How a Pot-Dealing Suburban Boy Became Miami’s Best Baker
“I wanted something more, and I decided to search for that. Some people go searching to India for spirituality; I went into the countryside of Europe searching for country wisdom.”
When you think about cities with bustling artisanal food scenes, Miami is probably not the first to jump to mind. Home to plenty of celebrity chef-run, hotel-situated, Miami Heat player-visited, glam restaurants, Miamlandia it's not.
But the hyper-specialized, craft-centric food world is, in fact, putting down roots in Miami. Although the pigs roasting in backyard caja chinas probably aren't finished on acorns and sure as hell don't have names, in Miami today you can easily find Japanese-style slow-drip coffee, foragers who devote their lives to the simple beauty of the guanábana and the mamey, and Old World-style bread.
I'm talking about astonishingly great bread, thanks to a soulful, bearded, 30-year old native, whose obsession with baking runs so deep, it landed him in the hospital. That said, he didn't go as far as to name the seven-year-old natural levain starter he brought back from his travels when he proudly tells me, "she's got some age on her."
Zak Stern—better known as Zak the Baker, which is also the name of his bakery and café—is supremely tireless in his singularity. When he set his mind to learn how to make bread, which he did at the age of 22, he decided he wanted to make the kind of bread you dedicate your life to—bread worth traveling the world to create.
Nothing about Zak's childhood hinted that he would become the impresario behind an artisanal bread empire, especially not one that includes a kosher café—he grew up in a secular home and "ate pork chops for dinner"—which supplies bread to some pretty damn big names in the Miami food landscape, including Michael Schwartz, Michelle Bernstein, and Alex Chang.
Like the great craftsmen of the Renaissance period, Zak went on a directionless journey and apprenticed with European and Middle Eastern artisans to learn his craft. I recently sat down with him in his bustling bakery, located in the graffiti-splattered section of Miami called Wynwood, where he told me his unlikely story.
"I was a typical privileged white kid from the suburbs of Miami," Zak told me. "I had parents who loved me and everything was comfortable. We had a TV in every room." At age 18, Zak enrolled at Florida State University and pondered his future. "My life was consumed with smoking and selling pot. So I thought, 'Alright, I'm going to transform this one interest I have in my life into a profession. I'm going to become a pharmacist,'" he recalled with a laugh. Zak's teenage plan seemed on track until, after spending a semester in a pharmacy grad school in Georgia, a nagging desire stopped him in his tracks.
"I wanted something more, and I decided to search for that. Some people go searching to India for spirituality; I went into the countryside of Europe searching for country wisdom," Zak said. "I'd been in school my whole life and I don't know shit, you know what I mean? I don't know when a tomato is grown, I don't know how to build, I feel so inept as a man."
Using Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) to hook him up with local farmers, Zak set the goal of learning something about making bread, cheese, and wine. "In Sweden I found an apple farm that had a sourdough baker on it. That was my first stop. Then I found a Gruyère cheese maker in France. Then it got cold, and I went to Italy and stayed for a while. Israel as well, where I found a really mythical farm in the north where they make goat cheese from 200 Bedouin goats that they would milk by hand every morning. I learned so much from them." In exchange for room and board, Zak spent the next five years of his life as a working nomad, absorbing what he calls the wisdom of the countryside.
"Sometimes it was the most romantic thing in the world and sometimes it was just shit. I try very hard not to over-romanticize this part of my life. Yeah, I was in Tuscany on top of the rolling hills and could see the coast, making bread in a wood-burning stove in the middle of this castle. But I was also a stranger for many years, where I wasn't connecting deeply—I had no money. It's romantic in retrospect, but there were hard times, too. It could be extremely isolating."
Still, Zak's journey gave him a new métier and a new life. Of all the trades he learned, from goat farming to winemaking, bread stuck. "It's accessible," Zak said. But that didn't stop him from trying to keep goats in suburban South Miami upon his return from Europe. "The male goats grew up, they fought, they stunk up every neighborhood. They jumped over every fence. I have such affection for them. They're charming and beautiful, but they're destructive and curious. So the bread just took over and demanded all of my attention."
Zak began his bakery in a friend's garage in suburban Miami four years ago. "I was ready to do my own thing and use all the shit that I learned. I was gung ho." Zak worked his ass off and now—not even five years later—he has 55 employees, and is expanding.
Zak told me his current location will soon become a traditional Jewish deli and a new location nearby will house an expanded bakery and café. Best known for his high-quality loaves—including walnut and cranberry, olive and za'atar, and multigrain—Zak uses a slow, cold fermentation process in an effort to "extract the maximum amount of flavor from the smallest amount of ingredients." His breads are fermented for about 52 hours, which is the key to "the beautiful amber color, that rich, slightly acidic, but nutty and sweet flavor." His starter dates back to 2009—he smuggled "her" back into the States in a little Gerber baby food jar.
Zak's establishments are strictly kosher, but when I asked him about the role of Judaism in his work, he tells me he grew up in a family that was pretty much non-observant. But everything changed when he got a phone call from a friend of a friend in Israel, asking if he could come to Miami and apprentice at the bakery. The guy said he'd also like to bring his sister along. Zak agreed, fell in love with the sister, and married her. He now refers to her as "my religious wife." Zak says, "Suddenly my house became kosher, suddenly I am keeping Shabbat every single Saturday, suddenly I know an extraordinary amount about Jewish law." With a one-year-old and a baby on the way, Zak is now a family man and part of the religious community in Miami Beach. He says he's still getting used to his newly observant life, "but there's really a lot of beauty to it. There's a lot of structure and tradition. What really drew me to it is the tradition. I'm charmed by traditional craftsmanship in bread and cheese, so it makes sense, right?"
Building Miami's best artisanal bakery hasn't been easy. Zak worked 16- to 20-hour days until he had an unsettling wake-up call this year: At 30, he was hospitalized after having suffered a stroke. When Zak instagrammed a photo of a hospital meal from his bed, the Miami food world reacted with shock. How could this have happened to such a young man at the forefront of his craft?
"I don't like talking about it too much," Zak told me. "But the one thing I will say is that in order to create a food business, especially if you're not rich and you don't take investors—it's pure sweat. It required me to be a maniac for four straight years. I threw my entire life, everything, into this work. At some point, it's going to take its toll."
The lesson, if there is one, is this: "There's got to be a balance. The success is very exciting, but the moment you're not the new shiny object and some other guy with a longer beard than you comes to town and he gets all the attention, what are you gonna do? So now I drink water. I eat when I'm hungry. I sit when I eat. I'm home at the end of the day. There's more to life than just succeeding at your business. It took some time for my mentality to shift. Just balance, man. Balance."
Meanwhile, Zak's business feels as though it's about to burst at its seams, and his commitment to giving his employees an ownership stake in the bakery remains firm. He's testing Old World deli recipes—from smoked meats to cured fish—and delivering bread to star chefs and Whole Foods alike. A stroke, Zak says, is not going to stop him from bringing the "country wisdom" of his journey back to home. After all, "it was mythical and beautiful and hard and an incredible experience—I was gonna bring it to Miami." And that's exactly what he's done.