Quest for a better kolache (video)
By by Dianna Wray - DWRAY@VICAD.COM
Sept. 27, 2012 at 4:27 a.m.
YOAKUM - The butter-yellow dough almost seemed like a living thing as it rippled and stretched beneath Jose Perdomo's thick brown fingers.
Outside H & H Cafe & Bakery, the moon was just hovering on the edge of the horizon, glowing soft over the silent town. Perdomo worked the dough, sliding his hands over the warm, velvet surface with the confidence that only 18 years of patient work and practice can give a man. This is where he belongs.
It's the middle of the night. Outside the restaurant, Perdomo is a father, a husband, a man worrying about how to pay bills and make ends meet. But six days a week, he steps through the backdoor of the bakery, snaps on the lights and becomes something else - in this place, the problems of the wider world drop away and he is a man on a mission. From midnight until just before dawn, he is Don Quixote working to create kolaches that will make people pause and close their eyes to savor the taste when they bite down.
It all started about 18 years ago, with a simple question. Did he think he could learn to make kolaches?
"I didn't think I'd ever do that in my life," he said. "I didn't know if I could."
Growing up in El Salvador, he'd never even heard of the pastries, a sweet bread packed with fruit filling that Czech immigrants brought with them from Central Europe. Growing up in a country in the midst of a civil war, he dreamed of a life in the United States, but he'd never imagined himself as a baker. He didn't really know what he thought he would find, but in 1982, the 18-year-old left his mother and siblings behind and headed out in search of it.
He walked out of his war-torn country, crossing the border into Guatemala and then Mexico. After two months, he crossed the California border to arrive in the United States. He found work and started waiting for his life to happen. And it did, in the form of a girl.
He met her at a San Francisco washateria. Ingrid had grown up in Yoakum, the kind of person who had never met a stranger. She stood there, chatting happily as she folded her clothes, and he thought she was beautiful. He saw her again at a post office and didn't let her get away without asking her out. Then it was discovered that he came into the country illegally and was deported to El Salvador. It took two years to get back into the country. He thought that was the end of Ingrid.
When he returned to San Francisco, he ran into Ingrid's sister, who told him that Ingrid had gone back to Yoakum. Soon they were talking on the phone again and planning to marry after he moved to Texas.
He wavered. Did he want to live in a small South Texas town? Was this the life he had pictured for himself when he was dreaming of America in the wreck of his own country? He could stay in California, but then he wouldn't have Ingrid. He thought about her. He left California.
He came to Yoakum and started looking for a job and got hired on at H&H Bakery and Cafe. He had picked up some kitchen skills working odd jobs across the country, but Perdomo had never baked in his life.
When Virginia Hagan, mother of the current owners, asked him whether he wanted to learn how to make kolaches, he wasn't sure he could.
His first attempts were a disaster. He burned everything. The local women who had learned the art of kolache making in their grandmothers' kitchens would never have considered his first attempts worthy of the name kolache, he knew. But he was determined to learn how it was done.
He followed Hagan's instructions and tried to get it right.
"It took me three years to get where I wanted to be. I tried so many different ways and finally found the right way for me," he said.
He was also learning to make bread and doughnuts and biscuits and any other baked goods the restaurant served. Soon, he was making virtually all of the bread used in the restaurant.
Manager Misty Ratley said Perdomo is such a crucial part of the place, they wouldn't know what to do without him.
"If he wasn't here, the place wouldn't run," she said.
He began paying attention to the little things. A change in the temperature of the water he used in the dough changed how the dough responded under his hands. A shift in the weather could be tasted in the bread. His own moods could change how his kolaches would taste. If he walked into the kitchen in a bad mood, somehow it would translate into the bread. He began praying before he left the house, pausing to put God in charge of his life and his cares for the next few hours, so he could get down to the business of baking.
The years ticked by with Perdomo spending his nights and part of his days whirling around the kitchen, moving his barrel-chested body with the skill and grace of a dancer.
After working and saving for a year, he married Ingrid. He and his wife raised their son and daughter in Yoakum and he still works 70 to 80 hours a week to support them, only sleeping a few hours in the evening before returning to make another batch of kolaches, to see whether he can learn something else about the delicate pastry.
Sometimes he'll think about his life, how he came to the U.S. In El Salvador, his grandmother was known to be a wonderful baker. Maybe it was in his blood.
"Sometimes I wonder, 'Was I supposed to be a baker then?' Maybe I was," he said.
Every night, he eases open the kitchen door and snaps on the lights to try again.