LIFE FUELED BY BAGELS

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAugust 2011 rozinlapaz

“In the end,” says Fabrizio Rozas, “after all this craziness and hard work — in the end, it’s just a bread with a hole in the middle.”

Maybe a bagel is just a bagel. But for Fabrizio and his wife and partner Patty Del Valle, this little bread with a hole in the middle has led them through twists and turns to a new life in La Paz. Their Bagel Shop y La Galería in the historic centre of the city is the end of a journey that spans two continents and several years — an adventure fuelled by bagels.

A Chilean dreams of bagels

Fabrizio was born in Viña del Mar, near the city of Valparaiso, Chile. He became a set designer and, at the age of 28, travelled to Las Vegas. “I came for three months and stayed 12 years.” In the U.S., he designed sets for film, theatre and television and dreamed of moving to New York to work on the set of Sesame Street.

Meanwhile, Fabrizio’s appetite for the breads from his homeland led him to the bagel bakeries of Las Vegas. “In Chile, we love bread. The bagel is the closest thing to Chilean bread.”

He was determined to learn how to bake bagels, a tricky-to-make bread that’s boiled before it’s baked. “I tried to teach myself from books and the Internet. I started making them, and they were horrible.” So he took classes with a chef and became intrigued by the mathematics of baking — especially the formula, developed over hundreds of years, for producing the perfect bagel.

“In class I learned how to make croissants and cakes. In my house, I would do the bagels. Truly, it took me two years to work it out. I would bake three times a week and bring the results to work.”

In Vegas he saved his money and bought a $6,000 machine that divides the dough and forms the bagels. “I bought it and then ate tortillas and beans for six months.”

Fabrizio’s passion for bagels had reached the point of no return.

Patty defies the odds to get to Vegas

Patty del Valle’s journey to Las Vegas started with a chance meeting and an upside-down statue of a saint. She was 18 and had just graduated from high school in La Paz. She ran into a friend who was heading to Las Vegas for a wedding, and the friend invited her along.

“Are you kidding?” Patty replied. “My mom doesn’t even let me go to the beach by myself.” Patty had no passport and no money for a plane ticket. She figured it would take a miracle to get her to Las Vegas.

The friend insisted they ask Patty’s mom, anyway. As for the miracle, she persuaded Patty it wouldn’t hurt to seek a little divine intervention. The two girls made an appeal to the statue of a sympathetic saint. They turned the statue upside-down, a folk ritual added for good luck.

To Patty’s surprise, her mom said she could go. Patty applied for a passport that same day, and her uncle, who worked for an airlines, came up with a free ticket.

Patty’s stay in Las Vegas lasted 22 years. She learned English and earned a university degree in journalism. She worked at MGM Mirage in public relations, representing 200 restaurants and executive chefs.

Along the way, Patty met Fabrizio and got swept up in his passion for bagels.

Leaving Las Vegas

Fast-forward almost a decade. Three years ago in Las Vegas, Patty and Fabrizio reached a turning point. They now had two daughters and were sick of the casinos, the gambling, the city’s preoccupation with expensive cars and a lifestyle that drove people into debt.

They asked themselves, “Do we want to stay in Vegas, or do we want to change our lives?”

They decided to move to Chile. The plan was to stop en route in La Paz for just six months. While there, they would try to make some money selling bagels.

Right from the start, Fabrizio ran into a glitch. He couldn’t find the right flour for bagels. He sought help from the Bread Guy in La Paz, Les Carmona, whose successful Pan D’Les bakery, on Madero on the corner of Ocampo, specializes in fine European breads. “Les was super nice,” Fabrizio says. The Bread Guy helped Fabrizio find what he needed and was generous with his expertise.

So Patty and Fabrizio produced a dozen bagels in their kitchen. They brought them to a friend’s coffee shop and displayed them in an old Sony stereo cabinet that Fabrizio bought at a segunda. Their first customer broadcast his satisfaction the next morning over the ship-to-shore radio program known as “the cruisers’ net.” And Americans started coming. Patty sold bagels in the marinas and on the street. Soon she became known as “the Bagel Lady.”

The kitchen oven could handle only six bagels at a time. Production doubled, then tripled, until they reached their maximum of 40 bagels a day. As demand increased, they couldn’t keep up.

Enthusiastic customers offered loans for expansion. Businessmen suggested partnerships. In the end, though, Patty and Fabrizio turned down all offers, cancelled the move to Chile and invested their life savings in what had once been an office for the newspaper, Las Ultimas Noticias. It was a shell of a building with no electricity, no plumbing, no gas. Along with renovating, they purchased an immense rotating oven in which bagels get a sort of ferris-wheel ride so that they bake evenly.

After months of preparation, the Bagel Shop y La Galeria opened in July 2011. Downstairs is a cafe and “bagel bar” with its assortment of bagels, cream cheeses (everything from classic to chipotle), fresh-squeezed juices, coffee and breakfast dishes. Upstairs is an art gallery and meeting space, available without charge for community use.

Fabrizio has no time to rest on his laurels, but he does spend a moment to reflect on his identity. “I have a Mexican wife, U.S.-born daughters. I’m a Chilean guy making Jewish food.”

And, oh yeah, he’s also a man obsessed with bagels. They actually talk to him during his early morning baking. “You’re working with yeast, which is alive,” he says. “You’re always communicating — a bagel tells you, for example, ‘I need more time in the boiling water.’ You never stop learning. And every day, the bagels get better.”

And to come full circle (so to speak), here’s a final thought about a little product that’s “just a bread with a hole in the middle.” Fabrizio says the process for him has been more important than the product: “It’s been an opportunity to meet people, to learn from the community and to share something that we love.”

Bagel Shop y La Galería: Belisario Dominguez between 5 de Mayo and Constitución. Hours: Tuesday through Friday, 7:30 a.m. to  2 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; closed Mondays. Phone: 12 55878.

(originally posted August 2011)