ELV note: This article appears today in the current edition of VEGAS magazine.
THE BEST BREAD IN TOWN
By John Curtas
Fourteen years ago, a good bread basket in a Las Vegas restaurant was harder to find than a stripper who took checks. Generic, industrial breads were the norm (even in the best places), and the admonition “don’t fill up on bread” was a remarkably easy to obey.
No one could have suspected it at the time, but the seeds of superior, world class baking were being sown at the Il Fornaio restaurant in the New York New York hotel. There, Carlos Pereira, a native of Lima, Peru was placed at the stoves after failing to gain a casino management position at the property. What seemed a setback at the time proved serendipitous for both Pereira, and anyone who has ever bitten into a superior baguette and been transported to one of the most elemental pleasures in food.
Pereira took to baking like prosciutto to ciabatta, and within a year, he became the main baker for all of Caesars Palace. Caesars sent him to the San Francisco Baking Institute to hone his skills at creating small batch, artisanal loaves, and within two days, he knew he had found his life’s work. He credits Master Baker Michel Suas (the “Father of Artisanal Breads in America”) for “…passing his passion for superior bread to me.” When he returned from his six month stint at the Institute, at least one Vegas hotel had breads that were worth bragging about.
Before 1996, the best baked breads you could hope for were made from frozen dough shipped to Las Vegas from Nancy Silverton’s La Brea Bakery in Los Angeles. “But they were expensive and took up a huge amount of freezer space,” Pereira says, “Once I returned from San Francisco, I knew we could make a fresher, better product for less money.”
For three years, he did just that at Caesars before striking out on his own in 1999 with Bon Breads – baking with used equipment next door to the Crazy Horse strip club. With no money for delivery trucks, he piggy-backed his breads onto Universal Bakery’s vehicles to get them to what few clients he had. When all food business cratered after 9-11, it was a struggle to survive, but as Vegas’ foodie fortunes exploded in the mid aughts, our one and only artisanal bakery was perfectly poised to supply a superior product to demanding chefs.
Those chefs include David Werly at Le Cirque, Michael Mina, Pierre Gagnaire, Todd English, Charlie Palmer, Julian Serrano and Wolfgang Puck. Bon Breads now supplies all the restaurants at the Bellagio and Mandalay Bay, as well as the N9ne Group, Marche Bacchus and Vintner Grill. With such gourmet bona fides, you might think Pereira ignores the little guy, but even The Flame in the El Cortez downtown, and Parma and Rocco’s Pizzeria out in the neighborhoods can’t resist the allure of serious sourdough.
Today, Bon Breads is a 24/7 operation employing a hundred people who bake over 500 varieties for 150 steady customers. Its loaves range from the ultra-traditional (a three pound triple batard), to an espresso/white chocolate loaf that would make any patisserie proud. Chefs like Serrano and Gagnaire work constantly with their baker, tweaking and testing different styles and textures of breads to fit their menus, and Todd English and his Executive Chef Issac Carter spent considerable time with Pereira prior to the opening of P.U.B., creating a bevy of fun buns for the sliders and sandwiches featured there.
Besides customer service – “We’ll respond to a customer’s request whether it’s 5 in the morning or 10:00 o’clock on a Saturday night,” says Pereira – the secret to all this success has been in the starter. The sourdough starter to be precise – a 90 year old living, breathing mass of fermenting flour and yeast that was brought from Europe.
It is this starter that leavens all of Bon Breads delicious loaves, and is understandably, a closely guarded trade secret. When a top chef of a very famous restaurant calls asking for a small piece of starter so he can make bread one night for the owners, all of Pereira’s diplomacy skills come into play as he politely declines, then agrees to supply the restaurant with some of Bon Breads’ special yeast. In one phone call is seen the passion, commitment, service and customer appreciation that has given rise to this business’ reputation among the best restaurants of Las Vegas. Pereira’s rise to fame has created a lot of delicious dough for all concerned, and made “filling up on bread” one of the tastiest things to do in town.