Michael Dolich gave up his law practice to make some real bread at Four Worlds Bakery.
A crescent moon still hangs over West Philadelphia at 6 a.m. on a Monday morning, but when the door opens to the small shed behind a Chestnut Street coffeehouse, the aroma of fresh baked goods is unmistakable. The morning’s bake is complete—the rich, flaky croissants and plump, round bagels have just left the oven and sit cooling on racks.
This unassuming 15-foot-by-20-foot room, formerly storage space, is the current home of Four Worlds Bakery. Owner and head baker Michael Dolich, who also goes by the moniker “Challahman,” gutted the space and outfitted it with an electric three-deck oven, mixers and a grain mill once he outgrew his initial baking area in the basement of a West Philly cooperative house.
The world of artisanal food production tends to attract dreamers, misfits and others just disinterested in following an unswerving path through life. It’s as if it’s almost a requirement. Dolich himself got a law degree and worked as a trial lawyer, doing personal injury cases and mediation.
But while taking a break and spending a summer at a Jewish retreat center in the Catskills, Dolich was assigned to the position of bread baker, part of his arrangement to participate in the programs for free.
This assignment wasn’t based on any particular experience or qualification. “Sure, I liked to cook in law school to relieve stress,” says Dolich. “But I never thought about baking.” Yet, he began experimenting, dabbling with different ingredients and different recipes before attempting to make his own sourdough bread starter.
Once a sourdough bread starter has been created, through capturing naturally occurring yeasts and bacteria, it can be nourished and maintained for years by continuing to add water and flour to the mix. Dolich’s starter, born in the Catskills in August 2003, continues to thrive in a refrigerated bucket in the bakery, currently providing life to rye, egg challah, spelt levain, and many other breads from Four Worlds.
Almost six years separate the birth of the sourdough starter and this morning’s baked goods. In that period of time, Dolich returned to Philly, downscaling his law career while apprenticing at Baker Street Bread Company in Chestnut Hill. After spending a year in the Catskills retreat center, Dolich landed back in Philly, spending nine months solely focused on croissants at Le Bec Fin’s bakery in Wayne.
The monotony of performing one task repeatedly came to an end when he took up baking from scratch in his co-op house on Walton Street. “When you’re that small, you can’t divide everything up,” notes Dolich. Even now that he has one full-time and two part-time employees, operations are so condensed that everyone gets to engage in multiple stages of the process.
“Bread is incredibly complex,” says Dolich. “It takes many sets of hands to create.” In this complexity, Dolich finds a key relationship between baking and spirituality. Before setting up Four Worlds, while visiting small bakeries and other artisanal producers in upstate New York and the Berkshires, he was struck that so many of them were promoting our connections to the earth through the process of creating food. These are the same ties that, for Dolich, the tradition of Jewish mysticism seeks to explore and elucidate.
There’s plenty of connection building in the here and now as well. Delivering bagels and croissants to local coffeehouses and co-ops—including West Philly’s Satellite Café, Earth Cup, Lovers and Madmen and Cream and Sugar—are handled by the Pedal Co-Op, reducing the bakery’s carbon footprint while nurturing another local enterprise. And Dolich has started a program in partnership with the Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, which allows customers to donate money to buy bread for the hungry. Through this program, Four Worlds delivers fresh bread every Thursday to Lombard Presbyterian soup kitchen.
In the end, this charitable impulse comes as no real surprise. If the only rewards he was seeking were financial, Dolich would never have given up his law practice. “There are no real tangible rewards to what I’m doing, only intrinsic benefits,” says Dolich. “I’m a passionate person, and baking has provided an outlet for that passion. I feel blessed.”
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