WYNWOOD, Miami – My first visit to Bakery, Zak Stern’s bakery in Miami, was around noon on a Friday. The long line snaked along the counter, and for good reason: Every Friday at precisely noon, Stern, 31, takes out the challah for Shabbat. His challahs are famous in Miami: their fame has traveled far and wide. He usually bakes 200 and sells the lot. This week he upped the quantity to 300, and they are already almost all gone.
What’s his secret? Nothing, says Stern (aka Zak the Baker); it’s the same type of challah they made in his home. He adds nothing special, no secret ingredient. It’s just fresh.
I taste his challah. It’s amazing. Light, tasty, not too sweet. The downside: it’s hard to stop eating it.
Stern chose to locate his bakery in Wynwood, which morphed from an industrial zone marked by poverty into a successful arty Miami neighborhood. As always, though, success has its price: artists can hardly afford to live there any more.
Stern’s bakery is big: 650 square meters (nearly 7,000 square feet) and has an industrial feel to it. The walls are white, the floor is gray cement and there is a long bar with high gray stools.
The most popular item is Zak’s sourdough bread, which he also sells to name hotels and restaurants in the city.
Zak the Baker has a long beard. I ask if he’s ultra-Orthodox. “No, I’m not religious, but my wife is,” he answers. “I’m a hippie. I’ve always been a hippie.”
But the bakery is kosher, I say. “I married a girl from Gush Etzion,” Stern explains. She is religious Zionist and he’s from the Miami burbs – dead opposites. “We are from different worlds,” he says. “I lean toward the left, and she leans toward the right.” He decided to make his bakery kosher out of respect for her. “And believe me, I had no idea what I was getting into,” he adds.
He doesn’t make a big deal out of his bakery being kashrut, though: he deliberately keeps that low profile, because he wants to bridge between religious and non-religious Jews.
Still, he wouldn’t have opened a kosher deli if he hadn’t been married to an observant woman, he admits.
Delis have been closing down around the United States, yet in the last year Stern’s become quite the star, thanks partly to reports in the Miami Herald and The New York Times. But Stern represents a generation of younger Jews who are opening eateries that preserve tradition, and it’s worked for him. Customers want to take selfies with him – that even happens in the street sometimes.
Stern was born in a middle-class Miami suburb to a shoe salesman at Saks Fifth Avenue and a saleswoman selling heating stoves – pretty much the last thing anybody needs in Florida. They went to synagogue thrice a year. That’s all.
According to his mother, he was the family troublemaker. He was expelled from Hebrew School at 15 after taking control of the public address system and saying, “This is God, class is dismissed.”
Peeved, his parents wouldn’t let him get a driving license, which was a big deal in the burbs. During high school, hard work wasn’t his bag: his grades were just good enough to go to college.
He did pre-med and studied one semester of pharmacology, thinking to run a drug business, he quips. One semester did it, though. At 22, he wanted to school himself – grow his own food, bake, build his home. He went to a farm, learned how to make food and focused on bread, wine and cheeses. He taught kids at summer camp about making food and spent two years in Italy, where he stayed in a small village and baked bread. He learned to make French-style cheese using goat’s milk in Israel, at a Galilee farm called Goats with the Wind.
After meeting a girl in Italy and spending some time together on a farm in the Alps, he went home when the relationship soured. A job at an Italian restaurant culminated in him making deli sandwiches, which killed him after making wonderful goods on a real farm. But one day five years ago, he baked a bread for the restaurateur, who was impressed and encouraged him to bake more. He began baking in a friend’s garage.
He sold the bread at the local farmers’ market. He made 45 loaves a day in the garage. People loved his sourdough, but success did not come overnight. Miami is not a city known for its boutique bakeries, but people appreciated the freshness of his handmade country bread, which was based on flour, salt and water, not industrial goop. It took off.
He baked bread in that garage for a year. Chefs began seeking his bread for their restaurants, and his volume eventually rose to 2,000 loaves a day,. He has no intention of increasing that quantity – they can grow some, but not much more, he says, adding that they’re nearing maximal production and he doesn’t want to compromise on quality. Or on his life as husband and father.
He is married to Bat Sheva, 28, from the West Bank settlement of Bat Ayin. “My father is from South Africa and my mother was born in Israel, to Holocaust survivors from Hungary who had gone on a mission to South Africa,” she says. She has seven brothers and sisters.
How did they get together? It depends who you ask. Bat Sheva says Zak was working at Goats with the Wind when he came with a friend to the restaurant in Jerusalem where she worked as a waitress. “They played ukulele and when they left, they forgot to pay,” she says. They ran into each other again by chance the next day, and Bat Sheva and her sister invited him to celebrate Sukkot with them in the family sukkah. He told them he baked bread.
He then returned to Miami. Four years later, though, “My sister and I thought of opening a bakery in Bat Ayin, but we needed to be more professional,” relates Bat Sheva. “We began looking for a bakery in Israel that would hire us, but nobody wanted to employ two girls. My sister suggested we call Zak.”
They sent him a Facebook post, saying they wanted him to teach them to bake bread. “Two weeks later, we were in Miami,” she says. After four months of baking, we were engaged and I’ve lived here ever since.” They have two daughters: Avigail, 2, and Maya Mabel, 2 months.
Zak tells it slightly differently: “I swore I would never date another student of mine,” he says, and vowed to treat Bat Sheva and her sister as, well, his own sisters. They moved into his home and koshered it, cleaning everything and taking over. The rest is history.
They married in a Bedouin tent in Kfar Etzion, a left-leaning liberal Jew marrying his love in the presence of hundreds of people he had never met before. Stern had exactly one friend in attendance; his parents couldn’t make it. He didn’t even realize the women and men were being segregated at the wedding, but it was fun, he says.
As a nonobservant Jew, Stern says he’s looking for connections to his Jewish identity – and for him it’s through food.
Right now, the young couple’s biggest challenge is how to dine out together. He grew up eating pork and likes to try new things, and she only eats kosher. He wants to visit Italy – will he be restricted to eating shakshuka at Chabad houses? If he’d married a woman with a peanut allergy, he’d have had to adapt to that, too, Stern says. “One of my solutions at the moment is that when Bat Sheva is traveling with the children, I go to nonkosher restaurants,” he adds.