Interview Series: Noah Bernamoff

Illustration by Myrtle Quillamor

Illustration by Myrtle Quillamor

There are great bagels in NYC at places like Absolute Bagels and Bagel Hole, but since the perfect bagel has a lot to do with what is most familiar, I would argue that, for me, the perfect bagel only exists at Black Seed.

You were attending law school in New York when you came up with the idea of your first delicatessen, Mile End. Was there a particular moment when you realized that being a chef was what you wanted to do?

NB: I’ve never thought of myself as a chef (chefs are trained in the field and have mentors, which is certainly not my experience) – I’ve always been a restaurateur with a keen interest in how my food is prepared. I don’t think there was a particular moment when it clicked that this is what I wanted to do in life and, to this day, I still think about many other business pursuits. However, there was definitely a moment toward the end of my first year in law school when I recognized that practicing law was not a path I wanted to pursue.

How did you and co-owner Matt Kliegman of The Smile come together to create Black Seed Bagels?

NB: Both Mile End and The Smile are located on Bond St in Manhattan so we’ve been friendly for a number of years. Following Hurricane Sandy and the substantial destruction of our commissary in Red Hook, Matt was one of the first people to reach out to offer help (The Westway, Matt’s nightclub, was also damaged). We began hanging out weekly over Coors Banquets to complain about this industry – Matt would bemoan the absence of Mile End bagels and from there, the idea to re-launch the bagel with a stronger nod to NYC was born.

You’ve described the perfect bagel as “chewy, a little gooey on the inside, crispy on the outside. It has a nice, uneven shape to it. It’s nicely coated in seeds. And it’s properly sized.” Other than your own establishments, of course, where can one find one of these perfect bagels in New York?

NB: There are great bagels in NYC at places like Absolute Bagels and Bagel Hole, but since the perfect bagel has a lot to do with what is most familiar, I would argue that, for me, the perfect bagel only exists at Black Seed.

Having been born and raised in Montreal, Canada, has this somehow influenced your take on bagels and more generally, food?

NB: Montreal has amazing food and a deep appreciation for the foods that are unique to the city. The icons of the city have remained largely guarded from change and so eating in Montreal is like a journey to the way things were prepared decades ago. Exposure to these traditions in their almost museum-like state has strongly influenced the way I approach eating, and appreciate flavors and traditional methods of food preparation. 

When traveling back from Canada, what is the one food item you always bring with you?

NB: I used to bring back bagels… Nowadays, I always make sure to pick up my favorite candy bar, Coffee Crisp.

Now with two Mile End Delicatessens and a Black Seed Bagels shop, how do you find the time to balance your personal and professional life?

NB: We technically have two Black Seed operations at this point, Elizabeth and Hudson Eats in Brookfield Place, Battery Park City. I’m pretty bad at balancing my personal and professional lives: My staff usually has to tell me to go home or not come in on the weekend. It’s the reality of being very detail-oriented and hands-on in this industry. Now that summer is upon us and business is slowing, I can find more time to get out of the city and relax but the anxieties of absence are always there in some capacity. I’m not actually complaining – I chose this path and feel fortunate to be pursuing a passion instead of some mundane career. I imagine that at some point, operations will become more regular and I will be able to lead a more balanced lifestyle. I’m still young so that goal is likely attainable.

When you’re not working vigorously to prep, prepare and cook food for your devoted clientele, what do you like to do?

NB: I know this sounds a little crazy but Rae (my wife) and I really enjoy going out to eat. A little known fact about restaurant workers is that we don’t consume very much food while we’re at work so going out to eat with friends is often a treat. I also enjoy listening to music and sneaking in the odd round of golf or day on the ski slopes.

We once read that you grew up learning to cook from your Nana – what is one piece of advice that she has given you that you still keep in mind today?

NB: You can always add/request/take more but you can never put back. It was initially used to teach me to season chicken soup slowly and carefully but I’ve realized over the last five years that it’s an adage not just relating to food, rather it helps set clear guidelines for all decision making.