There are the dream jobs we know we don’t have. And then there are the dream jobs we never imagined—like Tom Gumpel’s. Director of culinary innovation for Panera Bread Company, Sarasota-based Gumpel serial-tastes his way around the country to come up with ideas for the chain’s next great menu items. The former dean of the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park, Gumpel is a keen observer of consumer behavior as well as a master baker who often tests recipes with his wife and teen-aged daughter in their Laurel Park home. “Wherever flour flies, you’ll find me,” he says.
What makes a great baked dessert?
Great ingredients—the best you can afford. Use European butter; it has higher fat and less water. Good-quality unbleached, unbromated flour. Fruit should be local—even better, organic.
You’re on the road every week. Why?
Ideas are not at home. Ideas are on the road. I look at everything from the food to how things are cut and shaped and presented. Last week I took a tour of 10 bakeries in Boston. The next day I was in the lab working on formulas. Every day is different.
What are you excited about right now?
My new favorite pastry is kouign-amann. It’s from Brittany, France. I went there to learn to make it. You use laminated dough, like a croissant, and fold unsalted butter into it, then roll it in sugar for a caramel-crispy crust. It’s heavenly—simple and just beautiful.
Top trends you’re seeing?
Clean food—no artificial colors, flavorings or preservatives. And familiar done fantastic—not regular chocolate chip cookies, but over-the-top lustfully indulgent chocolate chip cookies. Not your grandmother’s oatmeal cookie but one with three different kinds of dried fruit. Old-fashioned, regional cakes—not so much red velvet anymore, but coconut cake, lemon-butter cake. And mashing different things up—like a brookie, which is half brownie dough and half cookie dough. Also, savory scones—we’ll be debuting those soon.