Enter the ring – the quest for the perfect bagel
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
This is a story about love, obsession and bread rolls shaped like a ring. Dan Martensen is a fashion and portrait photographer who shoots for publications such as i-D and Vogue, and brands including Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger. Martensen is also a New Yorker (he grew up in Westchester). In 2019, after nearly 10 years in Brooklyn, he moved with his then-pregnant wife and three-year-old daughter to north-west London. They had a son. Then the pandemic hit. With work at a standstill and feeling homesick, he became fixated on a “soul food” that had always signified home: New York-style bagels.
Martensen would like to make clear he loves East End-style bagels, which can be found at London stalwarts such as Beigel Bake and Beigel Shop on Brick Lane. But those are “a different thing entirely” from the bagels he was craving. East End bagels tend to be plain. New York bagels come with classic toppings such as poppy seed, sesame, onion, garlic and “everything” (ie all of the above). NY bagels are also crispier, maltier and come with schmears (flavoured cream cheeses) instead of salt beef or sandwich fillings. They tend to be chewier, too, though that’s a matter of debate.
Ask Martensen why NY bagels mean so much to him and he will say, “Why does tea mean so much to the British? It’s like the ticking of a clock.” Bagels are an essential marker of his New York day. Or at least every other day and Sundays especially, when brunch requires them. “We’d get a dozen bagels, a bunch of schmears, make some tuna salad and egg salad and have this huge feast with family or friends,” he says. “Every New Yorker has their favourite bagel shops in the neighbourhood, and a few others too.” His include Ess-A-Bagel in Midtown (with branches elsewhere) and Olde Brooklyn Bagel Shoppe in Prospect Heights. He also rates Russ & Daughters and Barney Greengrass for their schmears and smoked fish.
Grounded in London, Martensen scoured Google Maps for bagel shops, biking around the city in search of the perfect specimen. He even joined a WhatsApp group in his postcode to take advantage of a weekly bagel drop. The results fell short, with the notable exception of those from Papo’s Bagels in Dalston, launched by a husband-and‑wife team from New York. But Dalston was too far to become a regular haunt. So Martensen decided to make his own. “I wasn’t looking to get into the bagel business,” he says of those early efforts. “I’m a hobbyist. I like finding out how to make stuff.” It wasn’t until his friend Chris Ammermann, co-owner of Caravan restaurants, hooked him up with their head baker Jack Ponting that the pair cracked the recipe and produced bagels with a crusty exterior and deep flavourful chew that Martensen could be proud of. He messaged his WhatsApp group. Within a day he got 250 orders. Things grew from there.
By 2022, the pair had debuted “It’s Bagels” at Caravan Roastery, launched a successful delivery service on Slerp and secured endorsements from Alexa Chung, Laura Jackson and Daisy Lowe. Theirs was one in a growing number of NY-style bagel shops opening across the UK, including Bross Bagels in Edinburgh and King Baby Bagels in Newcastle. This month, Martensen opened the first bricks-and-mortar It’s Bagels shop in Primrose Hill. Customers can expect the classic range of bagels, a changing selection of schmears (including Martensen’s favourite, jalapeño cream cheese), smoked fish, deli salads and hot and cold drinks.
In some ways, this latest chapter is a long-held dream’s realisation. “I’d always wanted to open a restaurant,” says Martensen. “I’ve been working in kitchens since the age of 14. I worship chefs. In a lot of ways, the madness, heat and rush of a kitchen is similar to the photo world.” In other ways, it’s been a pretty crazy journey. “There is no logical progression where a photographer becomes a bagel baker,” Martensen says. And the worlds of bagels and high fashion? “Totally different. Bagels are carb-heavy.”
And yet: “I hope this is one of these great life lessons for me,” he says. “I like to think everything is bagels. I did this because I loved the idea. I didn’t put the whole world of pressure on myself. I just did what was in front of me, had fun and because it was something ‘as silly as a bagel’, it never felt like [work].”
Bagels have started to infiltrate his practice in the studio. “I did a photoshoot with Julianne Moore and I was like…” His voice drops to a whisper, as if peddling marijuana: “‘Do you like bagels?’” As for celebrity endorsements, “iconic Jewish actor” Eugene Levy would be his ideal. Or Larry David. Or Jeff Goldblum. “I was recently on a plane with Jeff Goldblum coming back from Milan,” he says. “He’d just done the Prada show. Shame I didn’t have any bagels on me. That’s what I need to do now – have bagels on me at all times.”
2 spring onions
200g good-quality cream cheese
30g smoked lox
2 teaspoons capers
2 sprigs of dill
Two thin slices red onion
• Finely slice two spring onions and mix thoroughly into your favourite cream cheese.
• Slice the bagel in half and spread a generous amount of the cream-cheese mix onto each half.
• Fold the lox slices and lay them on one half of the bagel and top with tomato (if using), 10–15 capers, thinly sliced red onion, dill and a big squeeze of lemon.
• Close the bagel with the other half.
BECSPK (Bacon, Egg, Cheese, Salt, Pepper, Ketchup)
4 rashers of streaky bacon
2-4 slices of American/burger cheese
• Put a pan on low heat and fry the streaky bacon rashers until crisp, flipping every few minutes.
• Meanwhile, slice your bagel in half and squirt a ring of ketchup around each half.
• Once the bacon is cooked, set aside, then add butter to the pan and fry two eggs on medium heat for three minutes and flip. Add salt and pepper to the eggs, and top each with 1–2 slices of American (burger) cheese.
• Cover the pan, turning the heat to low for another three minutes or until the yolks are cooked 75 per cent through – you want soft, jammy yolks but not runny – and the cheese is melted.
• Place both eggs, stacked, onto one of the bagel halves and top with four pieces of bacon, before closing with the other half of the bagel.
• Hold the bagel firmly, so the filling doesn’t squeeze out, and slice in half.