Black Seed’s Dianna Daoheung Has More Than Bagels on Her Mind
Like, for instance, really delicious Italian cookies.
When Black Seed bagel shop opened in Manhattan’s Soho neighborhood in April 2014, the response among New Yorkers was overwhelming: Almost immediately, the tiny shop—owned by Mile End vet Noah Bernamoff and overseen by baker Dianna Daoheung—had lines out the door. By 3 p.m. on opening day, the place had completely sold out of its wood-fired, Montreal-style bagels—which critic Robert Sietsma heralded as “near-perfect.” In the last two years, Black Seed has expanded the operation to include a new, much bigger location in the East Village, which opened last fall at the former De Robertis bakery. Thanks to the increase in square footage, Daoheung was able to broaden the menu to salads and pizza bagels; earlier this month, she also launched a pastry program featuring a whole new selection of cookies, brownies and other baked goods. We spoke with Daoheung about the challenges of opening a bagel shop in Manhattan, the impetus behind her new pastry line, and her desire to one day bring a good artisanal bagel to Los Angeles.
So tell me a little bit about your background and how you ended up as part of the Mile End team.
I moved to New York about 11 years ago from Florida. I had just landed a job in advertising, but I wasn’t very passionate about it. After four years I was like, okay, either I stick with this or I leave now and figure out what I really want to do. I didn’t come to the conclusion at that point to start baking—I was just like, you know what? I'm going to take a small hiatus and figure out what I want to do. Like basically every college kid, I had restaurant experience, so I went back into that world to make a little extra cash. Ultimately that led me to cooking school; I went to the French Culinary Institute for pastry. After I graduated, I met Noah [Bernamoff] through a friend; the friend lived right above Mile End, and he was like, "Hey, there’s this awesome delicatessen that’s opening up right downstairs." Mile End wasn’t even open yet; there was still paper in the windows. So I stopped in and introduced myself to Noah. I really liked his vibe. That was how I eventually started working as a line cook there. At the time, Mile End wasn’t yet Mile End.
About a year later Noah said he wanted us to start doing our own breads. Myself and this other gentleman were just like, "We’ll do it." So it all started with Mile End.
After that, you worked at Boulevard in San Francisco for a bit. Why did you leave, and what drew you back to the NYC restaurant scene?
I felt like I needed to experience another restaurant, just for my own benefit. Boulevard was the complete opposite from Mile End. It’s a very Michelin Star, French-American establishment. I gained a lot of great experience out there, but I started to miss the grit and realness of New York. And then Black Seed came about not too long after I came back. You know, Noah approached me—really just as a friend—and was like, “I'm about to open this bagel shop.” At the time I was a sous chef at Isa in Williamsburg. Being a sous chef is great, but I love, love, love doing bread. I kind of missed doing that. So I said, “You know what? I wouldn’t mind getting back into the baking world.” It turns out he needed somebody who could not only manage the kitchen, but also manage the front of the house. It’s such a small operation, he wanted somebody who could GM as well as do the baking.
Where did this interest in baking come from, other than culinary school? Did you have a background in it at all prior to that?
DD: No. I come from a really traditional Thai household; I grew up in Florida but my parents came to America in 1981. There is a little bit of baking in the Thai culinary scene but it’s not specifically with bread. When you go to Thailand you’re not going to ask for the best baguette in Thailand, you know? [Laughs.]
So I definitely grew up cooking with my mom, but the baking came when I went to culinary school. I specifically took pastry because I knew the least about it. I really wanted to challenge myself. I was also aware that the hours are super early, that it is a very exact science. And if anything, that part lured me in. I am a little bit OCD, but I still really like the challenges of baking… especially with bread. Cooking a steak, if you mess it up it’s only a 15-minute pickup; whereas, if you destroy bread it’s a whole day’s worth of work. I kind of like that challenge. [Laughs.]
Amazing. So you started working with Noah and decided to do Black Seed. What were some of the challenges to taking on such a huge role there?
The biggest difference is that in the past I strictly worked in the kitchen. I didn’t have to think, “Oh, what are the servers doing?” Now I have to look at the bigger picture. There have definitely been challenging moments where I felt stretched absolutely thin. You know, there are not many other restaurants where the chefs also do the payroll; most places they’re just concerned with food costs and labor. But I had to learn about the business end of things as well. And I actually found that I very much enjoyed that new challenge.
Black Seed attracted a lot of attention from the get-go. Did you feel any particular pressure starting a new business from that position?
Yeah, absolutely. It was insane to me. When you first open a place, you don’t know if there’s going to be a line. The only thing you can control is the quality of your food. Especially with something nostalgic like the bagel, everybody has an opinion about it. That was the hard part. We felt pressure to please everybody and to get a good review. I felt it especially, because we were the new kid in shop and we did have lines—so I had to justify to people why we had such long lines. But Noah just kept reminding me, everybody’s going to have an opinion. So you just have to focus on what you do and ignore the haters.
In your new East Village location, you recently expanded the pastry program. What drove you to branch out?
Previously we only had access to a small oven. But we were working with a lot of talented pastry chefs. So not only did I want to show off my team’s expertise, but there was also the fact that we took over 110-year-old pastry shop that’s so well known in New York. There are still people who come in and tell stories about how they used to sit in this corner; I really wanted to pay homage to them. This sounds kind of hippie-ish of me, but you can really still feel like the spirit of the family that had been there for so long, baking these amazing Italian pastries. For us to take over after them, it was really important for me to show New York and especially the East Village, hey, we’re trying to keep that spirit alive. Obviously we're doing a rainbow cookie.
In terms of both Black Seed and also on a personal level, is there anything that you’d like to get to in the next couple years, or areas that you’d like to expand into?
Talking about Black Seed, we definitely would love to open a couple of additional locations in New York and maybe in other cities like L.A., Miami—you know, hubs that are definitely lacking that kind of awesome artisanal bagel. And then, personally, to be honest with you, I’m just trying to figure out how to make time for myself. That’s definitely been the hardest thing. When you care about something so much, even when you schedule a day off, you don’t end up having it; you still end up working on something, you’re playing catch-up. As a cook it’s really important to still get inspired by things outside of cooking and in order to do that you need to separate yourself. So I'm really trying to balance that.