The world of baking seems to attract free spirits, but Mike Zakowski—who calls himself The Bejkr—stands out even among them. Few bakers, even the most committed artisans, mix their dough by hand, because of the demands of production. Nor do they work in a converted shipping container plopped in their backyard. Nor do they often bake with a wood fire, because the heat and oven can be as fickle to master as the bread itself. Zakowski does all of this. And then he drives to the farmers’ market in Sonoma, smoke billowing out of an oven hitched on the back of his vintage delivery truck with bright green hub caps.
If I left the image there—stellar artisan baker in California wine country, selling loaves that feature local ingredients, ancient grains, organic flours and hemp seeds—you would nod. You would get it. But it’s not the whole story, because Zakowski has been attempting another feat: representing the United States in Paris next week at the world cup of baking – the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie. In short, the Bejkr is also an Olympian.
You’d expect a formal baking competition to be full of intense, straight-laced competitors, but Zakowski, who’s 42, comes off as an outsider who might frown on events like this. He was, in a sense, burned out by the industry. While he’s been baking for nearly a decade and a half, he gave up the grind of the trade last year, quitting a bakery management job because it kept him too far away from the bread. But he used the bakery’s facilities to bake by himself on his days off, so he could get his hands back in the dough – and connect with people who bought his loaves at the farmers’ market. He eventually went solo, plowing his savings into the backyard oven and bakery that took shape a year ago.
It’s not the profile you’d expect of someone who wants to go into formal competitions, intense, highly regimented affairs that are sometimes criticized for proscribing too rigid a definition of “excellence.” I know several bakers who actually frown on the Coupe du Monde, because bread can become so personal that “competing” almost makes no sense. In its own context, the most humble wood-fired chapatti would match an ethereal baguette. But Zakowski has pursued a decade-long dream of competing at the Coupe du Monde. “I want to test myself,” he says.
So while it may seem like he’s repressing his idiosyncratic nature, he might simply be taming it for this arena so that it becomes the outsider’s edge. “To think you know it all, or know enough – what does that mean?” he says. “I know how to make bread, but to make bread in an eight-hour time frame with all these requirements, well, that’s a whole other thing.”
Zakowski only bakes one or two days a week at his home shop, the better to devote time to training for the competition. But the exacting nature that’s required for the Coupe du Monde can be seen on display even at his little Sonoma farmers’ market stand. There, while selling loaves, he makes fresh schiacciata, a flatbread with cheese and greens, in his portable oven. “No substitutions!” he said firmly, when a customer – somewhat shocked – asked for a different topping. This isn’t Pizza Hut.
I saw that precision, too, in the grace he brings to making his loaves. When I asked to join him and shape a few baguettes, I felt a bit of tension, but he let me have a go at it. Two loaves made it into the mix, barely; the third came out a bit too long, so he smiled and set it aside after it was baked. In competition, baguettes must weigh exactly 250 grams (8.8 ounces) and measure the same length, between 55 and 60 centimeters (21.6 to 23.6 inches). The judges don’t compromise on these requirements, and neither does Zakowski, when baking at home. But when he makes baguettes, he tweaks the standard white flour recipe and adds a bit of sifted wheat – it’s his own take on the classic.
Zakowski previously competed in 2005 and 2008, but wasn’t chosen by the Bread Bakers Guild of America for the final team until now. The multi-year tryout process behind the competition is physically and mentally grueling. “The biggest challenge is speed,” Zakowski said. “In training, you’re constantly refining the process to make the bread as quickly and as efficiently as possible with the highest quality. And it’s tough because it’s a lot—a lot of product.”
But he made it through regional tryouts and was selected with two teammates from a field of nine to represent the U.S. in this March madness, joining South Korea, Costa Rica, France, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Peru, Poland, Senegal, Sweden and Taiwan in Paris to compete. (The two others on the team, Harry Peemoeller and Jeffrey Gadouas, focus on artistic bread design and the pastries called viennoiserie, respectively, and all three will be judged together).
While American bakers are far less celebrated than chefs, they have actually done better in these international competitions. The United States team first shocked the baking world when it took gold for its bread in 1996, and then won the top team award in 1999 and 2005. (The U.S. has never placed higher than sixth in the pre-eminent chef’s competition, the Bocuse d'Or). While France took back the crown in the last Coupe du Monde, in 2008, Taiwan placed second and Italy third. Considering these results, or the number of young Japanese, north Africans and Sri Lankans slinging dough at Parisian boulangeries, bread, in a French style, has become so global that it may no longer be simply “French.”
“My breads are out of a French tradition, but they are based on my experiences, my knowledge," Zakowski said. They also go a step further, since one of the breads he’ll make in Paris contains California grain that hints just a bit at his “local” philosophy. Many are fermented with natural leaven (sourdough) from his bakery which he’ll take with him to Paris. “It’s what gives my breads their unique flavors,” he said.
Still, the way he’s baking is designed to appeal to the judges. For example, for Zakowski the feel of the dough is paramount; he believes his sense of touch helps him make his best bread. But in the competition, hand-kneading is out of the question in part because judges would likely view it as too extreme; it’s all but extinct in professional settings and honestly, in these games, it’s impractical. So he has to muzzle the technique.
When he’s done, of course, he’ll return home, kneading by hand again and firing up the wood oven. He’ll pick fresh herbs from the garden out back, and rest the baked loaves on the drying racks made from old wine barrels. If there is a common ground between this setting and the competition, it’s in the attention and dedication that he brings to his craft. But as for the bread? Well, one is made for people to judge and the other for people to eat. I know which I prefer.