Tall, slender, and dressed in plaid trousers held up by dark suspenders, Zak Stern of Zak the Baker more closely resembles a character out of a 1930s film than an artisan baker in South Florida.
But there's nothing insincere about his appearance, or his fervent dedication to the craft of sourdough bread. In fact, his bread has developed a mystical aura, attributed to a cloak of mystery that he intentionally maintains.
Stern was raised in Miami before he went on to study pharmacology. Midway through his studies, though, he found himself overcome with a yearning to create something with his hands, to make something that brought joy to others.
"What if people always did what makes them happy?" he questions, reflecting on the decision that led him to change paths. Stern then quit his studies and departed on a journey through Europe, apprenticing with numerous cheese makers and bakeries for about five years. He hopped around Italy and France, moving from one organic farm to the next.
In February 2012, Stern returned to Miami and began baking at home. He then opened a small spot with a single oven and starting taking in apprentices from Israel, Italy, and elsewhere abroad. He set up a work-trade bakery, where young bakers exchange food and board for the opportunity to learn the craft of true artisanal baking.
At his headquarters, bread is made completely by hand, and the process for a single loaf takes a total of 20 hours. Stern doesn't own a mixer. The bakery is not even open to the public.
In many ways, he is a visionary. When Stern began baking here, he hoped to contribute to Miami's culinary scene by providing the city with something it lacked -- great sourdough. He longed to launch a renaissance that would remind people of a time when bread was crafted by hand with only a few ingredients: flour, water, the mother (pre-ferment), and salt.
"I want to remind people of a time when there was still wonder," explains Stern, who also has a passion for jazz, cheese-making, and much simpler times. He thrives on remaining mysterious and keeping his techniques a secret.
That desire also explains why he has shied away from any sort of marketing. In fact, our meeting marked his first exchange with a reporter. "I prefer for the product to speak for itself," he says.
So each Sunday morning at 9:30, Stern arrives at the Pinecrest Farmers' Market with 50 loaves of sourdough and little fanfare. A line quickly forms in front of his stand, and within a few minutes his bread completely sells out. Each loaf retails for $6. He is gone before 10 a.m.
The fan base for Stern's sourdough has gradually spread. His bread is already offered at Michy's and sold at Perricone's Marketplace & Café, the Daily Bread Pinecrest, and Bottega La Dolce Vita in Coral Gables.
As to what else separates him from the rest of the bakers in Miami, I'll leave that answer to Matt Degreff, the local photographer and videographer who created the video below.
In these takes, Degreff captures Zak the Baker for what he truly is: the enigmatic artisan behind Miami's most sought-after sourdough.
Follow Emily on Twitter @EmilyCodik.
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