Peter Bass: Baking through every sunrise with Impossibility on the mind
"That view is amazing. It's the favorite part of my morning."
Some of us go to sleep at 2:30 a.m.
For Peter Bass, Baker at Casa Bovina and The Mercato, the dark hours before dawn marks the start of his day. He spends his twilight hours alone in the restaurant, firing up the oven, making sourdough, campagne, focaccia, dinner rolls, seeded buns, and much more. He might even test out new recipes if he is feeling adventurous. At this unique overlap of time between early and late, music fills the otherwise silent kitchen of Casa Bovina. Peter navigates the familiar controlled chaos of jumping back and forth between dough that is mixing and dough that is baking, never losing track of any baked goods. Removed from the busy activity and temperature fluctuations of a filled kitchen, Peter is the master of the kitchen. He divides, shapes, and bakes with painstaking detail to create each of his beautiful baked goods.
At daybreak, Peter is there to watch how the world is gently set alight. "If you go out to the patio [of Casa Bovina], you can see the sunrise." The second-floor patio of the restaurant opens to a vast stretch of southeast skies. The morning sun rises from the tree line in the distance, blooming in the sky with wisps of dispersing mist. The lingering chill of night is chased away as golden rays give bright color to hectare after hectare of cornfields, a shimmering sea of green and gold. A truly Nebraskan sight.
"They [other professions] were fine, but it just wasn't something I absolutely love and want to do with the rest of my life."
Growing up in the suburbs of Portland, Oregan, Peter attended the Oregon Culinary Institute in 2010. He began his career as a line cook at Ringside Steakhouse for nine months before moving to Alaska in search of new opportunities. It was in the Land of the Midnight Sun where Peter realized his calling as a baker. He did not arrive at a decision lightly. Peter had explored his options – at one time, he was a finish carpenter for nine months; at another, he was making wine for almost two years. These professions he found interesting but thought it best left to people who see them as a labor of love instead of an occupation.
Upon cementing his conviction to be a baker, Peter moved to California where he was Chef de Partie at the Bouchon Bakery under the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group, providing one-of-a-kind baked goods to restaurants such as The French Laundry. Today, Peter has been working in the food industry for nearly two decades, baking for more than half of those years.
When asked if he was going to be baking for the rest of his life, Peter answered jovially, "That's the plan."
Baking was never a new passion to Peter, but an old, quiet love that started at home. He liked making food for his family. He vaguely recalls the first time he cooked as a 9-year-old, making breakfast-in-bread for his mom on a special day. "[I] can't believe my dad allowed a nine-year-old at the stove – he was probably there making sure I didn't burn the house down. My mom was happy, of course." The first time he baked, Peter remembered making lemon meringue pie, which was much appreciated. The desire to bring about joy with his food came from a place of love, and Peter has made up his mind that it's here to stay, bringing satisfied smiles to customers who taste his bread. "That's what we do, make people happy."
"I would say that I'm exact to a fault, which is how I like it."
Even though he went to culinary school to be a chef, Peter prefers a spacious kitchen and the scrupulous attention to detail required to work with dough. "I like knowing exactly what needs to be made, and how much of it needs to be made. Working in a line [as a cook], you know how many reservations were made but not the number of people walking through the door." Peter opts for the opposite extreme of the spectrum, having exact control over his creations and negating all uncertainties.
Peter lived six years in California before he arrived in Lincoln, Nebraska, in spring. Peter worked together with Tony Incontro [Certified Piedmontese's salumist] in California, and when Casa Bovina started putting out feelers for a baker, Tony thought of Peter. "He called me up, and I talked to Shane [owner of Casa Bovina] and Ben [Marketing Manager and Avid Homechef], and within the month, I've uprooted myself to come here," said Peter.
He is not an impulsive man, but it was undoubtedly a decisive move for Peter to quit his job in California and move to a state he has never visited to start a new life. It was an opportunity he could not pass up. "The people they're bringing in from across the country, they've all worked at really amazing places, and they're all being gathered up here." It is the perfect setup for bringing the highest quality food to Lincoln.
Before he had set eyes on Casa Bovina, Peter imagined it to be a restaurant he would be proud to be a baker. "At that time, I didn't know what Lincoln had to offer, but I definitely assumed that Casa Bovina would be the best restaurant in town. I still think that." And The Mercato is the flagship store and butcher shop of Certified Piedmontese that offers high quality beef and products that are equally of high quality - including Peter's breads.
Artisan bread made by Peter that can be found in The Mercato includes Sourdough, Olive Sourdough, Campagne, Cranberry-Currant Campagne, Dinner Roll, Hot Dog Buns, Beef Fat Brioche Burger Buns, Focaccia, Rosemary Focaccia, Basil Focaccia, Roasted Garlic and Onion Focaccia.
"Anyone who wants bread, can get them."
When Peter became the baker at Casa Bovina and The Mercato, he slid into the workflow without a hitch, instantly fitting into the oiled machine that runs the restaurant. He introduced his style of Northern Italian-style focaccia, which is fluffy with a lighter mouthfeel. His assorted focaccia became a big hit at The Mercato and is now a customer favorite.
Soon, Peter would be taking on the formidable challenge of heading a wholesale bread program with his baked goods distributed throughout Lincoln. This program is one of Certified Piedmontese's latest projects Certified Piedmontese has set in motion, with a new on-campus professional-grade bakery still in the works.
The Certified Piedmontese campus
would soon boast a professional-grade bakery equipped with a gas deck oven, a rotating rack oven, a spiral mixer, and more baking equipment that makes a baker's dream come true. Peter is extremely excited. "I'll be able to get six hours' work done in less than two [at the new bakery]."
Hiring spots for baking assistants are open, and the bakery is set to finish construction before the end of the year. Once Peter moves his workspace to the new bakery, he plans to ramp up production and spend time on recipe development to bring new breads to Casa Bovina and The Mercato.
"If it doesn't sell, why are we making it?"
Peter's love for bread can be summed up in one question and not-answer: When asked what his favorite bread is, he lit up. "To eat? Or to make?"
Baking needs patience and precision. Peter is always thrilled to bake laminated bread like croissants and puff pastry, though laminated brioche tops the list as his favorite thing to bake. It requires an extra step after regular brioche dough is rolled and filled. The dough is laminated with butter and sugar before it is rolled into a spiral, resulting in a dramatic increase in flavor and adding a flaky element to the soft, buttery dough. He describes it as a "croissant meets an eggy, buttery brioche dough" and assures that it would feature at The Mercato in the future. He is more familiar with French-style bread, with most of his work done in French bakeries, but is interested in branching out to Italian and German-style bread.
"We are an Italian-inspired restaurant, so I'd like to make more Italian-style bread." Peter is also looking forward to experimenting with German bread but says that it is unlikely to become a permanent feature as German bread tends to have a dense texture foreign to the American palate. He has complete autonomy over what he chooses to bake, but he believes that the foundation of a business is a balance of passion and practicality. "I treat it like the business it is, and if it doesn't sell, we're not going to make it."
According to Peter, the success of a bakery hinges on consistency. "It needs to be good, day in and day out." Each piece of bread should look similar to each other, and each day should be a little bit better than the last. "You're not going to notice day to day, but you may come back in six months to that same bakery and find 'Wow, this has gotten better.'" Peter is adamant about maintaining consistency in all the baked goods he puts out and being consistent in improving his skills.
"I can't say that I've mastered anything. I don't think I ever will."
Peter has a stringent criterion for himself and his baked creations. "If it doesn't look good, it shouldn't be served, regardless of everything else, because that is the caliber we have here." Peter seeks to have his bread as visually appealing as a fine dining plating.
"I don't want to put out anything less than my very best." Peter holds this attitude towards life and doubly applies this philosophy to his work ethic. When asked if he considers himself having mastered any type of bread, he denies it. "I think we always strive for mastery, but I don't think that's truly an achievable goal."
When you acknowledge, as you must, that there is no such thing as perfect food, only the idea of it, then the real purpose of striving toward perfection becomes clear: to make people happy, that is what cooking is all about. – Thomas Keller.
"Thomas Keller couldn't have put it better," said Peter. The world spins by too fast, but perhaps what matters is putting one foot in front of the other. To continuously strive for the impossibly high standard and improving in increments each day – that is what Peter brings to Casa Bovina and The Mercato: A never-ending drive for the impossible. Sunrise after sunrise, he continues to attempt unattainable perfection.
Peter shares a piece of helpful advice to new bakers: "Get a scale, a good scale."
He stresses the importance of being precise as a baker and to measure by weight instead of volume when baking. "When I'm baking dough that is, say, 160 kilograms (approx. 352 lb), I'll need around 450 g (approx. 16 oz) of yeast. Scaling that down to what an average home baker makes, that's going to be less than 0.4 g (approx. 0.01 oz) of yeast. You're going to want to get something pretty accurate to do that."