t see guests’ expressions or talk to them after a meal. Another constant challenge is making sure that the employees in the company are well trained. It is so very important to get everyone to believe in and be as passionate about food as you are.

LC: What is the most satisfying aspect of your job?

TJ: I enjoy the innovation of my job. A highlight is to see my passion for flavors translated into a new soup, salad, or sandwich.

LC: How do you spend most of your time as executive chef of ABP?

TJ: The way the food comes out is my responsibility. I have a test kitchen where I work on new products and flavor profiles. My work involves a lot of collaboration with our vendors. A lot of time goes into organizing functions and making sure that everybody is on the same page.

LC: What are you most proud of accomplishing at ABP?

TJ: I’ve worked on developing a better flow in the café. We are currently remodeling some of our stores by putting in new menu boards and installing iPads for ordering. There are a lot of changes coming in the next months that I’m proud of. I have done my best to make it easy for people to navigate the café in a short time by communicating new dishes and products. It takes a lot of coordination.

LC: ABP has expanded rapidly in the Middle East and Asia. Does the menu change in different countries?

TJ: There’s always a balance. We maintain core menu items, while 20 to 50 percent of the menu may be localized. We believe our food should be meaningful to people, and what’s meaningful to people in the United States is different from what’s meaningful to people in other countries. The main criteria remains: If you see ABP in an airport, train station, or downtown you should be confident that you’ll have good options, both healthy and indulgent.

LC: Are you surprised by which Au Bon Pain menu items are popular abroad?

TJ: Yes. Learning to read different cultures, understanding how they eat and what they will like, is like culinary anthropology. In the U.S. market, salads are an important part of the lunch menu, along with soups. That’s not the case in the Middle East or India where soup and salads are considered a side dish to the meal. We’ve had to develop smaller sized soups and salads to fit into that style of eating. Also, in India the flavors are bolder and more assertive than they are in the United States.

LC: You have participated in round-table meetings with the Harvard School of Public Health and been involved in teaching. Do you still participate in community and educational forums?

TJ: I take part in initiatives at Greystone and Harvard. One of the initiatives of the Harvard School of Public health is to control the obesity epidemic. A lot of chefs, including the chefs of McDonalds, Uno’s, and myself, get together in these consortiums to find out how to deliver food that is healthy and tasty. We are a big part of the initiative because there are so many people coming through our cafés.

LC: What advice would you give to young chefs just starting in their careers?

TJ: Before a chef thinks of opening a business of their own, they should spend time working at a chain restaurant. The larger companies have cost control, pricing, and research down to a science. The basic skill of a chef is understanding flavors, but it’s very valuable for chefs to learn business essentials before they start their own project.