He’s the poolish in his family

Bread bakeruses 200-year-old starter

11/16/2012 12:00 AM

11/15/2012 9:40 AM

Adam Duke drives a Volkswagen Passat with a bumper sticker that reads “I Love Poolish.”

Who knows how many people have driven behind him on the road and wondered what that meant?

Is poolish a designer dog that’s part poodle? Or a misspelling by an enthusiast of Poland?

Seasoned bakers know poolish is the starter dough used to bake bread. Often called mother dough, it’s made of the same ingredients as regular dough – yeast, water and flour – but it sits out longer to ferment. That’s the process that gives each lineage of bread its flavor.

Duke, 29, a professional baker who began Dukes Bread in 2010 at his University City home, said he uses a 200-year-old starter for his artisan breads.

It’s not created from a family secret passed down through the generations, although it’s a closely guarded secret as to where he first acquired it. All he’ll reveal is that it didn’t come from any relative.

In Duke’s family, you might say he’s the poolish.

“Everyone in my family loves to cook, and they’re pretty good at it, but I’m the first person that’s really made it a profession,” he said.

In its nearly three years, Dukes Bread has gained a steady and loyal following. At farmer’s markets his stands crowded with people who flock like pigeons to the park for day-old bread.

But in this case, it’s morning-fresh rustic sourdough, often stuffed with Asiago, Gorgonzola, jalapeno or rosemary.

In the last year, business has risen to include a half-dozen wholesale accounts, from Charlotte cafés to the new Whole Foods Market on Fairview Road, which has put in an order for fresh bread six days a week.

“It’s exhilarating and terrifying at the same time,” said Duke, who never imagined he would be a bread baker.

Duke grew up in Syracuse, N.Y., and studied music history at Syracuse University. One problem, however, always chewed at him as he worked toward his degree, he said.

“I liked music,” said Duke. “I just wasn’t any good at it.”

Cooking was another story. He had grown up creating new dishes in the family kitchen, as far back as he could remember.

After graduating from Syracuse, Duke followed his dream and enrolled at Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte. He studied under a German bread-baker, who one day shared his own dream.

“He said, ‘When I retire I would like to just put a bakery in my house, wake up every morning, come downstairs and just make bread.’ ”

Duke thought, “Why can’t I?”

Now, six days a week Duke’s neighbors on Mallard Forest Drive wake to the aroma of warm, fresh breads. Those who walk their dogs by his house can hear the distant clamor of fists pounding dough or a giant mixing bowl whirling.

Inside his garage – now a commercially licensed kitchen – a cutting-board table as big as a car fills half the space, while shelves of fresh loaves cool on racks. Sacks of King Arthur Flour rest on the floor.

Not long ago, Duke hired his first employee to take over baking so he could manage the business end.

Each evening around 7 p.m., his cousin Nick Lowe, 23, pulls the starter from the refrigerator and portions it out to add to the day’s dough.

Duke marvels at Lowe’s natural talent and speed for baking bread.

“When I was baking, I could make 150 loaves in a session. Nick can blow me out of the water. He’s way faster. More like 240 loaves,” said Duke, of the first family member to join in the business. “But I was the starter.”

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