Leaving Las Vegas (Finally)

I am sitting in the US Airways waiting area of the McCarran Airport.  (Few reading this will remember what a horrible man Senator Pat McCarran was.)

I have been in this city before.  I was here at the Bellaggio Hotel on September 11, 2001 attending the same bakery equipment show that brought me here now; indeed I was marooned here then for several days when air travel was suspended by our bewildered government.

I don’t hold Las Vegas generally in contempt as many people do.  I have fond memories of living here for a few weeks in 2004 when I was helping Bouchon Bakery open in the Venetian Hotel.  I felt like a “local” then; I had a reason for being here other than recreation and I was introduced then by people who live here to some of the restaurants and joints locals go to.

The city seemed appealing.  It was a community whose business is recreation and many of the people I met liked, even loved living here.

(I confess they generally singled out first as their reason for being here the wonderful weather, a criterion for making life choices whose importance has always eluded me.)

This year I am once again a tourist, a conventioneer and Las Vegas is all sidewalk crowds, garish lights and painfully loud music even on the streets, sad gamblers, strange hotel aromas, and shows whose prices, even if I were interested in those shows (fake Elvis, fake Beatles) are well beyond the range of a man putting his savings into a neighborhood bakery.

As for the restaurants, it’s certainly true that great chefs have restaurants here.  Joel Robuchon is here.  Well, he has a restaurant here that is probably very good; but it charges either $250 or $425 per person plus wine.  Guy Savoy charges about the same.  Wolfgang Puck has seven restaurants here.  I ate in one of them, Cut.  It was good and it didn’t charge us at all.

I said I don’t care about weather but I meant real weather, not the artificial kind.  This over-air-conditioned city is a bit too much even for a man who doesn’t care about climate.  More important, being at this baking expo is bringing me to the cold reality of baking in America.

Sometimes bakers like me can get swept away by our colleagues and appreciative customers and by our own hopes and imagine that bread is improving widely in the United States.  I ran into several bakers who are doing the improving, David Neville whose big wholesale bakery is in Beltsville and Leslie Mackie whose Macrina in Seattle is one of the really wonderful little bakeries in the country.

There are other improvers in some major cities of the country and in hippy outposts like Burlington, Vermont and Asheville, North Carolina.

Sometimes enthusiasts argue that there are more small bakeries in the U.S. making breads in traditional ways than there are in Italy or Spain.  Some particularly positive people contend there are more here than in France.

Let them come to Las Vegas!

Let them attend, as I did, the largest American trade show of baking and bakery ingredients and see the reality.

This is a huge show – huge not so much because of the number of exhibitors.  A far greater number of companies show their wares at the Fancy Food Shows held each year in San Francisco and New York.

What makes the baking expo so big is the size of the exhibits.  Companies truck in large machine installations and assemble them for us to see:

Large Baking Equipment

Of course I didn’t come here to see machines like these.  Bread Furst is not going to be a high-production automated bakery.  I was not here to see machines for pan greasing and packaging.  I came to see display cases, ingredients like flours and nuts, hand-tools and baking pans, the baking and pastry supplies needed in small stores.

Mostly they weren’t here.  They have largely disappeared from this show that has been nearly taken over by the companies that build machines for industrial bakeries – the bakeries that make breads with mixes and artificial ingredients.  Those companies were ubiquitous at the show.

Cakes

There were a few exhibitors whose products Bread Furst will buy:  Central Milling’s and Guisto’s flours and grains for example, but very few.  And I made some little discoveries, a different kind of bread slicer for $5,000 (that’s a good price), and a tablet-based cash register system being developed by an old pal, George Keushguerian, whose bakery software I used in 1992.

I did get to chat with old friends like Tom Gumpel who used to be at the Culinary Institute of America but decamped a decade ago to take charge of culinary development for Panera Breads.  And Dahmane Benarbane, owner of Baguette Republic in Sterling, VA, introduced me to a trustworthy dealer of used equipment.

Most important I was able to shop in preparation for some of the very expensive purchases I now confront.  In spite of the severely reduced exhibitions directed at small bakeries like Bread Furst, this show, held every three years, is the only time bakers can see in one place some of the dough mixers, dough sheeters, ovens, and proofing cabinets being offered for sale, compare them and their prices and make choices.

But there weren’t enough to justify the trip.

I have already bought the oven and I am told it is in production.  I made that choice after that three-day trip to San Francisco I wrote about last month.  After trying the two ovens and agonizing, I made the safe but expensive choice and bought the same oven we used for years at The Breadline.  I also bought a dough divider, a particularly expensive model that will allow us to cut dough easily for the baguettes we’ll bake every four hours at Bread Furst.

Those machines will be delivered in January and I have been billed for them already.  So I have spent $81,350 on bread baking equipment and haven’t yet bought the mixer, the proofers, the tank that ferments the levain/starter, not to mention equipment needed for the pastry kitchen, the food kitchen, not to mention the store fixtures and cases.

So if I can save $9,000 on a dough mixer, $1,500 on a pastry mixer, $7,000 on a large oven for the pastry kitchen, a few a thousand on a water chiller and meter, and make baguettes by hand deferring purchase of a baguette molder, soon we’ll be talking about real money.

Indeed, having been introduced to BakeryNet by Dahmane, I might be able to find on the used market some of the equipment we need at opening.

I hope the choices yet to be made will be improved by my having been here.  I hope we’ll save a lot of money because I was here.

I did have some fun like the evening I spent with Paul Bartolotta, my old friend who now lives here.  We had dinner  and then Paul dragged me to his restaurant at the Wynn Hotel to taste his 16 ice creams and a few other desserts as well, taking pity on his old friend only at 1 am when the tiny young woman at the restaurant’s reception desk was giving us pretty smiles, subtle reminders to leave.

It was a nice evening but even so, I am going to try to remember three years from now if I am tempted to go to the show again one emblematic encounter:

A salesman for Reiser stopped me as I walked past him.  He recognized my name displayed on my badge and asked me what I am doing now.

I told him that I am going to open a new bakery and he said with a slight scorn, “Artisan, I suppose.”

“How are you going to do your cookies,” he asked?  I looked past him at the five-foot long cookie depositor, that conveyor that makes possible rapid production of large numbers of cookies.

 “By hand,” I said.

“On my gosh,” he said, looking toward the sky.

I was still feeling a slight irritation from having just passed the huge Dawn Products booth where there was a big crowd watching some cake-maker, apparently a made-by-television celebrity from New Jersey who was there, no doubt extravagantly paid, to confer his endorsement on this large manufacturer of mixes and bases and icings, not made with the sorts of ingredients we will use.

Suddenly I realized:  I don’t have to come to Las Vegas again.

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