If several weeks ago you noticed that Bushwick, of all places, had seemed to have become just a shade more Ashkenazi – and, just maybe, French-Canadian – know that your mind is sound, that there was a good reason for that impression: just half a block from Maria Hernandez Park, a branch of the well-regarded citywide bagel chain Black Seed had opened its doors. Known primarily for a flagship product that splices together the disparate – and often mutually antagonistic – baking styles of Montreal and New York, the enterprise is helmed by chef and partner Dianna Daoheung, who has been nominated twice for a James Beard “Best Baker” award thanks to her work directing what are now seven Black Seed shops scattered around Manhattan and Brooklyn.
As conventional wisdom would have it, few things are as quintessentially New York City as a warm, toasted bagel, generously paddled with smooth, cold cream cheese. Except, here’s the thing: that bit of Jewish culinary patrimony is just as closely associated with Montreal. Six years ago, Black Seed descended on this tangled cultural/gastronomic briar patch with schmear-flecked machete in hand, ready to to slash a path towards reconciling two Balkanized varieties, hitherto thought to be irreconcilable.
As a concept, Black Seed started life in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, when Noah Bernamoff and Matt Kliegman, friends and seasoned restaurateurs, would commiserate over beers about, among other things, the demise met by Bernamoff’s Red Hook commissary kitchen at the hands of the 2012 natural disaster, and what they saw as the sorry state of the artisanal bagel industry in New York. The two men share a Jewish cultural identity, but Bernamoff is from Montreal, Kliegman from Long Island; therein, it seems safe to assume, lies the genesis of the chain’s splicing together New York and Montreal bagel genes to create a fresh hybrid, one that may be to bagel aficionados what the liger or tigon once were to zoologists, i.e., freakish and unholy. To those of us not in the habit of grinding that particular ax, however, the combination seems perfectly reasonable.
Before Hurricane Sandy, Bernamoff’s Red Hook commissary had helped supply his Boerum Hill deli, Mile End. Among the deli’s employees was chef Daoheung, a Thai American raised in central Florida.
Following her stint at Mile End, Daoheung spent a year in San Francisco and then returned to New York, where she further sharpened her skill set at bygone Williamsburg restaurant Isa. Then, her old boss Bernamoff got in touch.
“Noah said, ‘I think Matt and I are opening a bagel shop,’” recalled Daoheung. “‘We need a baker,’ they said, ‘but one that’s good on the business end.’”
The bill of fare subsequently put together by Daoheung and company speaks as much, to my inexpert eye at least, of New York State’s bountiful pantry as it does of the baking and curing and smoking traditions brought by Jews fleeing the poverty and pogroms of late 19th and early 20th Century Eastern Europe.
A signature item, for instance, the straightforwardly named “Salmon Classic,” combines the signature spread from Ben’s Cream Cheese in Spring Valley (a favorite of, among others, famed food writer and humorist Calvin Trillin) and smoked salmon from Catsmo Artisanal Smokehouse, and is completed by capers, onions and tomato. Catsmo, a Catskill-based firm, also contributes pastrami’d salmon to the likewise intuitively dubbed “Pastrami Salmon,” which includes Ben’s scallion cream cheese. Meanwhile, that icon of on-the-go New York breakfast food, the bacon-egg-and-cheese, features pork from Pat LaFrieda, a Bergen, New Jersey, meat purveyor with a three generation history.
Cold brew and drip coffee come from – who else? – Stumptown, a Red Hook-based roaster. Lacroix, Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite and Natalie’s Fresh Squeezed OJ complete the drink menu.
So what are the key differences between a New York and Montreal bagel?
“One big difference,” explained Daoheung, “is that Montreal bakers use a wood fired oven. It’s kind of like pizza with the little burn marks. Most bagel places [in New York] use something called a fish oven, where you just pop it in on a rotating belt. The Montreal oven just has one chamber, and the baker is really working his ass off to get each bagel perfect. It’s like a dance.”
“Furthermore, Montreal bagels are boiled in honey water; New York bagels are boiled in water containing malt or brown sugar. This means that, unfortunately, most vegans can’t eat our bagels.”
What then, are the characteristics of a New York bagel?
“The New York part is in the dough itself, which is salted. In Montreal, they don’t use salt in the dough. Also, Montreal dough is denser, New York’s is lighter.”
But New Yorkers will primarily take note, according to Daoheung, of the size of a Black Seed bagel; hers, in true Montreal fashion, is almost half that of one of New York’s husky specimens, which in a pinch could save a man from drowning.
I commented that it appeared she, Bernamoff and Kliegman had successfully – and, perhaps, even deliberately – Trojan Horse’d a Montreal-style bagel into a New York food scene bristling with the hostile Spartan spears of bagel partisanship. Chuckling, she deflected the accusation by, instead, discussing how Black Seed was initially received by New York’s old school bagel cognoscenti.
“There will always be haters,” said Daoheung, smiling. “Especially when you’re the new kid on the block. When we first opened, these 80-year-old bagel bakers would come in and grumble about what we were doing.”
“But there were also plenty of old guys who thought [Black Seed bagels] were amazing – and, actually, closer to what they used to be.”
Daoheung’s ethnicity and gender seem to have been additional factors in how the store was initially perceived by the old guard.
“They’d ask for the baker and I’d come up and they’d be like, “YOU’RE the baker?!” remembered Daoheung, bemused. “But most people appreciated our work, because, like I said, we were closer to what bagels were once upon a time, rather than the big bloated thing it is now, with way too much cream cheese.”
The chain’s success on New York’s mercilessly tough food scene has allowed for, along with an astonishing rate of expansion (adding one store a year, on average, since opening in 2014), political engagement and community outreach. Black Seed donates, for instance, to the Black Feminist Project, a Bronx-based social justice organization that emphasises health and nutrition, and chef Daoheung is hoping that pandemic-related restrictions will ease enough to allow for a partnership program with ex-inmates interested in learning how to bake. COVID-19 has also resulted in the suspension of long time Black Seed projects, including collaborations with outside chefs and bagel-making workshops.
But Daoheung doesn’t seem to be dwelling on the distressing effects of the health crisis (she is a chef, after all, a stoic breed not often given to the unconstructive gnashing of molars, unless it be at an under-performing line cook). Rather, she’s charging ahead with the Judaic culinary horde currently at her disposal, captained by seasoned old soldiers like Ben’s Cream Cheese and Catsmo Artisanal Smokehouse. Born out of the ashes of one (watery) catastrophe, chez Bernamoff-Daoheung-Kliegman seems built to weather our current one.
379 Suydam St.
Hours: Thursday – Sunday, 9 am – 3 pm
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