On Baking, Balance, and Creating Something From Nothing Every Single Day
In its quotidian aspects—shaping a lump of dough, lopping off the glob that will become a thick loaf with a perfect crust, a mist of flour in the air—Zak Stern sees something profoundly beautiful and life-affirming.
Zak Stern loves baking bread so much it almost killed him.
The 32-year-old with the long, curly beard—who opened a kosher deli earlier this year in Miami’s trendy Wynwood arts district that complements his bakery nearby—refers to his stroke last year as “The Episode.” The wake-up call that “scared the shit” out of Zak The Baker, as he’s professionally known, and forced him to either confront the limitations that mortality imposes or let work steer his life to an abrupt end.
That he’s still kicking, no longer keeping up his “maniac” pace of sometimes more than 16-hour days but still the same craftsman with a singular devotion to artisanal bread-baking—it tells you something about the choice he made. And likewise about the choice he made long before he ever found himself hospital-bound in the back of an ambulance, an occasion he had the presence of mind to capture with a photo of the ambulance’s back doors that he took from his stretcher and posted to Instagram.
It almost cost him his life. But let it be known that Zak Stern—who was nominated for a James Beard award this year, whose deli opening scored a mention from the New York Times—cares a lot about doing a certain thing uncompromisingly well. You get a sense of what that thing is when you walk through the bakery at 295 NW 26th Street, teased by the scent of what could be anything from hand pies to almond pear danishes and baguettes. You get a sense of it when you learn that he decided to drop out of pharmacy school—unfulfilled, after growing up in a comfortable suburban Miami home—to find the great passion of his life. He wanted to sweat, to create, to work with his hands. He ended up in Europe, where he apprenticed as a baker.
When he talks about his craft, it’s with the solemnity of a philosopher ruminating on the meaning of life. In its quotidian aspects—shaping a lump of dough, lopping off the glob that will become a thick loaf with a perfect crust, a mist of flour in the air—Stern sees something profoundly beautiful and life-affirming.
“One might look at what we do and say it’s quite boring,” Stern says. “We take flour and water and mix it with salt and shape it. We do the same thing every day. But I think what we do is—I think it can be poetic. I was always attracted to the idea of being able to create something from nothing, every single day. And then have that thing make people happy.
“That’s not to say it’s not grueling. I’m always keen to make sure people don’t over-romanticize—what we do is grueling. It’s early-morning, it’s physical. There are so many easier ways to make a living. You do this because you love the craft.”
And you do other things because you love the craft, like pack your bags and relocate to the other side of the world. To apprentice under craftsmen and bakers in Europe, to learn the trade far removed from the creature comforts of the Magic City, of home, of anywhere familiar. Zak is one of the stars—one of the names—of Miami’s culinary scene today, but what you don’t see is the around-the-world, pilgrimage-like expedition he took to get here, to make it.
Before the James Beard recognition, before the press came calling, before hanging out his own shingle, any of it—Zak was looking for and getting hooked up with local farmers in Europe, like an apple farm in Sweden where he could work with a bread baker. He shifted from there to France, later to Israel and elsewhere, a rolling stone of a journeyman baker.
“I’d dropped out of school but decided I was still hungry to learn, so I spent the next five years traveling and learning all the things I just didn’t have an opportunity to learn in the school systems I went through,” Zak recounts. “I’m talking about how to grow food. How to cook food. How to work hard, physically. How to wake up early. How to live in the country. You know what I mean? Again, I’m from the suburbs. A wonderful family and privilege. Nothing to complain about. There’s just a lot about life I wasn’t exposed to. This was a journey of self-discovery, and I met a lot of farmers and craftsmen along the way.”
He came back to the U.S. in 2012. He was nursing something of a broken heart, having left behind a relationship that didn’t work out. He threw himself into a project in Miami that was basically the start of the bakery. That was in February of 2012, and the beginning was inauspicious. He set up a pizza oven in a friend’s garage and just started baking for a local farmers’ market.
Gradually, he built a business around that, spending the years since then with his head down, baking bread, racing to keep up with demand and incrementally growing to meet the level of demand he encountered.
The majority of what Zak’s operation today does is wholesale to hotels, fine restaurants and Whole Foods in the area. The bakery is set up, though, so that people can come in and see the bread being made. Most of the baking is done from around 2 a.m. until 6 a.m. Customers start coming in at 7 a.m.
As far as Zak’s approach to the craft: his style is to make naturally leavened bread, with a minimal amount of ingredients. “I would say we’re just respecting the traditional craft of bread-baking and preserving it. Naturally leavened means we’re not using yeast in the majority of our breads. We have these techniques that I would say are becoming popular now in artisan baking in America, of extracting the maximum amount of flavor out of a bread with a minimum amount of ingredients, and we do that through long, slow, cold fermentation. We try to stretch the fermentation process to draw out more and more flavor from just the flour itself.”
The narrowness of Zak’s focus on bread—which might sound pretty unexciting—certainly belies what a long, strange trip his career has entailed. The apprenticing, the health scare and then earlier this year, one of his company’s bakery vans—with bread inside—was stolen and used in commission of a robbery. Reporters couldn’t resist the puns, pointing out that the suspects were still at large … wait for it … with the dough. For Zak? “That was a weird day.” And he laughs when it’s pointed out to him, with that and everything else, that maybe he just wasn’t meant to have a boring life.
He’ll settle for a balanced life, one that includes him doing what he loves but that also makes plenty of space for everything else. “The Episode” taught him that. That it happened was partly the result of launching a food business on his own, completely from scratch, “and so I was all in, just working like a maniac.” And it caught up to him. He prides himself on being calm and composed, but all the stresses, the problems, the things that inevitably go wrong—all of that had to go somewhere. The way he explains it is he absorbed it all, until he couldn’t anymore.
“That was a major kind of reality check,” he says. “I don’t want my entire existence and identity and reason for living to be just to succeed at work. One thing I’ve realized about the success is that it’s fleeting and it’s like a drug and when it’s there, it’s wonderful and it feels great. You know what I mean? It feels so good when you’re just killing it. But then when a new bearded baker comes to town, with a bigger beard than me and I’m no longer cool anymore and my success is gone, what am I going to be? Am I going to be just an empty guy that doesn’t know how to exist without all the charm and accolades? I don’t want that. I’ve been working hard to create balance in my life.
“When I get to work in the morning today, I love the challenge of just making things better. It’s just a big, fun project. It’s so creative. To be able to create something from nothing, every single day. And then have that thing make people happy. It’s just so cool.”