Mike "The Baker" Zakowski worked for bakeries across the country for 15 years before launching his own business out of a custom, wood-fired oven at his Sonoma home.
But once the artisanal baker made the break, he never looked back.
"I bake for myself," he said. "I bake what I like to bake. ... White flour doesn't interest me."
Like the international phonetic spelling he uses for his business — the bejkr — Zakowski's line of 10 breads are as quirky as they are nutritious. Most are made of ancient, whole grains, sourced from local farms and stone milled.
"I mill my own specialty grains, like emmer, spelt, einkorn, California rye and wheat," he said. "It's like mixing by hand and baking in a wood oven. It's nice to know where the grain is coming from."
A veteran who has worked in Chicago, Dallas, Houston and Phoenix bakeries, Zakowski moved to the area in 2005 after getting hired by Craig Ponsford of Artisan Bakers to manage the award-winning bakery in Sonoma.
Eager to keep his hand in baking, Zakowski started baking his own breads on his day off in 2010 and sold them at Sonoma's Tuesday Night Market in the summer.
"Then fall came, and there was no baker at the Friday market," he said. "So I started baking bread overnight and sold it in the morning."
When Artisan Bakers let him go the following year, Zakowski had already become the town baker, building a reputation with a healthy array of artisan breads, from the rustic Pain de Campagne to the seed-studded Pain Biologique.
"I buy bread from him every week," said Chef John McReynolds of Stone Edge Farm in Sonoma. "My two favorites are the Farro Spezzato, which is the perfect size for bruschetta, and the Einkorn wheat bread, which is baked in a loaf pan. I like it toasted, with peanut butter and honey."
At the Friday morning market in Sonoma, Zakowski brings along a mobile oven and bakes fresh batches of pretzels made in the traditional Alsatian style.
"They are topped with Sonoma Coast Sea Salt," he said. "Some people will buy a half dozen, and others just eat them as a snack."
Prices range from $4 for a Sweet Baguette to $10 for the 1-kilo Pain de Campagne.
Like Ponsford, who competed in the 1996 World Cup of Baking with Team USA and won, Zakowski has immersed himself in the competitive world of baking as a way to hone his skills.
After trying out twice for Team USA, he made the cut in 2009, then competed in the Louis Lesaffre qualifying cup in Las Vegas in 2010.
"From there, we earned a spot to compete in the 2012 Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie," he said. "And we got silver."
From his high scores in those two competitions, Zakowski was chosen as one of eight bread bakers in the world to compete at the Bakery Masters 2014 in Paris last month.
Zakowski practiced for the competition for about six months, squeezing in sessions between his regular baking stints.
For the competition, he had to bake eight breads, ranging from a Traditional French Baguette to a Freestyle bread (his was a beer bread with Burney Flat's Oatmeal Stout and two kinds of cracked barley.)
Zakowski did not win the top prize — that went to a baker from Japan — but he did bring home footage by documentary filmmaker Colin Blackshear of Sonoma, who has been chronicling the baker's journey since 2012 for a not-yet-released film.
"The film is about bread, from soil to seed to grain to milling to baking," Zakowski said. "And sharing the bread with friends."
The film follows Zakowski on his bike as he visits bready destinations such as the Front Porch Farm in Healdsburg and the Bale Grist Mill in Calistoga.
In the off-season, November through April, Zakowski delivers about 100 loaves of bread to customers on Tuesdays on a bicycle designed to carry cargo.
"It's an 18-mile route around town," he said. "I make 25 to 30 stops and drop off about 100 loaves of bread."
In inclement weather, he offers a pop-up bakery at his home on the east side of Sonoma.
But once the Tuesday market opens in May, the baker can be found on the Plaza, feeding the masses with his Tuscan flatbread (schiaciatta) and selling his bread.
"The market is a big, food-driven party scene," he said. "I get a line before the market even starts."
The following recipes are from John McReynolds' "Stone Edge Farm Cookbook." For the bruschetta, McReynolds' likes to use Zakowski's Farro Spezzato bread.
Artichoke and Olive Relish
Makes about 1 1/2 cups relish; Serves 8 as appetizer
1 large globe artichoke
1 large shallot, finely chopped
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 small clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon freshly squeeze lemon juice, preferably Meyer
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper