Kitchen Confidential

A Morning Making Bread at Focaccia Sandwich + Bakery Brought Me Back to My Restaurant Roots

It had been years since I worked an early shift in a restaurant kitchen, but when the owners of the new Focaccia Sandwich + Bakery offered me a morning of baking, I couldn't resist.

By Lauren Jackson February 2, 2024

The signature focaccia loaf that I made at Focaccia Sandwich + Bakery.

The signature focaccia loaf that I made at Focaccia Sandwich + Bakery.

It’s 4 a.m. when my alarm goes off. I hit the snooze button twice before rolling out of bed at 4:18 to get ready for a baking shift at the new Focaccia Sandwich + Bakery on Bee Ridge Road. I met owners Danielle and Nick Sammelman earlier in the week, and when Danielle offered me the chance to bake with Nick one morning, I thought it sounded like a fabulous idea—until 4 a.m. rolled around.

I spent a long time working in kitchens during and after culinary school—in fine dining restaurants, at university in a large hospital kitchen and, most recently, in private catering during the Covid-19 pandemic, when so many of us found ourselves without work. I love the tactile nature of food preparation: putting my hands to work, starting and finishing complicated projects in one go. I've periodically left culinary work when my body started to ache, but I suspect I'll never be too far away from my next kitchen job. So, I dust off the old Dansko kitchen clogs that I talked myself out of donating a few weeks ago, and good thing. Today I’m grateful they’re still in my closet to protect my feet during four hours of early-morning baking. 

Bubbly focaccia dough, ready to be baked.

Bubbly focaccia dough, ready to be baked.

Focaccia Sandwich + Bakery opened three weeks ago in the Colonnade shopping plaza on Bee Ridge. Its focus is sandwiches served on freshly made focaccia with ingredients that are also made in-house. When I walk into the bakery at 4:30 a.m., Nick's already got prime rib bones caramelizing in a large pot to make an au jus for the restaurant's prime rib sandwich.

“We make everything from scratch. These are bones from the slow-roasted prime rib,” Nick says cheerfully, while pouring wine into the stock pot.

He and Danielle moved here two years ago from St. Louis, MO, where Nick worked in kitchens for decades. Most recently, he was the executive chef at a Sarasota assisted living facility, where he still consults, before opening Focaccia Sandwich + Bakery.

“I started as a dishwasher in a small family-owned restaurant," he says. "One day, I came in and the owner said, ‘You’re cooking today.’ One of the line cooks had called out. That was when I caught the cooking bug."

I take a deep whiff of the reducing wine and beef bones, then we begin our baking. Nick pulls out several plastic containers of focaccia dough, each in a different stage of leavening (the process by which yeast consumes sugar to make the bread rise).

“It takes 48 hours for the dough to be ready for baking. This batch will be ready tomorrow,” he says, showing me some dough that doesn’t yet have the signature focaccia bubbles.

Individual focaccia, before proofing.

Individual focaccia, before proofing.

Focaccia is a forgiving bread, as forgiving as bread can be. It doesn't require too much precision and it usually recovers from mishaps. It's a great bread for large-scale production if your baking background is limited. 

We portion out the dough that's going to be baked today and weigh it on a scale to ensure consistency. The dough resists as I tear a piece from it, and then quickly recovers back in its container thanks to a well-developed gluten structure. Even though it's been several years since I cooked professionally, I feel like I’ve never left the kitchen. I can't help but feel flooded with nostalgia.

Nick tells me how he and Danielle met while they were both working in restaurants. They now have two children. In between trading personal stories, we talk about different proofing times for the focaccia, the organic flour he uses, what type of yeast he settled on, and other baking-related topics. He’s meticulous in his preparation—evidence of a long culinary career.

While today’s batch of focaccia proofs in an industrial proofer, he pulls out Mason jars of fermented vegetables for us to sample. My favorite is a celery concoction that is salty, tart and perfectly funky. It's his, too.

“I’m not sure what I’m going to use these for yet, but aren't they so good?” he asks.

Focaccia Sandwich + Bakery owner Nick Sammelman makes focaccia dough to be baked in 48 hours.

Focaccia Sandwich + Bakery owner Nick Sammelman makes focaccia dough to be baked in 48 hours.

After tasting four jars of future sandwich ingredients, we make another batch of dough that will be used two days from now. As Nick portions and pours the ingredients into a mixer, he tells me about the whole wheat flour to white flour ratio in his recipe, and how he tinkered with it before getting it just right.

When he removes the dough for today's bread from the proofer, he can tell by sight that it’s ready to head to the oven. We push our gloved fingers into the risen dough to give the bread its signature divots. Bubbles rise around my fingers, indicating a successful proof. After just 15 minutes in the oven, the focaccia emerges with a golden crust and shiny exterior, thanks to a generous addition of olive oil before baking. It’s already 8 a.m. and the time has flown. 

The avocado sandwich from Focaccia Sandwich + Bakery.

The avocado sandwich from Focaccia Sandwich + Bakery.

While I don’t get to try today’s bread—Nick has sandwiches to sell, after all—I did get to have some earlier in the week. The avocado sandwich is served on the bakery’s signature loaf, which has a subtle rosemary aroma. Smashed avocado is topped with “porchetta bacon” and paired with Bibb lettuce and oven-dried tomato, then finished with avocado green goddess dressing. It’s a grown-up version of an avocado BLT, made even better by that pillowy, olive oil-soaked focaccia.

Other sandwiches include porchetta and fennel, that prime rib with braised onions, and a vegetarian option overflowing with artichokes, arugula and Boursin cheese. Each is a thoughtful combination of flavors—simple, but executed with the confidence of someone who has spent their professional life working with food. 

“I never thought I’d own a sandwich shop, but here we are. I love it,” Nick says with a big smile. I believe him.

Focaccia Sandwich + Bakery is open Monday-Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at 2300 Bee Ridge Road. For more information call (941) 924-2268 or click here.

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