Meet the Bagel Guy of Buenos Aires

Jacob Eichenbaum-Pikser, a former geophysics student and Manhattan transplant, has introduced handmade bagels to Buenos Aires and can’t bake them fast enough to meet demand.

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Jan 20 2016, 5:00pm

In a city where food is always a sit-down affair and fish rarely makes the menu, one American is serving up a slice of New York in Buenos Aires. Jacob Eichenbaum-Pikser, 27, a former geophysics student and Manhattan transplant, has introduced handmade bagels to the capital and can't bake them fast enough to meet demand.

Argentina is not a breakfast and brunch country. Porteños, as Buenos Aires locals are known, prefer soft white bread and tend to consume hunks of beef late in the day. By all accounts, bagels and lox would be the last thing to take off.

"Because for a lot of people, this is their first bagel. I want this to be as authentic as it can be," said Jacob (or "Sheikob," as Porteños call him) as he flipped half a dozen bobbing rings of dough in a pot of boiling water. He's worked assiduously to replicate New York-style bagels and American-style cream cheese, and sells them out of a bicycle cart at Buenos Aires cafes.

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Jacob Eichenbaum-Pikser. All photos by the author. Hamburguesas.

"Bagels have become trendy, like all things American, among Argentinians," he said. A returnee from New York opened a knock-off Burger Joint in the trendy Palermo Soho neighborhood, setting off a craze for Now bagels and other American baked goods—muffins and scones and chocolate chip cookies—proliferate on cafe menus.

Eastern European Jews introduced the bagel to North America, but their cousins who immigrated to Argentina didn't bring the now-quintessentially New York delicacy with them. Much of the city's cuisine reflects the flood of Italian and French immigrants who populated Buenos Aires in the late 19th century.

What passes for a bagel in Argentina is essentially ring-shaped bread: spongy and flavorless, like something out of the freezer aisle. Traditional handmade New York bagels, by contrast, are formed from pre-fermented dough and left to rise in the refrigerator overnight. They're briefly boiled, then baked, resulting in a crunchy, paper-thin outer crust that conceals a soft but chewy interior.

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Jacob never planned to be a full-time baker; before moving to Argentina two years ago, he'd never baked a bagel. He studied geophysics at Brown and Columbia, but "wasn't singularly driven" about carbon sequestration in minerals, he recalled, "in the way that one has to be."

He changed course and flew down to Buenos Aires, where he had studied abroad during junior year. For a short while he worked as a private SAT tutor, which was profitable but not engaging.

He encountered "this proactive attitude" among his colleagues in Buenos Aires, he said, "a really strong valuing of pursuing your interests in life."

Argentinian food can get monotonous, he said. Soon enough he started longing for the Jewish comfort food of home, particularly the humble bagel.

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"Zabar's is my happy place," he confided. The iconic New York City establishment was a few blocks from his childhood home, and cream cheese and smoked salmon shmeared on a bagel was a mainstay. "I need bagels in my life. This is not alright."

But what began as a personal interest in recreating a taste of home soon exploded into small-scale commercial production. "All of a sudden, I had to make five dozen a week when I had been making five dozen a month," he said.

The early days were trial and error, the path toward perfection strewn with subpar, spongy bagels and burned toppings. Employing his scientific background, Jacob isolated variables and molded the recipe accordingly. Baking and geology share the interplay between pressure, temperature, and time—albeit bagels take much less time to form than sedimentary rocks.

A friend from a food co-op advised him to make a sourdough starter, which helped perfect the dough's consistency and flavor. It's a year-and-a-half old now and forms the nucleus of each batch, along with a preferment dough known as a poolish. (Jacob speaks of his sourdough like a pet, a living creature requiring regular attention and whose demise would be tragic. "My cat doesn't make any money for me," he quipped.) During a visit home, he rose at 4 AM on a winter morning to watch production at a New York bagel bakery and see what he could improve.

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As for cream cheese, the iconic Philadelphia brand was expensive and subject to the whims of importers, so after researching online, he started making his own.

"I've always wanted to do as much in-house as possible," he said, scooping the off-white cream cheese out of the cloth where it had matured overnight in the fridge. "It kinda happened first with the bagels, and now with the cheese—that moment where in your head you say, 'I can't do that. That's something that someone who knows how to do that does.' And then, 'Let's try and do it.'"

The greatest challenge, he said, was introducing a filling sandwich to a city with no taste for morning meals.

"I could not sell bagels for breakfast here," he said. "People wouldn't eat them—especially not with salmon." Instead, he offers them as a lunchtime option at a handful of trendy cafes in the Palermo, the Bohemian heart of Buenos Aires.

Demand skyrocketed after one establishment put in a weekly order for several dozen bagels, so Jacob moved operations out of his house and set up shop in the kitchen of a friend's Jewish grandmother's apartment. A large magnet of Sigmund Freud's head on the fridge is a reminder that the bubbie once worked as a psychoanalyst.

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He'll bake six dozen bagels three times a week. Sporting his signature Knicks hat, browline glasses and tie-dyed t-shirt, he rides a bicycle cart full of bagels and toppings to a Harry Potter-motif coffee shop on Thursdays to serve ready-to-order bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches. Fridays and Sundays, he wheels over to two other neighborhood java joints to dish out cream cheese and lox.

The product: fresh and familiar, the most authentic New York bagel south of the equator. The eggs, cooked in front of your eyes and topped with American cheese, are runny bundles of savory joy when sandwiched in a fresh baked bagel.

Entrepreneurial spirit and culinary creativity aren't the only factors driving Sheikob's Bagels, however. Jacob also channels the burgeoning American local food movement. Making bagels and cream cheese from scratch isn't enough.

"I really want to figure out how to smoke fish," to replace the farm-raised smoked salmon imported from Chile, he said. "That's the big next step."

Wild-caught trout is an option. After all, he wants to keep it local.