Bake with Soul
How a local Miamian went from small-time baker to one of the best in the country.
Zak Stern, aka Zak the baker, didn’t always know he wanted to be an artisan baker, nor was he particularly interested in the culinary arts. He grew up in Pinecrest, a wealthy suburb of Miami, finished college, and was enrolled in graduate pharmacy school by the time he was 22. On the outside, everything seemed great, but inside, he was deeply unhappy. “I had an existential crisis looking at my life and not recognizing it,” Stern said. “When I was a kid I always thought of myself as doing something more interesting and enjoyable.”
Since his decision to drop out, Stern has opened the wildly popular bakery and café, Zak the Baker, sells loaves to star chefs and Whole Foods, and has been written about in the likes of Vice, Bon Appetit, and The Huffington Post. But his success didn’t happen overnight.
Much of Stern’s culinary schooling came in Europe, where he focused on bread, wine, and cheese, learning from master craftsmen. His first experience with baking was at an apple juicing farm in Sweden, and as the seasons changed he went on to France, Italy, and Israel. With so much traveling, good food, and even a little bit of romance, it seems odd that Stern would ever return home, but he’s candid on the reasons why, “The unromantic story is because I ran out of money,” Stern said. “The romantic story is that there was an untapped market for artisan craftsmanship in South Florida and an opportunity to bring that country wisdom to the city.”
As it turns out, Stern was right: One of his very first customers in Miami was Chef Michelle Bernstein, who began using his bread in her restaurant, Michy’s. Armed only with a single deck pizza oven, Stern worked out of a friend’s garage, selling loaves at a farmers’ market. Word spread fast and soon several restaurants, cafés, and wholesalers placed orders.
In 2014 Stern opened Zak the Baker in Wynwood, an arts district of Miami. What started as a four-person staff and a limited bread menu has grown to a staff of 55 and an array of food that includes sandwiches, soups, platters, pastries, and more. Everything is kosher, as inspired and required by his Israeli wife, Batsheva, whom he met when she came to apprentice at the shop.
So, what exactly has customers willing to wait in long lines out the door for Stern’s bread? “We chose to make a natural leaven bread as opposed to making yeasted bread because it ends up preserving the ancient craft of sourdough,” said Stern. “It’s a more difficult process but I think it yields a more interesting looking and flavored bread.”
Loaves include Jewish rye, multigrain, fig, olive, and za’atar, and the yeast comes from a starter he smuggled back to the United States in 2009. Anywhere from 800 to 1,200 loaves are made each day and ferment for about 52 hours before they’re baked to get a deep amber color and a complex, nutty, sweet taste with just a touch of acidity.
Of course, with rapid growth comes risks, and in March 2016, the 30-year-old had a stroke, much to the shock of the Miami community. He’d been working 16- to 20-hour days and not sleeping or eating enough. He recovered, but is now more dedicated to balance, thankfully considering he has a child, plus another on the way.
As for the future of Zak the Baker, it just keeps rising. The current location will soon become a traditional Jewish deli, and a nearby spot will turn into an expanded bakery and café.
“For the deli, it’s a lot of research development of preserving and smoking meat,” said Stern. “It’s a lot of going back to the basics like we did with bread. I’m really into preservation and figuring out how we can preserve the bounty of a harvest in a sustainable and healthy way.”
The Bread List
Not planning a trip to Miami anytime soon? No problem. Here’s a list of the top five artisan bakeries to check out across the country. Simple, delicious, and oh-so-addicting.
1. Levain Bakery: New York, NY
Nestled in the Upper West Side, it’s got an array of rustic breads and the oft-gushed about chocolate chip cookie, plus brioches, scones, and bomboloncini (little Italian doughnuts).
2. Flour Bakery: Boston, MA
Located in three different neighborhoods in Boston, this is the spot to be if you want a sandwich and a pastry, breakfast, or, yes, a Boston Creme pie.
3. Tartine Bakery: San Francisco, CA
At this Mission District staple, the bread usually sells out within five minutes, so go early or order in advance. You’ll also want to pick up a tart—we suggest the airy lemon cream.
4. Babettes: Denver, CO
Each loaf is made with TLC and has been written about over and over again. Be sure to try one of the less common breads, like polenta, barley maple porridge, or French seeded rye.
5. Standard Bakery: Portland, ME
Handcrafted and baked, with options like baguettes, German Vollkornbrot, focaccia, and Miche made from Maine-grown and milled whole grains. The proof here is in the dough.
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