I am dodging potholes and manhole covers on a sunny day in downtown Durham, waving at the road crew tearing up the old asphalt on Chapel Hill Street. There is lately an air of progress and promise in this temporarily forgotten corner of Bull City. There's something else in the air, too. The toasty aroma of freshly baked bread is the first thing I smell when I walk in the door at work. I'll take that over a desk job any day. Oddly, I have the new chairman of the Durham County Democratic Party to thank for this. He happens to be a baker, you see.
In the midst of harried wait staff, sailor-mouthed cooks and box-laden produce deliverymen, there is but one calm soul in the frenetic cauldron of Rue Cler's kitchen. Kevin Farmer is off in a cool corner, quietly teaching his assistant the quirks of an ancient craft while NPR murmurs from his flour-dusted stereo. His tools are the best products, the patience needed to cut no corners, vast amounts of coffee, and a catalog of running jokes that are, sadly, completely unprintable.
As Rue Cler cranks out plates of Parisian-style food from its shiny new kitchen, Kevin keeps us in good spirits with his dry wit and his phenomenal hand-formed loaves of bread. He's a self-taught baker who got his start at Mondo Bistro in Chapel Hill. The sourdough starter he first made there gurgles away to this day in his bakery, giving his bread the kind of complex nutty, fruity aromas that commercial yeasts can't touch. Kevin perfected his artisinal technique in the years after Mondo Bistro closed and eventually ended up working for Pop's in Durham, where his foccacia has produced a voracious olive-oil-dipping cult following.
In 2004, I moved to this blessedly ice-free city from Boston and took a job cooking at Pop's. Kevin was a mysterious figure in those days, sneaking in the back door with slabs of foccacia wearing a Howard Dean sweatshirt. That's all we ever really saw of him, as he was usually tucked away in an undisclosed location in northern Durham. Nobody was really sure what Kevin was up to out there besides talking to himself. It turns out that he and Pop's new owners, Chris Stinnett and John Vandergrift, were quietly taking Durham's wholesale bread market by storm. All over the Triangle, artisinally made loaves began to show up in delis, at catering events and in restaurants. Pop's Bakery, LLC was born.
When Rue Cler opened its doors six months ago, the bakery got a new home downtown, Kevin got some co-workers to talk to, and customers got the chance to buy his bread retail. Balancing modern technology with traditional slow-fermentation techniques, Kevin turns out a classic foccacia, a perfect baguette and a range of peasant-style sandwich loaves daily. He's also available for dirty jokes, movie quotes and advice on whom to vote for in 2008 during regular business hours.
Jason Bissey is the sous-chef at Rue Cler. He is from Illinois and enjoys bacon, front porches and hot tubs.