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Becoming Zak the Baker

Becoming Zak the Baker
Written by Ana Sofía Peláez | Photos by Kelly Sterling; Viennoiserie (chocolate-hazelnut croissant, twice baked pumpkin croissant, almond croissant, pain au chocolate).

Zak Stern will stop at nothing in his quest to bring traditional breads and pastries to Miami

Zak Stern.

The crew at Zak the Baker was uniquely suited to take on Hurricane Irma. The storm was hitting the popular Miami bakery just weeks after robbers commandeered one of their delivery trucks for a bank heist, a year after the Zika virus all but shut their Wynwood neighborhood down, and almost two years since the eponymous baker and owner, Zak Stern, was carried out on a gurney after suffering a minor stroke. Now fully recovered, he captured the experience on Instagram.

Stern already had plans to visit family abroad when the pending storm prompted mass evacuations across the state. Booked on one of the last flights out, he took 3.4 ounces of the bakery’s sourdough starter he refers to as “mother” with him in a Ziploc bag. The wildly fermented starter Stern discovered on a goat cheese farm in northern Israel years ago is the foundation of every loaf ZTB produces and he wasn’t taking any chances. As an added precaution, he distributed pieces to friends for safekeeping.

Despite the chaos that surrounds him, or perhaps because of it, the 32-year-old Stern radiates calm. Soft spoken, capped, and bearded, he exudes the earnestness of a philosophy student determined to fully live all that he’s learned. It’s an education the Miami native has acquired since leaving pharmacology school after one semester when he realized there was no point in accruing more debt if he never meant to pursue it.

From left: The front entrance of the bakery; baker Tim Pinkowski shaping Jewish rye bread; chocolate babka.

“I had an idea that I wanted to take this time to continue studying,” Stern remembers. “I started learning the basics, all the things that I didn’t learn in school—how to grow food, how to build, how to make clothes—all the fundamentals that I missed.”

Raised in the southwestern suburbs of Miami, Zak found work at the Bee Heaven Farm in Redland, Florida, through Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), an organization that connects volunteers with organic farmers. From there, he found his way to a tree-house hostel in Georgia where he taught farming to children at summer camp. Stern would stretch the $3,000 he’d earn each season to finance his travels throughout Europe and Israel the rest of the year.

“I was a privileged suburban boy going to work on a farm,” recalls Stern. “Learning how to wake up at the crack of dawn, how to work physically, and how to be peaceful alone.”

While he was often drawn to farms producing wine and cheese, breadmaking was the one constant everywhere he worked. “Bread you can make in any kitchen whether it’s a sophisticated or not, so I really connected to that accessibility,” says Stern.

It was on an apple farm in Sweden that the process for making sourdough captured his imagination. “At the time my eyes were really fresh, so it was just a lot taking it in and becoming familiar with words and feelings and how things feel, the senses.”

He was working in northern Italy when the end of a relationship finally brought him back home. “It was probably too early, but I saw there was an opportunity in Miami. There weren’t a lot of artisan bakers down here, so I gave it a shot,” Stern says.

Cookies, danishes, and viennoiserie.

He set up his first bakery in the garage of a house he was renting from a friend. “It was really a romantic thing that was happening there,” Stern remembers. “It was me alone, baking in a garage, bougainvillea surrounding this old Miami house, with a Blodgett pizza oven, waking up early in the morning and delivering it by myself.”

He was soon joined by three apprentices. His sourdough loaves developed a following at farmers markets among local chefs when the James Beard Award-winning chef Michelle Bernstein began carrying them in her restaurant, Michy’s. “It gave a lot of notoriety to that baker in the garage,” says Stern.

One of his later apprentices, Batsheva Wulfsohn, came from Israel with her sister to work at ZTB, in the hopes that they could open a bakery in their village. “They’d milk the goats, drive the truck, and work all day mixing by hand, no mixer,” says Stern. Despite Stern’s secular Jewish upbringing and Batsheva’s Orthodox practice, the pair connected. They married in Israel and now have two young daughters.

When Stern felt they had enough wholesale accounts, he decided to move from the commercial space he was then using to a brick and mortar retail location in Wynwood. The once industrial neighborhood had undergone a transformation in recent years. Major art collectors had been housing their collections in the area’s expansive warehouses since the 1990s, while Art Basel transformed Miami into an international art market hub in the early aughts. In 2009, developer Tony Goldman invited muralists and street artists to treat the shuttered factories as a blank canvas. Artist studios, galleries, and performance spaces were joined by independent shops, restaurants, cafes, and breweries.

“At the time it looked like Wynwood was this bastion, a renaissance for independent, local business,” Stern recalls.

Zak the Baker opened in 2014 with sourdough loaves in varieties like olive and za’atar, walnut and cranberry, and Jewish rye alongside a diverse slate of pastries. Veteran Miami chef Melissa Sosa helped develop a savory cafe menu that emphasized toasts, salads, and soups. The bakery’s stark black lettering and white facade stood out against the color-drenched streets that surrounded them, as did the lines that formed around the block. While this is usually the telltale sign of the next fusion food trend, Zak the Baker was just the opposite.

“We’re not interested in creating something new, we’re interested in preserving tradition,” Stern explains. “And not necessarily any one specific tradition, just tradition as whole, tradition as a craft, tradition in the recipes. You’ll see a babka next to a pastelito next to a kugelhopf, next to a southern Bavarian cake.”

From left: Baker Aemi Kato-Cuarezma shaping multigrain bread; challah bread.

Strictly kosher, partly in deference to Batsheva, who Stern refers to as “my religious wife” on social media, the bakery became popular with Miami’s Orthodox Jewish community.

“I hope the bakery is able to connect the community with the spirit of the traditions that have been passed on for so many years,” Batsheva says.

On a typical afternoon, you’ll find art “gallerinas” and aspirational start-up entrepreneurs sitting alongside observant and Hassidic families, diverse accents accompanying a soundtrack of nineties hip-hop and Latin American pop rock, and the congenial sounds of the open kitchen filling the space. On Saturdays, they close to honor the Sabbath. This year, ZTB became a strict Glatt Kosher deli with a meat-oriented menu.

Chicken soup with roasted chicken neck

“If I want the most religious to eat with the alternative counterculture, I have to create the most certified kosher deli outside of the shtetl and put it in the arts district,” says Stern. “It’s incredibly beautiful at times; you have these moments when you see people transcending beyond their ideology and their beliefs and their tribes. And then it can be incredibly challenging at times, where you see the friction of one tribe rubbing up against another.”

Cuban-American Sosa had little experience with Ashkenazi Eastern European traditions before she threw herself into research, doing short stages with deli stalwarts in New York City. “We were doing everything out of two ovens and two induction burners so throwing that kosher thing into the mix and not having a kitchen was hard as hell,” recalls Sosa, who recently moved on from the bakery to focus on a food preservation project with local farms. “What I took from it was how to adapt and make beautiful food with basically nothing.”

Reuben sandwich (hot-pressed pastrami with thousand island dressing and sauerkraut on sourdough corn rye).

Menu standouts include thick-cut corned beef brined for seven days, a hot-pressed reuben with pastrami on corn rye bread, house-cured gravlax, and smoked whitefish salad made with locally caught fish. It’s what Stern describes as the “soul food of Eastern European Jews” present at countless family gatherings whether it was a wedding, bris, religious observance, or shiva.

“It’s very easy for me to be nostalgic and return to those flavors and want to carry that on,” says Stern.

They relocated their baking program to a 7,000-squarefoot facility down the street to accommodate their expanding catering and wholesale operations. Zak the Baker’s breads and babkas are now carried in Whole Foods from Miami to Palm Beach, and countless hotels, restaurants, and markets throughout South Florida. While the new bakery’s brightly painted facade is more in keeping with the neighborhood aesthetic, the cement floors, wood counters, and brown paper menus touch back to their first location where nothing gets in the way of the product or process.

From left: ZTB's space in Wynwood; two cortados up.

The move also precipitated the implementation of a fifteen dollar minimum wage for all employees. “What happens often in restaurants is that most of the value goes to the front, and in the back and on the line, it’s pretty low pay,” Stern says. “We try to spread it out a little bit and makes sure everyone gets a livable wage.”

Despite their considerable success during what’s been a tumultuous year, Stern is focused on being even better. “We’re doing a really good job but we’re not yet doing great,” he admits. “The goal right now is to get to great. Then keeping it great—that’s a full-time job.”

The job got a little harder when they were tasked with getting the bakery up and running after Hurricane Irma. Though they’d only sustained minor damage, the power was down throughout the area, the roads were blocked, and the dough needed to rise. It was a solid week before Stern felt things were back to normal, but it was enough time to prepare traditional round challahs and apple honey cakes for Rosh Hashanah, the holiday that followed soon after.

Stern pulling challah out of the oven.

Stern was onsite to help customers with their orders that day. The display counters were once again packed with neat rows of chocolate hazelnut-striped croissants and amber-tipped kouign-amann, empanadas and knishes, rugelach and macaroons. By midday, all the challah was spoken for and the steadily moving line reached the door. Behind the easy banter and heartfelt wishes for a happy new year, there was a palpable sense of relief in a city that was still recovering. It was the only indication that it could have all turned out differently.