When the bread arrives at the start of a lunch or dinner service in a fine-dining restaurant, guests may give little thought about the care that went into the creation of each buttery roll, baguette, or croissant that’s been placed on the table. But if you’re at Miami’s L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, the Design District outpost of the legendary chef’s famed eatery, head baker Melissa Catra takes immense pride in ensuring that every crunchy morsel of those choices has been handmade that same day and baked typically just an hour before they’re served.
“Much more intricate detail goes into the breads we bake fresh every day than anyone realizes, but I love the fact that we can offer that to people,” Catra says.
She’s also something of a role model, as Catra is the only woman baker in Miami’s Robuchon restaurants, and while there are other women cooking in the kitchen, she’s the only one with a chef designation. “When I graduated from cooking school in 2005, the industry was hugely dominated by men,” she says. “Through the years I’ve been so excited to see more and more women in the back of the house. I want to uplift every other woman I see in this industry, but also with the idea that we all should be treated equally, because we’re all working hard. And when we’re having a conversation, I like seeing that male chefs don’t treat me like a girl. Because they shouldn’t. They should treat me like a chef.”
Catra, 37, grew up in Miami, and her favorite early memories are of helping her father bake breads and cakes in their family kitchen. It’s no surprise, then, when she says that pursuing a career as a chef “was the only thing I wanted to do.” Catra studied culinary arts at Miami’s famed Johnson & Wales University and went on to work at Mandarin Oriental on Brickell Key and Jose Andres’s Bazaar Mar in Miami Beach, as well as a stint as a chef on a private yacht, before she learned that L’Atelier would be opening in the Design District in 2019 and needed a head baker. “You hear the name Robuchon all the time, and it’s so prestigious, so it took me a while to apply, actually, because I wasn’t sure if I was good enough,” Catra says. “It was pretty thrilling when I learned I got the job.”
Part of Catra’s early training at L’Atelier involved studying with master baker Tetsuya Yamaguchi, who worked with the Michelin-starred Robuchon for more than two decades before he passed away in 2018.
“To work under him was amazing not only in the knowledge he has on baking bread, but also the whole Robuchon mentality of [the high level of quality and service] you’re trying to provide to each guest,” Catra says. “There’s a reason for everything, and the level of detail is incredible.”
Pre-pandemic, the National Restaurant Association projected that U.S. restaurants were expected to earn $899 million in 2020. That number is expected to take a major hit as many restaurants throughout the U.S. experience shutdowns and restricted access to indoor dining, but among the 26 Robuchon restaurants around the globe, none of these challenges are impacting the level of cooking or baking in what is roundly agreed to be the pinnacle of dining in the industry. “You find some restaurants that are cutting corners here and there, but that’s just not something we’re going to do,” Catra says.
A typical day for Catra starts in the morning with her three-person team, creating the breads needed for lunch service at Le Jardinier, the adjacent sister restaurant of L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon. The signature breads for both restaurants are comprised of a petite baguette, a savory croissant that’s been dubbed an escargot for its snail-like shape, and the airy bun known as a pain au lait. While Catra says she felt comfortable with her baking abilities, working under both Yamaguchi and L’Atelier executive pastry chef Salvatore Martone was a chance to refine her skills and craft breads and pastries in a more Parisian style. “It’s easy to get used to baking a bread that feels a little more rustic, which isn’t a bad thing, but I have loved developing and refining my techniques here,” she says.
“Everything is made by hand, and the end result feels very personal, to be able to do that each day,” Catra says. From the moment those first breads go in the oven, it’s a juggling act to craft both the breads and pastries needed for both restaurants for lunch and dinner services, while they’re also making the ice creams for Frohzen, the adjacent dessert shop.
That focus on freshly prepared breads, ice creams, and pastries isn’t something that happens at every restaurant, as many rely on batched product that can be frozen in advance. “I understand why some restaurants do it, because you’re saving on time, but we feel so lucky to be given the tools of an actual bakery that can provide fresh bread for everybody,” Catra says. “Miami has some really terrific bakeries, and it would be easy to purchase breads or pastries from one of them. But here the personal touch matters. It’s our hands creating something our customers enjoy every day, and I’m really proud of that.”