When Dusan Katic returned to the states from France, he was ready for more than a new career. He wanted to ignite a cultural revolution.
He had wanted to do something exotic. But when his service in a French private military company failed to satiate his thirst for adventure, Katic became interested in a completely different aspect of his trip—the food.
It all started when his troop was stationed in the Central African Republic. After being placed on bread duty, someone showed him how to make doughnuts using the flour they’d bought in the villages. Then curiosity prompted him to try something different. Thinking he could make an éclair out of the same ingredients, he retrieved a can of vanilla pudding and a syringe from the infirmary.
Katic had never baked in his life. But there he was, grabbing tools and mixing ingredients to create something he hadn’t made before. After figuring out how to melt caramel without burning it, he dipped one end of the pudding-filled doughnuts in it, and voila!—éclairs. Katic was the official “dessert guy.”
A Change of Plans
When Katic served the éclairs to his fellow soldiers, the reaction was immediate. “Here we were, a very depressed group,” he recalls. “It wasn’t fun. It was dry, and the food was very boring.” But when he put “something wonderful” in front of them, everything changed.
“Most people nowadays eat food as if they just gotta shove it in their mouths and get moving,” says Katic. “They don’t sit down and say, ‘I am going to enjoy something beautiful.’” For him, the soldiers’ reaction was an epiphany.
To say that his experiences abroad reshaped Katic’s attitude toward food would be an understatement. “The most important thing I got from France was the standard,” he explains. “I see how important that is more and more every day. Seeing how serious they are about their food, and how the quality of their life was affected by the quality of their food” was a major factor in his newfound passion.
Bread hadn’t even been on Katic’s radar, but by the time he left France, it consumed him. “I had no idea I was going to fall in love with it. But toward the end, I wanted to run away and start baking.” And that is exactly what he did when he returned to his native Illinois in 2008.
He dove right in, reading every book he could get his hands on, “baking breads over and over again, trying all sorts of different things,” and getting feedback from his friends. And Katic’s motivation wasn’t limited to bread alone—it was about aiming for high quality in all aspects of life. “We all have to stand up for quality,” he declares.
Bakeries vs. Bread Depots
Judged against Katic’s standard, most bakeries in the U.S. aren’t really bakeries at all. Instead, he refers to them as “bread depots”—bread makers who produce massive amounts of premixed dough to be frozen and shipped across the country. Today’s bread shops, he believes, lack the character and charm that should accompany a traditional bakery.
A bakery should be more than a shop that sells bread, says Katic. “You should know [the bakers], and they should know you.” And not only should bakers form a relationship with the community, they should also pursue quality over what’s fastest or cheapest. He characterizes American bread as “industrial…pumped full of chemicals to make the process as quick as possible.”
He offers other critiques of U.S. breads, calling them “suited for the wrong goal.” While Americans tend to demand soft bread, Katic says that a hard, chewy crust is essential. “That causes you to break it down…to produce a lot of saliva so that you digest it better.”
Instead of carefully developing the right bread structure and flavor, he says, most American breadmakers simply load up on sugar and fancy add-ons. “Just about all the American breads have sugar…and why do they do that? They don’t know how to draw out the flavor naturally in the flour. They’re doing things way too quickly. They’re making up for the fact that they’re not doing it the old-fashioned way.”
Tapping into the Soul
“When you’re at the pinnacle of a good piece of bread, you have more volatile molecules, and more flavor available to your palette than a good bottle of wine,” says Katic, paraphrasing Steven Kaplan, a Cornell history professor and renowned bread expert. “Which means, if you do a good job, you’re going to get something that’s really great.”
He cites a difference in attitude as the root problem with American breads. To illustrate his point, he describes a flood in a small French village where a man was seen wading neck-high through the floodwaters, holding a package over his head to keep it dry. He had just left the local bakery after getting his daily loaf. Few Americans, he says, would go to such lengths for good bread.
Katic’s newfound appreciation for quality in all aspects of life has him calling on others to do the same. “We have to demand more out of our foods, we have to demand more out of our friendships, we have to demand more quality out of everything.” He quotes his friend Ken Myszka, who runs a sustainable “farm to fork” operation in Downs, Illinois. “It’s the quality that…really starts tapping into the soul. Everything else just taps into your belly. And that really doesn’t make you happy.”
For Katic, high-quality bread is prepared with time, care and tradition in mind. His baguettes, for example, are what the French call a baguette de tradition, which, under French law, are only made using traditional methods, taking 24 to 36 hours. “The baguette of tradition follows a very slow, long process for pulling out the flavor,” he explained, in contrast to the quicker baguette ordinaire.
Bread for All
While Katic spends long hours perfecting his breads, he doesn’t believe they should cost a fortune. “I think this should be available to everybody,” he says, explaining that some local shops were surprised at his prices. In France, he remembers being able to buy a quality baguette for about a euro and 60 cents. He wants the same for everyone else.
In France, he says, there are about 1,500 people for each traditional bakery. Applying that same ratio to Peoria, the city would need 88 traditional bakeries. Peoria has nowhere near that number, of course, but Katic hopes to spur change in that direction. For now, he works on a smaller scale, distributing his breads locally at Naturally Yours Grocery, June Restaurant, Alwan & Sons, The Publik House and French Toast. Biaggi’s, the Italian chain that opened a location in Peoria last month, has also expressed interest.
In addition, June Restaurant serves as a pick-up site where Katic personally delivers breads to customers that have placed orders. He calls it a CSB, or community secured bread, a term derived from CSAs (community supported agriculture), in which people sign up to receive fresh produce and more from local farmers. In some CSAs, members can tour the farms and get to know the farmers and their families. Katic’s vision is similar.
He sees the CSB as a means of getting to know his customers rather than simply dropping off baked goods. “It’s our way of connecting personally…[and] to find out if there’s anything that they need,” says Katic, joking that he often still has flour on his pants when he arrives. “And we can sit there and talk about what you did with [the bread]. That’s really important feedback for me…to see how you’re enjoying your bread.”
He currently bakes out of a location in Champaign, driving his goods to Peoria as soon as they are out of the oven. “I’m very serious about freshness,” he says, adding that the breads are often still hot when he drops them off. “I’m trying to get people to take freshness seriously—and not false freshness.” In an age in which produce is pumped full of chemicals to appear ripe and appetizing, nothing can be left to assumption.
Meanwhile, Katic searches for the right spot in Peoria to set up the traditional bakery of his dreams. True to his ideals, he hopes it will be more than just a storefront to buy bread. He envisions it as an integral component of the community. He’d also like to set the standard for apprenticing other aspiring bakers. It’s Katic’s way “to see if we all…can change our own environments for the better.” a&s
Katic Breads are available at Naturally Yours, Alwan & Sons, June Restaurant, The Publik House, French Toast and at the Peoria Heights Farmers Market (3:30-6:30pm, Wednesdays). In addition, June serves as a pick-up site for Katic’s CSB (12-1pm, Fridays; in October, this will change to Saturdays.) Contact him directly at katicb[email protected] for more details or to place orders for pick-up.