Bagel Drama Boils Over in Northeast L.A. Over Alleged Misquote About What Makes an ‘Authentic’ Bagel
5:36 PM PST on December 6, 2021
Bagel-induced invective is up 94% this year in Los Angeles, and December isn’t even over yet.
The puffy dough rings have long been a frequent source of controversy in Los Angeles, victim to the same train of thought found in many a European/East Coast émigré talking smack about our town when they can’t locate a version of their beloved pizza slice/art museum/hoagie/culture after relocating to the West Coast.
Only this time… it’s personal.
Bagel + Slice is a brand-new bagel, pizza, and bialy-making café set to make its debut soon on York Avenue in Highland Park. The business comes from Brad Kent, founder of Olio Wood Fired Pizzeria and co-founder of the Blaze Pizza chain, who is dedicated to a painstaking process for making bagels that involves such moves as hand-rolling and kettle-boiling the main attractions.
The accomplished chef made the classic mistake of speaking publicly about something he cares about in 2021, quickly landing himself in a local social media firestorm over his answer about what constitutes a great bagel.
In an interview with Mashed, Kent was bigging up the traditional approach to making bagels he's learned, speaking about the 12 years he’s put into R&D and the hand-rolling he says you won’t find at most citywide bagel shops. All well and good. But then he trod into territory that drew a fierce response from a bagel business in the neighborhood that has been open for seven years now.
Prefacing his declaration cautiously, Kent dared to opine:
“The untraditional way is you'll see seeds on the top and bottom… I’m not saying that that always is the telltale sign, but it's a really good indication that something might be fishy… look around at those places that are seeding tops and bottoms, they probably are baking on parchment-lined sheet pans, not using bagel boards, not adhering to the traditional standards. And that's really important to me because I need to keep [the] Jewish bagel-making tradition alive.
Belle’s Bagels, also located on York—less than a half-mile from Bagel + Slice—is 100% not trying to hear that, see?
In fact, the owner got pretty pissed about the whole thing, jumping in to defend the kinds of top-and-bottom seeded bagels he and other esteemed bagel places like Maury’s, Hank’s, and Courage excel at.
In a fiery quartet of Instagram stories, Belle’s shows Kent’s comments in red underline before stating:
“First thing I’d like to say is that the bagels that you love and that we’ve been serving to this neighborhood since 2014 are apparently ‘phony…’ when it comes to the usage of ‘parchment lined sheet trays,’ when baking bagels that is a direct attack on people that don’t use a deck style oven. You know why a lot of us use convection ovens? Because we are small fucking businesses and we don’t have the funds to buy a 20-50k oven. A lot of our friends in the bagel world (when I say world I mean world, we are friends with bagel shops around this country and the world) use convection ovens and to imply someone’s product is ‘fishy,’ ‘phony,’ or ‘not properly baked’ is total bullshit and an insult to an entire community of bagel makers. Not all of us were lucky enough to be the co-founder of a national pizza chain. Maybe next time you have your PR team or creative director pitch an article to a publication you can keep your gatekeeping and elitist bullshit to yourself.”
While partisan aggression is no stranger to streets where even the cops run in criminal gangs (allegedly, of course), it feels like the alleged transgression may be best blamed on the publication who trumpeted their editorial angle with the headline: “Brad Kent Explains How To Tell If You’re Eating a True Bagel,” amping up the perceived heat of Kent’s words. In fact, Kent never appears to use the word “phony” or “properly baked” in the story, either.
Kent, who says he has received threats against the business and a couple of one-star Yelp reviews despite not being open yet, tells L.A. TACO he was taken out of context by the reporter and never disparaged another business. Kent says he was answering the question ‘What do you believe makes a great bagel,’ and was merely explaining the standards set by the Local 338 New York Bagel Bakers Unions, which was once to bagels what the VPN is to Neapolitan pizza.
“I was explaining that this just the way I determined I wanted to approach our business. ” Kent says, insisting that his shop is not some large corporation or a chain but a mom and pop shop run by him and his wife, who live in the neighborhood, for the benefit of the area and their two kids.
“One of the things that I thought was important as a Jewish person was to maintain some level of history and heritage alive by adhering to that sort of a standard. This isn’t something I suggested imposing on anybody else. I was stating what someone else said was the standard for bagels, and the standard I wanted for myself.”
Kent explains that getting the lease for Bagel + Slice from Occidental College involved writing essays on how the business was setting out to serve and give back to the community, something he says he’s taking very seriously, intending to feed locals good food at a reasonable cost and give back widely to neighborhood nonprofits and causes. He fears the recent blow-back paints him as the antithesis of who he is and what his concept's M.O. really is.
“[The publication] came up with the word ‘phony,’ I never used it,” Kent clarifies. “In the article, there’s not one mention of any other bagel shops. We have the transcripts. It was a fabrication by a publication that was trying to get something eye-catching. It’s a sad state of affairs when we’re trying to open up and do good.”
With Belle’s owner being such a supporter of his fellow bagel shop owners, it feels like Kent's clarification and own passion for bagels could see these guys eventually becoming friends and having a Bagelgate beer, saving York Avenue from war breaking out over a nascent bagel beef.
When it comes to bagels, L.A. has more to celebrate than fight over at the moment. As East Coasters continue to invade our streets, their attitudes towards our bagels are achieving a similar transformation of acceptance as our pizza and pastrami.
Recently N.Y. Times’ California food critic Tejal Rao declared Cali’s bagel scene to be superior to New York’s, while in the last few years, craft bagel pros such as Pop’s, Courage, Unity, Yeastie Boys, and Wexler’s Deli have boosted our bageldom’s reputation citywide, joining celebrated stalwarts of the L.A. bagel scene as Bagel Nook, Bagel Broker, Western Bagel, and New York Bagel & Deli.
Of course, West Coast bagel methodology has certainly come under question in the past. Kings County’s own Larry King once even lent his face and endorsement to the Original Brooklyn Water Bagel Co. chain, which “Brooklynized” its own water in-house in an attempt to convey greater New York bagel authenticity.
But the state of the bagel seems strong in L.A. at the moment.
And if there’s one conclusion we can draw from all of this, it’s that… this is not a fight we particularly want in on. A bunch of taco heads like us are happy to watch from the sidelines as passionate bagel-heads bloody their knuckles, verbally or otherwise.
But when it comes time to back up some astounding breakfast burrito or lace-up over a plate of chilaquiles, call us.
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