Milena Pagan is the founder and head baker at Rebelle Artisan Bagels. In August she opened a storefront on the corner of Doyle and Camp, the culmination of a meteoric rise fueled by yeast, flour and mathematical calculations, Including a chemical engineering degree at MIT and the spreading popularity of her homemade bagels through pop-ups, the support of local businesses and word of mouth. We caught up with her after three weeks at the storefront.
How’s the bagel biz?
I love it. When I was still at MIT, one of my friends was like, “This is the most challenging thing you’re ever gonna do in your life,” and I was like, “Man, what a bummer to peak at 21!”
[That’s] no longer the case. This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I sleep maybe five hours a night, and literally all my waking hours are spent here or running errands. I’m kind of exhausted.
Do you find that any of your chemical engineering skills come into play?
Oh yeah. We run the kitchen kind of like an engineering facility. When I was trying to figure out how many bagels we could make per day, for example, I scheduled out each part of the process; everything was timed, we figured out ways to do things faster, how to cut a few minutes off of this [and] that.
A lot of people are very confused by the fact that I would do this but when I talk to people from MIT, they get it, weirdly enough. Because we have exactly the kind of personality to be like, I’m going to take something very simple and unassuming and elevate it to its full potential.
Walk me through the process of how the bagels get made.
We start at 3am and make the dough. We let [it] proof for a little while, then we [use] a dough divider… [that] splits it into equal-sized portions. Then you roll it into a log and wrap it around your hand, and then you press on it to seal it. We do that many, many, many hundreds of times.
Then we put it in the walk-in cooler to do a cold-proof, [which] slows down the yeast, ramps up bacteria and other kinds of funky microorganisms that are in the dough, and gives it a more developed taste. The yeast are producing alcohols, the bacteria are producing acids and that gives it the unique flavor and… the crust, so when you see a bagel and it has a blistery crust, that’s the sign of a cold-proof. Then the day after, we bring them out and boil them and then bake them. It’s a two-day process.
What’s the transition been like between working with your hands and being a business owner?
I think of myself as a business person first. I just taught myself how to bake because someone had to do the baking. My dream isn’t to be in the kitchen. I’ve always enjoyed working with my hands, I like creating, I like the instant gratification of making something really good, selling it right away, seeing people enjoy it. I really like working in food. It’s very fulfilling, it addresses that nurturing side of me. You can go to sleep with a clean conscience, and that’s all I’ve ever really wanted from a career. Just be happy and feel like I’m making a good contribution. But I’m very ambitious and this isn’t going to be the last thing I do.