When I moved to Paris, it took me three months to find a real bagel. As a native New Yorker, I immediately sought out the Jewish bakeries on Paris' rue des Rosiers, but while I found challah and cheesecake, bagels were nowhere to be found. It was at an American superette, alongside Funfetti frosting and Oreos, that I finally found frozen H&H bagels sold in packs of six.
Nine years later, Paris is positively blooming with bagel restaurants, boasting approximately American names with improbable punctuation: Bagel Day'S, So Good Bagel, bagel's Family. Completely distinct from the nondescript deli where most New Yorkers buy their bagels and schmear, these restaurants are a testament to what Parisians think America is, decked out alternately in 1950s diner memorabilia or exposed brick—a wink at the current Parisian obsession with Brooklyn.
Mo'Bagels (which the owner originally wanted to call Bagelness) is one such shop, located near the trendy Canal Saint Martin. It feels like part Venice Beach skate shop, part Scandinavian sweat lodge, and for the past two years, it has been the source of one of Paris' most touted bagels, catering to the Monday through Friday lunchtime crowd. It's closed in the mornings; the idea of a bagel for breakfast is too farfetched even for the most daring of Parisians.
"I'm the first one to say I would never eat a bagel for breakfast," says tattooed, bearded owner and self-proclaimed hipster Olivier Ottavi. "It's completely inconceivable. And for lots of French people, I think, it's the same."
Lunch, on the other hand, was long overdue for a makeover, as far as Olivier is concerned.
"We're sick of sushi, baguette sandwiches—we eat them all the time," he says. "And there's a trend now where at least part of the Parisian population wants to discover new foods."
While the bagel seems to have finally had its coming out party in Paris, bagels have actually existed in France for decades, albeit in a very different form.
The Polish braided beigel first appeared on the rue des Rosiers in 1946, when Joseph Korcarz, a Polish Jew recently freed from Auschwitz, opened Korcarz bakery. This everyday Ashkenazi Jewish bread had already appeared on Manhattan's Lower East Side at the turn of the century and had even spawned the denser American bagel, made with local high-gluten flour.
But while the bagel soared to new heights in America, particularly after the 1963 invention of the bagel machine by Daniel Thompson, Polish Jews who fled to France after the War encountered a much different cultural topography than their American brethren: the predominantly Alsatian Jewish community that had prevailed in France since 1306 left no room, amongst cheese tarts with raisins and chicken soup with noodles, for these newfangled beigels.
"In France, you don't eat your special food outside of your home," says Yaelle Ifrah, a French-Jewish restaurateur. "You can eat it at home, and you're going to be an immigrant at home, but in France you have to blend in."
It wasn't until 1992 that Joseph's grandson Alain Korcarz began selling the American bagel with its "texture of chewing gum," according to Alain. He claims to have been the first person to bake them in Paris, at the behest of Euro Disney's Mike Leisner. Of course, transitioning from the beigel to the bagel was no easy feat. After six months of attempts, Alain called in an expert—not from Poland, but from the United States—to teach him to reproduce a real New York boiled bagel, with its dense, chewy interior and crisp skin.
The rest, as they say, was history. Euro Disney brought Alain a bagel machine from the States, and he happily provided the park's bagels for four or five years, upon which his contract came to an end.
"Europeans didn't want that kind of bagel," he shrugs.
Olivier's hipster bagels, meanwhile, definitely have a Parisian flair, with fillings ranging from salmon with grapefruit to chicken with pineapple and curry sauce. But he hasn't converted Parisians to boiled bagels—his bagels, while made by an American, are distinct from the New York recipe.
"In France, we have a bread culture, and in France, if the bread weren't adapted, no one would eat bagels," says Olivier.
Rachel Moeller of Rachel's Cakes is the Ohio native who supplies Mo'Bagels and many other shops and restaurants in Paris every day. She agrees with Olivier: it would be impossible to sell a true boiled bagel to Parisians—not that she didn't try.
"When we started doing bagels, we wanted to do it right and respect traditional methods," she says. She imported both a bagel machine and a water kettle from Excalibur Bagel Machines and began baking traditional boiled bagels.
The response was less than thrilling.
"They asked if they could be more like a baguette!" Rachel says. She was forced to adapt her current method, which includes steam blasting the bagels before baking them, for a version that is still chewy, but not too chewy.
In the kitchens at Rachel's Cakes, bagels are made alongside burger buns—about 5,000 bagels for every 30,000 buns. The pairing is no coincidence: for many restaurateurs, the two American imports, which have no real similarities save their roundness and vaguely Central European roots, go together like salt and pepper.
Olivier even sees the bagel as the more "feminine" version of the burger. "As a guy, I'm more likely to eat a burger, because it's big, because it's heartier, because men are meat eaters," he says. "A bagel is lighter. It's healthier."
This theory has little to do with the breads themselves, but rather with the sandwiches: in Paris, bagel has become a metonym for a sandwich served on a bagel, and even for a type of restaurant, as with First Avenue Restaurant & Bar, which owner Antoine Roche and manager Aude Le Bouter call a "burger-bagel."
No, that's not a mutant sandwich—it's an "American" restaurant.
"Instead of having a New York-style restaurant, I acted like I was in New York, and I created an international restaurant," explains Antoine. That said, the menu's not like any I've seen in New York.
"We've always got the bagels and burgers, because that's our identity," explains Aude, highlighting gourmet bagel sandwiches like the Little Italy, with cream cheese, prosciutto, sun-dried tomatoes, zucchini, and pesto; and the Louisiana, with marinated chicken, pickles, spring onions, cheddar, and ranch.
"We also have a lot of other New World flavors, so that our customers don't get bored," she explains. "So fried shrimp with a Thai vinaigrette, or we might use Italian burrata."
I'm not sure which New World those ingredients come from, but it seems to work. This may be because, as Antoine explains, most of his clientele has never actually been to the US.
"It's what we, as French people, expect from an American menu," he says. "Not necessarily what is eaten there, but what we think they eat there."
On most Parisian "American" menus, this translates to barbecued ribs and T-bone steaks. Here, that means the bagel, which Antoine believes that French people see as, "the refined American sandwich. Manhattan vs. New York."
I'm from Manhattan, and I'm not entirely sure what that means.
Today, in Paris, the same people who, ten years ago, associated American food with malbouffe or fast food—literally "bad food"—imported by McDonald's, happily fork over 15 euros for a subpar burger or odd bagel concoction, as long as there are flannel-wearing waiters and a map of the 4, 5, 6, Subway somewhere on the restaurant wall. Of course, if the French are finally willing to embrace American food, it may be because they believe that France is the reason American food is finally good.
"We still see American malbouffe everywhere, on TV, etc.," says Aude. "But I think that in Paris, we've made it much more refined."
In any case, you kind of have to hand it to this generation, which has overcome decades of scorning anything foreign, even if it means a bit of misguided cultural appropriation.