Dianna Daoheung wasn’t necessarily angling for bagel dominance when she set out to create Black Seed’s unique recipe. Her bagel combines the qualities of New York and Montreal varieties, retaining the crisp, glutinous chew of city bagels, while simultaneously exhibiting the honeyed sweetness and petite size of their north country rivals.
Yet her reinterpretation has transformed the humble shop into a veritable empire, with six stores in operation in New York, and a seventh appetizing store that will open in the fall. And though the executive chef and head baker has twice been nominated for a James Beard Award, in addition to a pile of other accolades, the recognition has been somewhat lost on her family, most of whom still live in Thailand. (Both of her parents returned to their country of origin after raising Daoheung and her siblings in the States.)
“When I first told [my family] I was going from advertising to cooking they were like, we didn’t come to America for you to go into the kitchen,” Daoheung said. “They were pissed off because they were like, why did you even go to college, then?”
We were sitting on recently refurbished benches at Black Seed’s Nolita location, on a sunny day in late July, a month or so before the location would reopen to the public. The restaurant was being rebuilt after it was hollowed out by a fire back in March, and the air was perfumed with the smell of sawdust, the occasional screech of a buzzsaw punctuating our conversation.
Daoheung is gregarious and down-to-earth, with a warmth and an impish sense of humor that made even the dark gutted space feel inviting. “Now that I’m old enough, they’re accepting of it,” she said, speaking of her family. “They see how happy and fulfilled I am like ‘Hey she can actually pay the bills doing this.’ Nine, 10 years later, they see I’m thriving.”
All of Daoheung’s family, save for her siblings, live in Udon Thani, what she refers to as the Boston of Thailand, for its swampiness and lack of tourist appeal. Her mother, who is Laotian, met her father while he was helping out at a Laotian refugee camp in Thailand. He was a Buddhist monk at the time, but decided to leave his practice behind after falling in love with her. The couple had two children before a Christian coalition sponsored their move to Columbus, Ohio, where Daoheung was born.
“As I got older, I had a sit down with [my father]. I wanted to know, why did you choose America out of all the places? I thought he was going to say ‘I wanted a better life for my kids,’ but instead, he was like, ‘When I was a kid, I snuck into theaters all the time and I saw pictures of America and I wanted to come.”
Daoheung’s family eventually moved to Florida, chasing factory work. Sharing food was a central part of their life together, but growing up, Daoheung’s family adhered to a strict “no talking” policy at the dinner table every night, because her parents, who each held multiple jobs, were always exhausted by their final meal of the day. “The last thing they wanted to hear is a 5-year-old with an 8-year-old and a 13-year-old talking about nothing,” she said, laughing.
Instead, Daoheung bonded with her father by sharing household chores, and with her mother by helping prepare family meals. She grew animated as she described her childhood tasks: deveining shrimp, using the pok pok to start curries. Together, she said, they shredded coconut by hand and made coconut milk from scratch.
Listening to her speak, it was hard not to wonder whether it was strange for her to find herself in the position of the high priestess of bagel arts in New York, despite growing up with and having deep emotional attachments to Thai cuisine.
“I think that is why I didn’t want to cook Thai food, actually,” she said. “I did it all my life. It’s one of those things where when you take a pleasure and make it into a business, it doesn’t become a pleasure anymore.”
As such, Daoheung chose to study pastry at the French Culinary Institute, rather than cooking. “‘If I was paying this much money,’” she said, “‘I wanted to learn something I didn’t know.” She later trailed at Pok Pok, but turned down an opportunity to work there, because she felt like she would be retreading old territory.
Instead, a friend who lived above the original Mile End, in Carroll Gardens, connected her with a job cooking in the kitchen of the Jewish delicatessen when it was still being built out.
“At that time there wasn’t any baking yet, so I was slicing meat, slicing brisket and pastrami, deep frying french fries,” she said. “I fell into the Jewish cuisine thing just by default of someone taking me in,” she said, laughing. “I didn’t even know pastrami was a very very very Jewish thing!”
At the time, the owners of Mile End were still hauling bagels in from Montreal, but soon, they asked Daoheung to help with making them in-house. She devoted herself to the assignment, poring over history books about Jewish cuisine, discovering along the way that the bagel has a surprisingly rich multicultural past.
“When you look at bagel history itself, it was originally really strict.…[To make bagels], you had to be male, you had to be the son of a Jewish baker, you had to speak Yiddish.” But when the bakers’ union went on strike, the factories “had to allow all these other people come in, and it was a lot of immigrants.” (Daoheung speaks at length about the rich history of the bagel in an interview with Francis Lam at “The Splendid Table.”)
Threads of that history continue in the present day. Lately, Daoheung has noticed an uptick of Thai workers in bagel shops across New York. “There’s this weird thing where I meet a bagel owner, and they’re like, all my bakers are Thai,” she said. “There’s Absolute Bagel in the 50s, and they are owned by Thai people. I want to figure it out! I want to go to these bagel places and ask them [their story].”
She suspects that it’s a classic immigrant narrative. “Making bagels is extremely exhausting, it’s like heavy dough, it’s not sexy,” she said. “There’s steam from this big boiling pot, heat from this oven, so it’s people who are willing to work their butts off and that happens to be the amazing immigration population that comes to America, in general.”
This fall, Black Seed will open a seventh store in Chelsea Market, devoted to appetizing. The shop will feature sturgeon and Black Seed-branded caviar, among other high-end items, a marked departure from the other shops, which mostly sell staples like bagel sandwiches.
“Chelsea Market will give me leeway to be more creative about things,” Daoheung said. But similarly thrilling is the return of her beloved Nolita store where we were sitting, which had been her first. (The store made its full return last week.)
“This is my baby,” she said. She pointed to the newly installed windows, still covered in paper. “All those windows were broken out, it was like completely black in here and just water everywhere from them hosing it down.” She sighed, reflecting on that difficult morning.
“On the flip side, the good thing is, since it was our first store, we didn’t know we were going to be so popular, we didn’t know what we were doing, at all,” she said. “It’s kind of a silver lining, where we get to rebuild and renew.”
Wei Tchou is a writer in Brooklyn whose writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, and The Outline, among other publications. She’s currently working on a memoir about ferns.