Bread goes punk
Mike the Bejkr, doesn’t do cupcakes. He doesn’t do morning buns, birthday cakes or candied scones, either. He’s so renegade, in fact, you can’t call him a “baker.” You have to call him “The Bejkr,” so deal with it.
Mike Zakowski, a.k.a. Mike the Bejkr, sledgehammers the traditional notion of small-town cuisinière: arms tattooed from shoulder to cuff; trim beard sculpted around an unsmiling mouth. He’s not the kind of guy who brings sweet things to mind. But forged by the fire of his hand-built wood oven, he’s blazing a new path in the industry, and he doesn’t give a crap whether you like it.
Zakowski’s gruff persona may be intimidating from a distance, but up close he is surprisingly affable. Producing hand-crafted breads made with specialty grains, Zakowski puts the art into artisan breadmaking. Heirloom grains like yacora rojo, golden corn kamut and farro spezzato are foundational to The Bejkr’s unique
approach, resulting in dense, fragrant loaves that are a feast for the senses.
It’s all part of a movement The Bejkr is pioneering with no desire for recognition or reward. He doesn’t care that his breads are hard to locate. To find him, you have to know him, and The Bejkr is harder to track than Bigfoot. Cryptic e-mail blasts send his voracious fans on treasure hunts across farmers markets and community events each week, seeking out his product where and when he decides to make it available.
“I have no interest in owning a bakery, and I don’t want my breads sold in stores,” Zakowski says. He’s already done that with Kraftsmen Baking in Houston, where he was named Best Baker and worked a grinding schedule producing breads and pastries for restaurants and hotels. While the money was good, it was not what he wanted. “I want (my bread) just to be for people to experience at market,” he says.
Why, you might ask yourself, would a sought-after baker not want his breads as readily available as possible? Obviously, you don’t know Zakowski. If his customers aren’t getting the best of his work, he’d rather they not have it at all. His bread is meant to be baked fresh and sold that same day at a market where he can look his customers in the eye.
“It wouldn’t be the same product if it was trucked all over the place and eaten a week later. That’s not what I’m about,” he says. “Bread is a living organism. The better you take care of it, the better it takes care of you.”
Sure, he could make more money if he got commercial. But he’d rather be happy, making products that live up to his exalted expectations. He works when he wants, often baking just two days a week. The schedule allows him plenty of time to tend the organic garden where he grows the onions, garlic and other ingredients he uses for flavor. It allows him time to visit the mills where his specialty grains are produced, like Central Milling in Petaluma. It allows him to live slow and deliberate in America’s first Cittaslow (Slow City), a perfect match for a man with The Bejkr’s priorities.
His most recent culinary adventure took him to the highest level of competition possible, the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie (the World Cup of Baking) in Paris. He represented Team USA in the specialty bread and baguette category, but admits he went more to compete against himself than the world. Either way his team came out on top, placing second overall, just 4.98 points of a possible 600 behind first-place Japan. Filmmaker Colin Blackshear captured the journey. His documentary film—still in process—details an art built from wheat, rye, hemp seed and heart, and examines how The Bejkr’s approach dovetails with the growing Slow Food philosophy in Sonoma County.
“The competition is the obvious part. But there’s a whole movement here with food. Hopefully we can educate people, not in a preachy way,” says Blackshear.
“My goal is to inspire people to start playing in the dirt, planting seeds and growing food.”
In a shaded corner of The Bejkr’s organic garden, we sip craft beers over a freshly picked salad and razor-thin slices of Pain de Campagne. The bread tastes like earth and sunshine. Zakowski confesses the hoopla of filmmaking was not an especially comfortable experience for him. He is—by nature—a reluctant protagonist. But The Bejkr does what needs doing when push comes to shove. “It’s ultimately about bread,” he says. “I want people to know what it takes to do this.”
Donate to the Baker Movie documentary project and get a snazzy bread prize at bejkr.com.
From the 2012 summer issue of SONOMA