Johann Willar fills the bread baskets at Wynn and Encore with three generations of baking techniques.
Willar twists mini loaves of kalamata olives and herbs.
The naturalist John Muir wrote, "Just bread and water and delightful toil is all I need." Johann Willar, Wynn’s executive baker, could say the same. Willar is a third-generation baker who grew up in Armentières, in northern France, where his father owned two bakeries. And being the son of the boulangier conferred no special privilege either. He started as a dishwasher before he ever made his first croissant.
By 15, Willar was a full-time baker, and he trained for five more years under his father. When he moved to the U.S., he honed his craft at various hotel companies including Ritz-Carlton in Florida and The Broadmoor in Colorado before landing at Wynn in 2014, where he presides over an operation that makes 174 varieties of bread and uses 250 tons of flour annually. His team of 26 produces between 10,000 to 20,000 pieces of bread each day, servicing 28 outlets in Wynn and Encore. “In other hotels, the bread is made by machines. Here, every piece is finished by hand,” he says.
In the kitchen, Willar is a carb-fueled whirling dervish, crafting bacon and cheese rolls (exclusive to SW Steakhouse), pretzels (the property’s most popular offering) and épis de blé (a baguette that resembles a sheaf of wheat) with effortless grace, scoring the dough with a surgeon’s precision. “Scoring the bread is very important,” he notes. “That’s your signature.”
As I inhale the aroma coming out of the ovens, I feel a quiet despair. At its essence, bread is simply an endless permutation of flour, water, salt and yeast, and yet in Willar’s hands, it turns into something akin to magic. Could I do the same, or was I simply raised on the wrong continent? After all, bread is ingrained in the gastronomic and social fabric of France, whereas in America, it’s the boogeyman skulking around the food pyramid.
“Bread is essential,” Willar says. “We’ve been making it for 10,000 years. I can eat just bread and butter all day and I will be satisfied. In France, baking is a highly regarded profession, because you’re so much a part of people’s lives. You affect them in every way, from their cakes during holidays and birthdays to their daily meals.”
I ask Willar if he has a kind of sixth sense when it comes to the alchemy of bread-making, and he reassures me that anyone can learn. And, of course, practice is key (says the man who made 4.5 million pieces last year).
I take his advice into consideration as I bite into a pretzel, its buttery warmth and saltiness hitting my taste buds at just the right intersection. Perhaps I’m less a baker and more a bread lover, I conclude. But just to be sure, I try a bacon and cheese roll next.