Shortly after Zak Stern, better known as Zak the Baker, began making bread in Miami, he created an apprenticeship program. Teaching dreamy-eyed rookies the same techniques he learned during his time as an apprentice in Europe made sense to him. Nearly five years later, dozens of aspiring bakers have shuffled in and out of his bakery, filled with flour and wisdom.
“Everyone who comes to work with me has their own path,” he says, “but most of them have a dream. I try to enrich them as much as I can. It might sound corny, but I try to help them get their dream too. You don’t want to just work for someplace. It’s about coming into your own.”
When Sarah Hinkes began her apprenticeship with Stern, her determination made up for lack of experience. She was drawn to baking after working at Uppercrust, a French artisan bakery, during college.
“I taught English in Chile after college but kept thinking how baking was a missed opportunity,” she says. “Once I returned home, I started looking for bakeries. When I found Zak’s, I was hooked. I knew I had to get there, so after a few annoying emails and randomly showing up to the bakery, he accepted me.”
Hinkes, who apprenticed for two months, mainly concentrated on bread-making. “I certainly learned the fundamentals from Zak,” she says, “and I also learned how to work hard. I’ve never had such a challenging job before.”
Moving up the ranks to lead baker and production manager, Hinkes spent about a year and a half with Stern. She now lives in Asheville, North Carolina, adding to what she learned from Stern by working at Farm & Sparrow and All Souls Pizza, a bakery and restaurant owned by David Bauer.
Jennifer Smurr, another former apprentice, met Stern when she was in Miami for modeling work. She discovered a love for bread while honeymooning in Europe, and on recommendations from friends, she decided to stop by Stern’s bakery before heading home to Lakeland, Florida.
“I was on a pursuit for passion for a really long time,” she says. “Modeling just wasn’t enough. Basically, I found bread, and then I found Zak. Now the rest is sort of history.”
Smurr moved to Miami for three months to apprentice. She says it gave her a chance to figure out if she was romanticizing bread or if it was her true passion. “A lot of people don’t understand that baking is a lot of work,” she says. “It’s such a labor. But even still, at the end, I loved it.”
Before returning to Lakeland, she asked Stern to be her mentor, and he accepted. “I only studied bread-making with Zak,” she says, “so I had a lot more to learn once I went back to Lakeland. I taught myself everything you could know about pastry and started baking for a weekly farmers’ market. At the same time, I was learning about how to open a business too.”
Most of Stern's apprentices spend two to three months at Zak the Baker. Many, like Hinkes and Smurr, have no prior baking experience but come eager to learn. "We do everything to support them," Stern says. "I remember when I did it, and there was no one to help me.”
On Christmas Eve, Stern, his wife Batsheva Wulfsohn, and Hinkes helped Smurr launch Born & Bread Bakehouse, selling more than 600 pastries and 140 loaves of bread in less than two hours.
“I wish I knew what I was doing right,” Smurr says. “It’s crazy to me. I definitely credit it to what I learned with Zak. He’s more than just a baker. He makes you comfortable to be yourself.”
Smurr plans to officially open her retail space by the end of 2016. For now, she sells bread and pastries at Lakeland’s Downtown Farmers Curb Market every weekend and is setting up a preorder system. She also talks to Stern at least once a week.
“I would not be here today without Zak and his apprenticeship,” she says. “It’s hard being a baker, a businesswoman, a marketer, and an accountant. But he’s helping me figure it all out.”
“I take the responsibility seriously,” Stern adds, “and I’m also really flattered and honored that I can pass this on. I still look up to people and have mentors. Apprenticing is a beautiful way to learn, and I’m just trying to pass the knowledge on.”