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Bread Zen 

Long before anyone in the Triangle was putting focaccia, ciabatta and batards on their shopping lists, there was Ninth Street Bakery. As our Dish stories explain, there's been a welcome resurgence in bread made with healthy ingredients, left to rise in its own time, and baked in ovens that give it taste and texture. Frank and Maureen Ferrell started doing that 26 years ago. And they added ingredients that made it even better—spirituality and a sense of community.

The couple was fresh off years spent working and meditating at the San Francisco Zen Center in the 1970s, baking bread at its Tassajara monastery, working on its Green Gulch farm, helping start its bakery in Haight-Ashbury. By 1981 they were ready for a change and decided to move to North Carolina; Maureen's from Salisbury and Frank's brother, George, had coincidentally gotten a job at Research Triangle Institute. George had an idea for the three of them plus Maureen's brother, Michael Mooney (who was at the old Regulator Press): "Why don't we start a bakery in Durham?"

With that began a business and a career that moved from one part of Ninth Street to another, opening a full-service restaurant and then tiring of that and moving the bakery and opening a small café at 136 E. Chapel Hill St. in downtown Durham.

"When we first opened up, people would say, 'Where are the doughnuts?'" Frank recalls. "And we'd say we don't have doughnuts, but how about croissants?" They used organic flour milled in Saxapahaw, real butter and sourdough starters, letting the bread rise slowly, not pumping it with yeast like commercial bakeries. And they had a "triple net" philosophy: Instead of looking only at net profits, they also gauged success by how well they supported the community and watched out for the environment.

The bakery still reflects that philosophy. Just about everything is recycled, and one of Ferrell's proudest projects is a 1971 Mercedes bus that runs on biodiesel and that he uses to demonstrate the virtues of sustainability. He employs workers from Threshold, a clubhouse for the mentally ill, who make all the bakery's biscotti. The bakery regularly makes food donations to community institutions like the Full Frame film festival, Habitat for Humanity and the Urban Ministries soup kitchen.

And it's doing OK on the bottom line: you can buy its bread anywhere from the big supermarket chains (Kroger, Harris Teeter, Whole Foods, Lowe's) to Costco and Sam's Clubs to food co-ops. The bakery's next project: doggie biscotti made from leftover bread.

"One of the tenets of Zen and Buddhism is the interdependence of all beings," Ferrell says. You can taste it in his bread.

Edward Espe Brown, a chef and longtime leader at the San Francisco Zen Centers, is offering two cooking classes with dinner this week: Wednesday, May 2, at 6 p.m. at the Solterra Community Kitchen (fee: $50), and Thursday, May 3, at Ninth Street Bakery (fee: $40). Call the Chapel Hill Zen Center, 967-0861, for info and to register.

More by Richard Hart

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