Philip Korshak says happy workers make tasty bagels. (And yes, his South Philly shop is finally opening.)
Why do his bagels taste so good? "My shop is a place of beauty and light, and it is because my shop is a place where equanimity and respect is inherent," he says.
Nano Wheedan recalls the day in 2005 when Philip Korshak walked into Home Slice Pizza in Austin to apply for a job. “We loved him,” Wheedan said. “I don’t know that he had any kitchen experience. He told us he made bagels at home. We didn’t hire him, but later he brought us bagels anyway.”
At the time, both men were Austin transplants — Korshak, a native of Brooklyn and a poet and scholar, making a stop on a physical and metaphysical journey with Kendra, his wife, and Wheedan, a Philadelphia-born musician who ventured to the Texas hill country after his Harvard graduation to play guitar and sing. In fact, Korshak said, he had only just begun to bake bagels at home because the local product was — he shudders — Einstein Bros.
Eventually, Wheedan brought on Korshak as a line cook at Home Slice, where he rose through the ranks to head its kitchen operations, overseeing 85 people, building a $9-million-a-year company, and gaining cred in the national pizzaiolo circle. Wheedan notes with pride how Tony Gemignani, the 13-time world pizza champion, praised Korshak during a keynote speech at the International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas.
To fast-forward this tale of food and friendship by 15 years and almost 1,700 miles: The men are in the bagel business together, and Thursday, May 13, is the openingof Korshak Bagels in a former bodega at 10th and Morris Streets in South Philadelphia.
Korshak, now 53, does the grunt work, and Wheedan, 40 — who has his own business making tortillas and Austin-style breakfast tacos out of the Bok Building — is supporting as an investor/business manager.
The shop has become the stuff of local lore. Korshak signed the lease in February 2020, around the time Wheedan moved back to town with his wife, Carinne, and has endured delay after delay. Neighbors have been greeted daily by Korshak’s poetic (and sometimes apologetic) messages written on craft paper and taped to the front door and posted to his Instagram, @korshak.bagels.poetry.
What they seek are Korshak’s bagels — plump, shiny-crusted beauties with a pleasantly light sponginess inside — which had developed a following over the last two years from his pop-up sales at Angelo’s Pizzeria in the Italian Market, where he made pizza dough.
The Korshak menu includes eight “tried-and-true” bagel varieties (including a Gemini, which is half poppy and sesame), plus six fancies, including Cooper Sharp long hot, cinnamon raisin, and egg. He uses local whole-wheat flour and rye from Castle Valley Mill in Bucks County and malt from Double Eagle in Montgomery County.
The house schmear is cream cheese whipped with goat milk and the brine of mozzarella from Mancuso’s cheese shop down the street, and you can also get chutneys and jams, smoked Nova lox and whitefish salad, plus coffee, kombucha, and teas.
The shop opens at 7 a.m. weekdays, at 8 a.m. weekends.
» READ MORE: A round-up (!) of Philly's finest bagels
One of Korshak’s secrets is his sourdough starter, which he named Helen Mirren. She began eight years ago, bolstered by a diet of green apple skins and Austin tap water, and has traveled with him everywhere, even sitting uncovered in a Montreal bagel shop for a half-hour once to absorb the local terroir. Korshak’s bagels are a two-day process, many using different biga — the mixture of flour, water, and yeast that is combined with dough.
Korshak’s second secret sounds more spiritual. Happy workers, he said last week in a chat outside the shop, make better bagels.
“The bagel is there to talk about what a shop can do and what human beings can do if they’re treated with respect and equanimity,” Korshak said. “The relation is with dough. You can boss it around and you can bully it and you can make it into a thing where people go, ‘Um. It’s a bagel.’ And it will be the saddest, densest, most awful thing in the world because you will have no joy and no life. Give it what it needs so it can be most fully realized. That’s also what running a shop is.”
“I have 10 human beings in there,” Korshak said, pointing inside the shop. “Of those 10, seven had never worked with dough beforehand.” He unwrapped a perfect-looking seeded bagel and held it out.
My shop is a place of beauty and light, and it is because my shop is a place where equanimity and respect is inherent.
“This is the bagel they made, with less than two weeks of working with dough in my shop,” he said. “That’s astounding, and it’s because my shop is a place of beauty and light, and it is because my shop is a place where equanimity and respect is inherent.” Korshak said he pays a living wage.
Wheedan buys into his friend’s theory. “I really believe that when made lovingly, dough is an expression of personality,” Wheedan said. “Nobody makes it the same way. I’m not going to say they’re better than any other bagel, but you can only get that bagel here. It’s a real expression of Phil.”
You’ll notice a carnival-style double wheel of fortune on a wall across from the counter. That’s part Coney Island shtick and part utilitarian. Indecisive? Let the wheels decide. One wheel has the various schmears, and the other, spun the opposite way, denotes the variety of bagels. An egg bagel with blueberry compote? A garlic bagel with mango ginger chutney?
“It started as the reaction to wanting to be passive-aggressive about people asking, ‘What’s good?’” Wheedan said. “We figured, let’s do this and make it fun. I see it as a way to have a delightful moment. It really doesn’t matter what you get. There’s joy in all of it.”