Chef Chat, Part 1: Mary Bass of Haak Winery

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Haak Winery is located in the little town of Santa Fe. It's closer to Galveston than Houston, but when you pull up to the tall brick mission-style building, you'll think it's worth the drive. Out front is an old wagon wheel amid a garden of roses and greenery, and even in the middle of January, it looks like springtime.

It's an ideal venue for many events, including weddings and receptions. There's a full kitchen on-site and running that kitchen is chef Mary Bass. She is a Galveston native -- the fourth generation of her family who can claim rights to that label.

In part one of this Chef Chat, we'll learn how Bass went from culinary school to running her own wildly successful baking business, Viva la Cake Balls. She'll explain why she gave it up and talk about her initial introduction to Haak Winery.

Come back tomorrow for Part 2, in which Bass will talk about the type of food she loves to cook and how working at a winery influences her dishes.

EOW: Tell me how you became interested in cooking

MB: So I started cooking when I was seven. I grew up in a family where food was at every single event. My grandmother used to feed between 20 and 80 people every Sunday. They'd just show up and eat, so she would cook something different. I learned at her feet and my mom was really at it good, too, so it just came naturally.

EOW: Where did you grow up?

MB: I am a Galveston girl -- fourth-generation Galvestonian -- what's called a "BOI," or "born on the Island." I was raised there and have lived there my whole life.

EOW: When did you start aiming toward cooking professionally?

MB: When I graduated high school, I went to a small private school so there wasn't an art program or anything of that sort -- no culinary program by any means. When I got out of high school, I went to Galveston College immediately and just walked straight into the program. I didn't even tell anybody I was registering. I just showed up in my jeans and a T-shirt on the first day of class. They were like, "Hey, you need coats and a knife." I had no idea and was totally unprepared for that world, but I quickly sorted it out after class.

EOW: What was your focus? I know culinary schools have different tracks, like a savory track or a pastry track.

MB: Right, so the cool thing about community college culinary arts programs is you get the same classes. It's the same eight classes, and then, if you want to go on and do a track, then you would go on to one of the bigger universities.

So I got a little bit of everything. I took basics and saucier, which is sauce-making, intermediate baking and pastry. I did American regional garde manger, and then I got to take a charcuterie class. I was the last one to take it, so I did weeks of sausage-making, which was awesome. We learned all the pâtés and terrines and stuff. My favorite was American regional by far. That style of cooking really like spoke to me when I was in school.

EOW: What was your first job in a restaurant?

MB: My first job in a restaurant was when I was in culinary school. I was 18 and waiting tables at Red Lobster and I was like, "I have to come to do a practicum. Can I come work on the line?"

That's not the type of restaurant that most chefs want to work at, but I learned how to grill really quickly. I learned how to fry a perfect crust. You get that repetition, and so that's really where I started.

EOW: And you learn how to handle volume.

MB: Volume in droves, and you learn to work in a really diverse kitchen, learn teamwork because when you're on a line with three people on a Saturday night, you have to move very fast and communicate very well.

EOW: So Red Lobster was your practicum or internship. How long did it take you to get through culinary school?

MB: I did my two-year associate degree and I started towards my bachelor's, but I met my husband. He walked into culinary school one day, and I was like, "Oh, look, it's the guy I'm going to marry." I just knew. I kind of took the more family route. We got married, had three kids and so then I became instantly enthralled in the world of being a stay-at-home mom.

My kids were born in less than three years, all three of them, and so it was just babies for quite a period of time, which kind of got me back into culinary.

I did a cookie exchange and I made cake balls. Making cookies for cookie exchanges -- that's no fun, so I made cake balls. Then I posted on Facebook, "Hey, I made cake balls! Anybody want to buy some?" I sold 12 dozen in less than an hour and my husband was like, "Look, you can make some money!" and I was like, "Yeah, why not?" So I started making cake balls.

EOW: Did you grow your baking business from your house?

MB: Yeah, so that's what I did. This was before cottage law was in place when it was illegal.

(Author's note: Specifically, this was Senate Bill 81, a bill passed by the Texas Legislature in 2011 that made it legal to sell certain homemade foods like baked goods.)

That was totally what I did. It was like being in the dungeons hanging out and cooking, but I basically made cake balls for a good solid year. I grew my company. It was called Viva la Cake Balls. My youngest daughter is named Viva, so it's named after her and long live the cake ball. Every time you said it, you were bringing yourself good luck.

I did that, and then we got caught by the health department. Another bakery had called on us because we were by that time baking a hundred dozen a week -- a huge volume. So it was kind of, "Shut down your business or open a bakery." So I opened bakery.

EOW: Good for you!

MB: We left the house and I went and worked in a commercial kitchen and had a storefront that we sold prepackaged cake balls out of in League City. We got too big. It grew too fast and so we moved into a full-service bakery here in Santa Fe.

I had a staff of 17. We did catering, we did wedding cakes, we did cupcakes, we did cake balls. We had lunch, breakfast and dinner every single day. You could walk in, pick up and take it to go. I did that four years, up until the point where I was working 90 hours a week and didn't see my children.

I said, "This is not how I want to live my life. I gave it up and it was one of the best decisions I ever made because I got to go home. For six months, I went back to being at the house, totally bored. By that time I was teaching. I teach culinary arts at Alvin Community College. I was doing that two nights a week and then the winery called and said, "Hey, we need a chef. Our chef's moved to Georgia. Can you come in and see if the staff we have here can run the kitchen?"

I was like, "Well, I'm not looking for a job."

(Somehow, though, Haak Winery persuaded Bass to take the job. Come back tomorrow and find out what they told her that changed her mind.)

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