On the one morning each week when Philip Korshak was not running his bar on the East Side of New York, and his wife had a day away from her CNN editing bay, they spent their mornings the same way: Korshak would stop at Bergen Bagels in Flatbush and pick up two bagel sandwiches, a coffee and a copy of the Sunday paper.
When job burnout prompted a move to Austin, Texas — a bagel desert — Korshak needed to find a way to revive his and his wife’s tradition.
“I’m a romantic human, and I was unwilling to give up the thing that was important to us,” Korshak said. “And so I looked at her and I said, “OK, so, I’ll learn how to make bagels.”
A long stint as a pizzaiolo at a New York-style pizza place in Austin gave Korshak his baking chops, and a new home in South Philadelphia three years ago gave him a clean slate and bedrock for Korshak Bagels, where he could purvey bagels to far more folks than just his wife. The shop celebrated its first birthday earlier this month.
Through his bagel shop, Korshak’s goal is to “manifest joy” through a fresh take on a humble Eastern European bread, using sourdough starter “Helen Mirren” and locally sourced ingredients.
Though born to a Jewish father (and parents married by a rabbi), the 49-year-old does not consider himself religious. Yet he abides by a dogma that can’t be considered anything less than spiritual: “Every bagel is a love story.”
Korshak’s temple is the shop at 10th and Morris streets in South Philadelphia, where he slings tried-and-true schmear-and-lox bagel sandwiches and reinvents the wheel with cheesy Cooper Sharp long hot bagels and homemade jams, including a clementine jam made with dates and Sichuan peppercorns.
A self-proclaimed “recovering academic,” Korshak posts poems for his customers, who loyally wait in a blocks-long queue outside the shop, to see. He scrawls verses about the summer heat and city sounds on bakery paper with a Sharpie.
Korshak’s mother taught her son at an early age the importance of poetry. Long before Korshak was pursuing a master’s in poetry at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, he learned the power of poetry to express universal truths in a neatly wrapped package, where the negative spaces in the prose have just as much meaning as the words around it.
After years of crafting a similar physical product — a ring of substance with a signature hole in the center — Korshak came to view poetry and bagels as similar.
“With poetry, what you’re trying to do is express something that is very, very large in an incredibly limited way,” he said. “That the amount of control that you have has to be given up almost completely, in the idea of how it’s going to affect the human being who’s reading it.”
Those familiar with working with yeast, particularly the wild yeast found in sourdough starters, understand the importance of relinquishing control over their product. Even if a baker measures each ingredient to a gram and follows their own recipe, the yeast may respond differently to different weather or bacteria in the air.
“The nice thing about dough — and, more importantly, wild yeast — is that it doesn’t move on the same time frame as us,” Korshak said. “It moves on its own, and therefore, when you start putting your feelings around what an hour is, or what a day is, or what three days are, or what a beginning is, or what an end is — that’s all very fine and great, but it really has no resonance.”
Korshak’s experience in embracing change and unpredictability extends beyond his product. Last summer, the shop’s 14 workers unionized, a decision Korshak supported.
“I hired 14 people a little over a year ago. They were all strangers and, within the space of three months, because they wanted to see a world that was different … organized themselves to become a union, and that’s beautiful,” he said.
The baker’s romantic sensibilities connect his support of his workers to his core belief that every bagel is a love letter.
Korshak believes that one day, the next generation of workers, in and out of his bagel shop, will work to make the world a better place, but he is at peace knowing he won’t be alive to see that day.
After he finishes a bagel — taking it out of the oven, slicing it open and filling it with schmear and jam or sizzling egg and cheese — Korshak comes to the same conclusion: When he hands over the bagel to the customer, he’ll never know the bagel’s true impact on the customer.
“The best thing about a love letter is … you’re putting that on paper, and you’re putting it out there, and you will never, ever be there when the person reads it,” Korshak said. “And you will never ever really know what happens with it. In fact, you’ll only ever know that your intention of love was pure. That’s the point.”