2016 South Florida Rising Star Baker Zak Stern of Zak the Baker

2016 South Florida Rising Star Baker Zak Stern of Zak the Baker
April 2016

Zak the Baker
405 NW 26th Street
Miami, FL 33127
zakthebaker.com

Recipe

Photos

Miamian Zak Stern wanted to work with his hands and to know things like when tomato seasons starts in South Florida. So he withdrew from pharmacy school at Florida State and spent six years traveling around the United States, Europe, and Israel, apprenticing at farms and learning the craft and artisanship behind wine, cheese, and bread. His experience on a goat farm in Israel made an impression, instilling in Stern a relentless work ethic and teaching him “the wisdom of the country” versus the wisdom of the city. Baking bread also made an impact on Stern. He loved the challenge of extracting the maximum amount of flavor from the minimum amount of ingredients. He learned to appreciate simplicity as a virtue.  

After years on the road, Stern was ready for the comfort and familiarity of home. With no money, but a world of hands-on experience, he returned to Miami, got a part-time job, installed a used pizza oven in his friend’s garage, and started baking bread. Stern was selling 50 loaves each week at a farmers market when chefs started seeking him out and requesting his bread for their restaurants. Suddenly, Stern had a business. He hired apprentices, who worked for room and board, found a commercial space to bake in, and continued to accumulate wholesale accounts. Finally, and entirely self-funded, Zak the Baker opened in Wynwood in 2014. Two years later, Stern has a staff of 56 and the business continues to grow, but not just for growth’s sake. Stern is growing community, built on bread

 



Interview with South Florida Rising Star Artisan Zak Stern of Zak the Baker

Lisa Elbert: How did you get your start in the industry?
Zak Stern:
I spent five or six years going around from farm to farm and learning how to make bread, wine and cheese. I apprenticed all over Europe and Israel. I came back to Miami and was kind of down and tired of being a foreigner. When you live in another country and speak the language, but not so well, you know, I was tired of being a stranger. I was born and raised in Miami, and it was nice to be in a place where I knew what was happening. Like the subtleties: I could walk down the street and didn’t have to try so hard to get it. That’s a nice thing. That’s home. I didn't have any money, so I got a part time job, scrounged up enough money, put a used pizza oven in my buddy’s garage, and asked if I could bake bread there. I just started baking bread for farmers markets—like 40 to 60 breads per market—and chefs started coming and slowly asking me for bread for their restaurants. Then, suddenly, I had a business. I had no employees and was working seven days a week. It was exhausting. I did a work-trade and took in apprentices. I gave them room and board, and slowly my roommates began to hate me. There was flour everywhere, dough everywhere, apprentices smoking pot everywhere. Besides the bakery, I went up to Central Florida and got four alpine goats, and they would get out every day because I didn’t have time to build a proper fence. I also for some reason bought Peking ducks and chickens, so there was duck shit everywhere. Here’s the reality of the idealism. It’s very romantic. We had ducks and chickens and dough everywhere—and goats. So, I left and found a commercial space to bake. I kept building up a wholesale bakery and doing the farmers market until finally we decided to open the doors here. That was 2014.

LE: Who’s your mentor?
ZS:
The biggest effect on me was in Israel. I worked on a goat cheese farm with some pretty mythical farmers who taught me how to work hard. It was at Halav im HaRuach, which translates to “Goats With The Wind.” It’s in the Misgav, in northern Israel. These cheese farmers … you know, the wisdom of the country is very different from the wisdom of the city.

LE: What’s the biggest challenge facing the bakery?
ZS:
Oftentimes, when a chef wants to open their own place, they take on an investor, and it’s hard. But, then again, starting off on your own is an incredible sacrifice. I basically sacrificed my whole life. I’ve aged so much in these past three years. It’s almost on the border of obsession. This was my whole life: no family, no children (at the time), working 20 hours a day. It’s so stressful. Understand the reality of going through business: it’s an enormous sacrifice. It’s possible, but it’s a lot of work. I was a maniac. The only way you can do it is to be a maniac, but I’m tired of being a maniac. And now I have a chance to go from that maniac phase to a sustainable business phase. I just want to be a dad.

LE: What is your baking philosophy?
ZS:
For me, what I consider cool is to extract the maximum flavor from a minimal amount of ingredients. I think simplicity in life, in general, is really a virtue. For me, the purest bread is the simplest bread, where you’re tasting the fermentation of the wheat itself. The way that we extract the most flavor is by doing slow, cold, long fermentation, similar to cheese. 

LE: What flour do you use? 
ZS:
A lot of our flour is King Arthur. We also get a lot of our flour from a boutique called Carolina Ground. It’s hard that agriculture is not so hip in Florida, but it’s getting there, slowly. 

LE: This place is packed. What do you attribute to the growth?  
ZS:
Miami is kind of like a teenager with a lot of money: we buy fancy cars and butt lifts, but we’re growing up. Our success has a lot to do with the community supporting us. We could have done the same thing 15 years ago, and I’m not so sure Miami would have supported us. Our success is a reflection of Miami’s hunger for this kind of craftsmanship. We do anywhere from 800 to 1,200 loaves a day, every one of them hand shaped, 100 percent natural leaven. I don’t use yeast. We can control temperature, time, and humidity, but there is an element of natural leaven baking that we can’t control. This is where the artisanship comes in. You need someone who is trained to come in and make decisions and run the store everyday. There is a literal artisan trained in the craft to lead the team and make real decisions. This is the difference between artisanship and industrial productions. The business started out with three of us: me, my wife, and an apprentice. Now, there are 45 employees. I’ve been chasing my tail ever since. We’re creating something that more than just the bread. We have HR, we have people that work here, a payroll. It’s a community. I think it’s so awesome. It’s so cool.

LE: What is your biggest advice for other chefs?
ZS:
My biggest advice to chefs in other cities: change your air filters. Don’t overlook the air filters! It’ll bite you in the ass. And don’t think that the washable ones are okay—they’re not. This is the reality of everyday life in a bakery. Protect your air conditioning. It’s the most overlooked thing of our facilities. Maintenance needs to be tip-top. Chefs are always so concerned with their craft, but they overlook it.

LE: What is your five-year plan?
ZS:
How do we create a company worth growing? Do we want to do that? As long as we can protect our integrity and grow with joy, then sky’s the limit. But, once we realize that the integrity or joy is compromised, then that’s it, it’s over. We have 56 employees; I don’t want to grow for the sake of growing. I'm looking for that reason to grow, otherwise, enough! I want to go home and play with my baby at the end of the day. I haven’t taken on a single partner or investor. I started in my garage with a $1,000 oven and a bench. With baking, it’s not so much skill, it’s more diagnosing. Someone has to have discretion and make decision affect the outcome of the bread. I trust that this bucket [of dough] will raise our bread every day. Fifty-six people’s paychecks rely on that bucket.