By Morgan Bryce
Each edition of the Observer during the month of November will highlight an Opelika chef who is making an impact on the city’s culinary scene. This week’s highlighted chef is Eron Bass, executive chef at Cafe 123.
Family, memories and love – these are essences of the Southern cuisine that Cafe 123’s Executive Chef Eron Bass said he strives to incorporate into each dish.
“Food here in the South is a comfort thing. I have large families on both sides, and growing up, they would always get together over a meal,” Bass said. “That’s what I enjoy most about cooking and the Southern cuisine is that bringing of people together.”
Bass said Cafe 123’s menu, which includes plates like Pork Belly Grits and Greens and Brown Sugar Rubbed Ribeye, serves as a direct reflection of both his heritage and palate.
“Most everything that I cook here is what I like. And that’s not because I think everybody is going to like what I like, but it’s what I know and what I enjoy to cook,” Bass said. “I think that passion translates to the plate when it’s something that you as a chef enjoy cooking and you enjoy eating … and makes for a great meal.”
Although he enjoyed watching cooking shows and preparing basic meals like scrambled eggs while growing up, Bass said a career in cooking was an idea that crossed his mind later in life.
After two years of college, Bass dropped out of school and got his first taste in the culinary world as a line cook at Auburn Marriott Opelika Hotel and Conference Center at Grand National. It was during the next four years there that he said he discovered his passion and love for cooking.
In 2005, Bass said he received a life-changing job offer that would serve as a quantum leap to his cooking career.
“My friend Chris (Cannon) had just graduated from cooking school, and called to tell me that he and his cousin (owner John Robert Wood) were going to buy Cafe 123 and he asked me if I wanted to come and be his sous chef. In my college years, I had wanted to go to culinary school, but I couldn’t afford it at the time,” Bass said. “So, even without that training, I felt good knowing that Chris’s experience at culinary school would help me catch on to being a sous chef.”
Bass said he, Cannon and Wood completely rebranded the restaurant, creating a fine-dining experience and establishment that served upscale Southern food with a tinge of classical French influence.
Two years later, Cannon left the business, causing Bass to question whether an executive chef’s life was for him.
“I began to doubt myself and think that I couldn’t do it on my own, but me and J.R. sat outside one fall day on some hay bales and he asked me to stick with it and encouraged me to stay … and I did,” Bass said.
Now in his 10th year as executive chef, Bass said the business is thriving, which he attributes to the restaurant’s leadership and continuity, use of fresh, high-quality ingredients and downtown Opelika’s developing night scene.
Despite the daily grind of a chef’s life, Bass said he keeps coming back because of his love for cooking for others and the unique challenges that each shift presents.
“It’s really an addiction. You may think of it as a cliche or hear chefs on television shows say it, but it’s true,” Bass said. “That adrenaline rush of cooking for others at random times when you don’t know when they’re coming … and the way each dinner service is different from the other, helps me truly love what I do.”
Aside from cooking, Bass said he enjoys spending time with his wife Jennifer and three-year-old daughter Nora, and staying active by playing golf and racquetball.