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Desert Companion

An act of loaf

Bon Breads’ master baker Carlos Pereira gives Vegas the best thing since, well, sliced bread

Carlos Pereira is poking a baton of raw dough, brows furrowed. This is his umpteenth attempt at perfecting the French baguette, but with a single motion of his forefinger, he can detect a problem.

“Too much water in the recipe,” he says. “The shape will be flat.” He gingerly transfers the unbaked bread from a canvas cloth to a flour-dusted conveyer belt. “Let’s bake it anyway, just to see what happens.”

Don’t be mistaken — Pereira is already capable of making a fine baguette. But that doesn’t stop him from tinkering with his recipes. Standing in the middle of a 25,000-square foot baking facility off the Strip, surrounded by swarms of bakers and thousands of loaves of fresh-baked bread, this is his moment of zen.

“I just love the feel of dough,” he says. He slashes the top of the baguette with a razor and slides it into a fiery deck oven. “I don’t believe in predestination, but most people will discover a calling or path in life. Making bread is mine.”

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Bread of life

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When it comes to artisanal bread in Las Vegas, it would not be an exaggeration to proclaim Carlos Pereira a pioneer. As the master baker and owner of Bon Breads Baking Co., he’s the man keeping countless diners on and off the Strip hooked on carbs. The city’s food writers rave about him, local restaurateurs depend on him and celebrity chefs with Vegas outposts forgo hiring bakers in favor of working with him.  

Yes, his stuff is that good. (I dare anyone who has tasted Pereira’s bacon bread to tell me otherwise.) In fact, it can sometimes even be too tasty — a fine dining restaurant once demanded that he come up with a new recipe because guests were treating the breadbaskets like troughs and refused to order starters.

Such concerns are a far cry from what Pereira envisioned for his adult life. A native of Lima, Peru, he came to Vegas in 1993 to pursue a degree in hospitality management at UNLV. He bided his time (and padded his wallet) with a menial bakery job, but it was only supposed to keep him afloat before returning to his home country.

Pereira’s next job was in the kitchen at Caesars Palace. The idea was to start low on the totem pole and climb into upper management, but the company had other plans for him. Caesars’ then-executive pastry chef John Hui was looking to start an in-house bread program, and — in a town where options were limited to frozen rolls and sliced bread in polka-dot packaging — Pereira was the most promising candidate. Hui, now the corporate pastry chef at Pebble Beach Resorts, chose Pereira from a staff of 45 bakers to study European breadmaking techniques at the San Francisco Baking Institute.

“Everyone starts in the kitchen by doing all tasks — breakfast pastries, cookies, cakes — and once I see what they’re good at, I place them in certain spots,” says Hui. “Carlos didn’t have formal bread-baking experience, but I observed him in the kitchen, and I could tell he had talent and potential to run the program.”

“I had zero experience with this (European) type of baking,” Pereira admits. “I just showed up and was trained the old-fashioned way — by tough French guys who were a pain the ass.”

With that pain came the pleasure of discovering that he actually loved breadmaking. Pereira returned to Vegas renewed. He not only nixed all of the frozen, factory-made bread from the resort, but he also threw his original career plans out the window. Under Chef Hui, Pereira made Caesars the city’s first source for artisan bread.

His talent eventually earned him a high-paying offer from a competing Strip property, which forced Pereira to consider his next move. Should he take the extra dough or settle at Caesars? He turned to Hui for guidance.

“We had a chat,” says Pereira, “and just as I was walking out the door, he said, ‘Carlos, I thought you were smarter than that. I knew you would leave one day, but I was 100 percent sure that when you were ready, it was so that you could open your own place.’”

Pereira says those parting thoughts changed the course of his life.

 

Loaf by loafLoaf by loaf

Bon Breads opened in 1999 with 900 square feet of workspace, one dough mixer and a single oven. A one-man operation, Pereira earned five accounts through word of mouth and kept production limited to a few styles of bread. Things were small and manageable, but this was no guarantee that the venture would succeed.

He recalls his first customer, the now-defunct Summerlin Resort, and laments the short lifespan of food and hospitality businesses off the Strip. “It’s especially a shame to see small restaurants with great chefs go unnoticed and shut down,” he says. “Meanwhile people will spend an hour waiting in line for dinner at a big chain restaurant. There needs to be more support for local talent, but it’s hard to find.”

Despite that grim reality, Pereira has been fortunate in building a loyal following. Bon Breads is now a 24/7 operation with more than 120 employees, and produces hundreds of types of bread for over 200 resorts and restaurants in the city. Farmers’ market stands and a new retail shop at Town Square are also thriving — on a recent Friday and Saturday, bread was sold out at the brick and mortar.

 The yeast within

The yeast within

What makes Pereira’s bread so beloved? The answer lies in plastic garbage cans on casters. On a walk-through of Bon Breads’ facility, he rolls a container towards himself and takes a deep breath. Its contents are sour and bubbling, but it’s far from trash.

“This is a 92-year-old starter given to me by a friend in France,” he says. Starter, or pre-ferment, allows dough to rise slowly and develop a depth of flavor. Pereira treats his like a secret formula. “It’s the soul of our bread. It goes into every one of our products, right down to the hamburger buns.”

If Pereira sounds like a romantic or purist, this is the extent of it. He insists that many of the established rules of bread-making are just myths, and he’s proud to debunk them. “Some people won’t use tap water, or others think that fresh yeast is superior to dry,” he says. “It’s all nonsense. Neither makes a difference.”

He also doesn’t believe in pushing the envelope for its own sake. “There have been times when chefs have made special requests, but I will never make something that I don’t think is going to work,” he says. He cites a celebrity chef who once asked for a seaweed-flavored bread; Pereira obliged him with a sample, then tasted it and refused to produce it. “At the end of the day, it’s my name on the product.”

This doesn’t mean that Pereira is averse to experimentation. Even after 12 years in business, he can be found dressed in whites and elbow-deep in dough on any given day. He’s constantly designing new recipes depending on the season, chefs’ special requests, and his own whims.

And while his latest baguette test is a bust, it won’t stop him from trying again the next day, or the day after that. It’s a break from more mundane tasks, plus it keeps him inspired.  “I like production,” says Pereira. “As a business owner I have to check emails, read commodities reports, make deliveries. … But as a baker, my only job is to make things better and more interesting.” 

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