Shaun Thompson Duffy fell in love with bread slowly, getting to know and appreciate the effects of time and heat on simple ingredients – flour, water, salt – with plenty of practice and experimentation.
It wasn’t love at first sight. But the more he learned about bread-making, the more he “thought it was magic.” And, the more he learned, the less he trusted commercially made bread and the more he believed in Old World ways.
“Bread is such an important part of civilization,” he said. “It’s looking to the past.”
But, he marveled,“It’s a mystery how people were doing this centuries ago, without books.”
His new Culture Breads bake shop in Spokane’s South Perry District celebrates traditional bread-making: by hand – using ancient, landrace and heirloom grains that are stone-ground on site, then naturally leavened and wood-fired.
These sorts of artisan loaves are the trend in bread baking, which is having a moment. More and more, restaurants across the country are baking their own loaves instead of outsourcing. And bake shops like Culture Breads are milling their own flour, using natural fermentation, and installing custom-built ovens.
Because of Spokane’s location along the northern edge of the Palouse, one of the nation’s top grain-growing regions, Thompson Duffy is also able to do something many bakers aren’t.
He’s able to get all of his grain from within 100 miles of the spot where it’s milled and baked into bread.
“There are bakeries with wood-fired ovens. And there are bakeries with their own mills,” he said. “But most bakeries don’t have a source for 100-percent locally grown grain. They don’t live in a major grain-growing region. We do. We can only do this because we live in Spokane. That’s the beauty of it.”
Thompson Duffy uses only locally grown grain at Culture Breads. And that’s a hallmark most bread shops, even artisan bread shops, can’t claim. While some make a point to use some locally or regionally grown grain, it’s rare to find a shop that bakes solely with it. In fact, Thompson Duffy said he doesn’t know of any other bake shops doing what he’s doing anywhere else in Eastern Washington, maybe even the entire state.
Around these parts, he said, “No one’s is doing this.”
Thompson Duffy isn’t from around these parts. He grew up in the suburbs of Dallas, leaving after high school to attend culinary school in Houston. After cooking for a couple of years in restaurants there, he moved to Las Vegas, where he gained more culinary experience at Picasso at the Bellagio Hotel and Casino.
He returned to Texas to cook again in Houston as well as Austin. After that, it was off to Chicago, where he worked at the Green Zebra and celebrity chef Rick Bayless’ Frontera Fresco.
During his “cheffing” days, more and more restaurants began baking their own bread, and soon the task fell to Thompson Duffy. Working in a restaurant at the Four Seasons in Houston 13 or 14 years ago “sort of started” his fascination with bread.
“There was a bread course, which was actually ahead of its time,” he said. “I did a goat-whey brioche. People really liked it. And I was like, ‘This is really cool. This is really fun.’ And then I went down the rabbit hole.”
Thompson Duffy started making his own sourdough starters and experimenting with different flours, techniques, times, temperatures and fermentation. When his wife, Holly, transferred to Portland for her job as an environmental protection specialist with the federal Indian Health Service – “She’s the bread-winner,” he said – he went to work at Tabor Bread.
“Tabor changed my life,” he said. “That’s where I got into wood-fired, house-milled bread. I’d never seen such a thing. It blew my mind.”
Thompson Duffy learned a lot at Tabor, but Portland was expensive. And, he said, “We were looking for someplace to put down roots and start a family.”
The couple – who now have two children, Willa, 3, and Otis, 9 months – liked Spokane for its cost of living and community feel. Thompson Duffy also particularly liked it for its proximity to the Palouse. Still, when they moved here about five years ago, he said he “wasn’t really surprised” to see other bakers weren’t specializing in house-milled local grain.
“It just wasn’t the way people did things,” he said.
“In the bread world, I think Spokane is way behind. With this whole local movement, grain gets pushed to the background. Everyone’s focused on pigs or tomatoes or whatever.”
As the head baker at Bouzies, the former baking operation at Luna on Spokane’s South Hill, Thompson Duffy began sourcing grain from and developing relationships with local growers. He also convinced the restaurant’s owners to invest in a stone mill. A short time later, however, Luna sold and its new owners streamlined the restaurant’s baking program.
Thompson Duffy branched out on his own, launching a bread subscription service, consulting for bake shops and leading bread-baking classes and workshops. He also bought a mill of his own and began laying other groundwork for a brick-and-mortar bread-baking business.
Culture Breads takes up most of a one-story building that was once home to a grocery store and barbershop. A nano-brewery is also slated to open in the building, dubbed the Grain Shed and located in a residential section of Spokane’s South Perry neighborhood.
The process of getting zoning regulations changed as well as undergoing a complete renovation took longer than expected. And the shop’s opening has been pushed back several times – most recently from January to February, and February to March. Now, Thompson Duffy is planning for April.
Throughout the wait – about two years in all – Thompson Duffy kept meeting with farmers, building a network and baking bread. People got to know his product and his passion.
“What he does is extremely unique,” said Jesse Pons, who – along with his wife, Elizabeth – enjoy Thompson Duffy’s bread so much that they hired him to give them bread-baking lessons at their home and joined his bread subscription service.
“What we really value about Shaun is the high-quality of his product and the fact that it’s sourdough, which breaks down most of the gluten,” Elizabeth Pons said.
She and the couple’s two children, ages 4 and 7, share a sensitivity to gluten, but find Thompson Duffy’s bread easy to digest. The family especially likes his White Sonora Wheat loaf.
“It’s particularly soft and light and nutty,” Elizabeth Pons said. “Honestly, I would eat any of his bread all day long.”
During the past month, Thompson Duffy has been overwhelmed with calls and emails from people wondering when the shop will open. It’s been eagerly anticipated by fans of his Old World-style bread, available previously on a limited basis through his subscription service as well as a couple of locations – Doma Coffee in Post Falls and Rocket Market on Spokane’s South Hill – where his loaves regularly sell out.
Most of Thompson Duffy’s bread and other baked goods are naturally leavened with help from Rusty, his trusty sourdough starter. He likens the living mixture of flour, water and wild yeast to “a baby. You name it. You nurture it. You feed it.”
Thompson Duffy created Rusty about 12 years ago, and since then it has started loaves in Texas, Chicago, Portland and Spokane.
“I don’t think commercial yeast is bad,” Thompson Duffy said. But, “I think it is overused in a lot of ways.”
He uses commercial yeast on a limited basis in baked goods such as baguettes and croissants. But he doesn’t use dough conditioners. His bread doesn’t contain additives or preservatives, either. But he splurges on sel gris, or gray salt, from France. Even though it isn’t local, Thompson Duffy said, “I’m not negotiating on that. It has all of its minerals still in it. It aids in fermentation, and I think tastes better.”
For grain, he sought out farmers from Cheney and Reardan to Lind and Endicott who were growing or were willing to plant the varieties he wanted to use: Turkey Red Wheat, Red Russian Wheat, White Llamas Wheat, Scots Bere, Purple Egyptian Barley, einkorn, khorasan, rye, triticale, spelt, emmer.
They aren’t certified organic, but the farmers who grow them, including Don Scheuerman, co-founder of Palouse Heritage and one of Thompson Duffy’s business partners, use organic methods.
“Eastern Washington is such a prime spot to grow grain,” Thompson Duffy said. But, he noted, most of the grain grown in this state – 85 to 90 percent of its production each year, according to the Washington Grain Commission – is exported.
“It’s better for the community to keep it here,” said Thompson Duffy, who plans to offer seven standard loaves, plus one or two specials a couple of days a week. Fridays, he will offer challah, typically made with emmer or spelt.
He also plans to sell freshly milled flours. And he’s willing to answer any questions people might have about bread-baking, milling and grain.
“We’re upfront,” he said. “It’s transparency. It’s traceability. We have traceability to the soil and the seed.”
Local, grain-specific, stone-ground milling – like Thompson Duffy is doing now – declined in the U.S. during the mid to late 19th century with the emergence of mega-farms, steel-roller mills and national transportation systems. Industrial milling operations had the potential to process enormous amounts of wheat flour that’s consistent in color and can last a long time on a store shelf.
But the product is stripped of the bran and germ and, along with it, flavor and nutrition. By the 1940s, manufacturers were fortifying roller-milled wheat with iron and B vitamins.
“Roller-milling makes business sense, but not the best sense for flavor and nutrients,” said Thompson Duffy, who compares a wheat berry to an egg: the bran is like the shell, the endosperm is the white, and the germ is the yolk.
When wheat berries are crushed in a stone mill, like the one he has, all three components are pulverized together, retaining the nutrients and flavor. Oils released by the bran and germ, however, give the flour a shorter shelf life. If it’s not used quickly, the product turns rancid.
Today, commercial whole-wheat bread is supposed to include added-back bran and germ.
Thompson Duffy’s mill is a 40-inch, natural granite, horizontal stone mill from New American Stone Mills in Vermont. Thompson Duffy bought it for about $18,000 in 2016. It will sit in the back of his shop near the fermentation closet.
“With freshly milled flour, the nutrients are still intact,” customer Elizabeth Pons said. “Even in Seattle,” where she and her family lived before moving here about two and half years ago, “we couldn’t find a resource like Shaun. We were ecstatic to find him here.”
Her husband agreed: “There are a variety of different bakeries here. Maybe they source some of their grain locally. Maybe they do fresh milled. But actually none that we’ve found yet do all of that and the sourdough process. Shaun does it all. We’re basically just waiting on his shop. We’re so excited about it.”
Ready to rise
The focal point of his shop – which seats about 50 and is accented with intricate, French farmhouse-inspired, blue-and-white tile – is the custom-built, wood-fired oven. Construction on the double-decker, floor-to-ceiling oven began the Monday after Thanksgiving. Work was spearheaded by Jeremiah Thorndike Church of Boreal Heat in Ashland, Oregon, and inspired by traditional Scandinavian design.
“The way the oven is designed, we’re not baking with live fire; we’re baking with retained heat,” Thompson Duffy said. “It’s a very old-world way of cooking.”
On the forthcoming menu, besides bread, expect a variety of baked goods such as pain au chocolat, croissants, caneles, pasta, pretzels and bagels. All will be prepared in the wood-fired oven.
“That’s our only cooking device,” said Thompson Duffy, who’s also hoping to offer house-made cultured butter and schmears “of all sorts” to go with those bagels. One of those toppings is zhug, a spicy spread with coriander, cilantro, parsley, peppers and garlic. Thompson Duffy calls it “the chimichurri of Israel” and aims to make it staple in Spokane.
He also plans to launch a series of ticketed, multi-course dinners; host bread, pasta, milling and other classes; and round out the menu with flatbreads, sandwiches and toast, all featuring local and seasonal ingredients.
Besides local grain, “vegetables are going to be our main,” Thompson Duffy said. “It’s not because we’re vegetarian. It’s because it’s local. We’re going to try to sustain ourselves and support local farmers. It’s going to be hard because it’s going to be seasonal. In summer, we’re going to be canning and preserving for winter.”
The artisan bread renaissance won’t change with the seasons. Thompson Duffy contends it isn’t a trend. And he’s perfectly poised – on the edge of the Palouse, with his custom oven and stone mill – to push it forward.
But, he said, “We think of ourselves as a neighborhood bakery. We’re small. We’re small batch. We do most things all by hand. We really don’t want to get that big.”