“MJ always has to touch the dough. Always,” explains Chelsea Hillier, assistant pastry chef. It’s 5:56 a.m. and work on the day’s prep list has already been in motion for 30 minutes. We’re spending the morning at the Genuine Commissary, where the energy is decidedly different than later in the day. It’s… well… therapeutic?
To understand how a place so frenetic can glaze-coat the spirit and spark a twinkle in the eye, you have to be there. In fact, I prescribe a visit with MJ and her team to anyone afflicted with a case of sour attitude or bad day. It’s a dose of good vibes, creative energy and inspirational collaboration like no other I’ve experienced. Talk about knowing where our food comes from… They have their hands all over it.
“We started making the bagels because Harry and I went to brunch on Miami Beach,” chef Michael recounts. “Harry’s bagel arrived, and it was like a Lender’s. At this fancy place! I listened to myself as I justified how this could happen — that it’s too hard to make good bagels, so why go through the pain of making sure it’s done right, the extra cost and time associated. It was then when I realized that was totally ridiculous. We shouldn’t have to suffer through shitty bagels. Let’s make bagels! So Harry and I spent a few weekends after that testing recipes and figuring it out.”
MJ, whose title of Pastry Chef is more and more savory these days, and Chelsea have totally embraced this thought process and put it into action, with their well-oiled machine. It’s an exercise in “mental time management”, and to get good fitness there serves them in every aspect of functionality and productivity at the space. That they are taking on bagels to begin with demonstrates the strength of the operation, and its steady and calculated evolution from humble beginnings in January — both in capabilities and the scope of its role. The commissary now supplies Ella Pop Café with 12 to 14 a day (“We want them to be fresh, and eliminate waste when possible, so no crazy pars,” they say) and 56 on Sunday’s for Michael’s Genuine.
“We used to do the English muffin at brunch, and Chef was like ‘I want you guys to do bagels’ and he gave us this recipe and asked us to develop it,” MJ explains. “It really came to life when we got the commissary and this (combi) oven. There aren’t a lot of places that make them by hand, from scratch. We just worked with the dough and used the Rational as our ally to make the best of it in a controlled environment. Before we would boil them, we were trying to be rushed at the restaurant to get it done, and they weren’t right.”
As Chelsea rolls and then rests the dough before pulling them into loops, she explains that the bagels take good chunk of time even if it is only 12 to 14. The key to bagels is keeping a clean workspace, and that also includes your hands. You don’t want to incorporate more flour or oil than necessary, even the tiniest bit. They need to sit and rest for the gluten to develop properly in the dough, not too much or they’ll get tense and rip, overextending like a muscle.
“It’s a time to breath and think amidst the craziness of the pace from one thing to the next. It’s like therapy,” she reflects. “The time they need depends. You need more than time to know. You have to touch them, and use all your senses to know when. I usually stare at the prep list and contemplate as I’m pulling them.”
So much depends on time and timing here for it to all work, from the bagel dough and all its stages including proofing and baking, to adjustments on call times for the staff based on the work load for the week. When the duck confit goes in for its 9 hour water bath (sous vide) at 8 a.m., you better have completed everything requiring the combi oven by then. In this way, the prep list double as a recipe, which Chef notes only serves if read all the way through before starting. Then there’s the last minute requests, the fire drills you can’t plan for, like a downed walk-in cooler, that can set things off axis and require smart, creative thinking on the fly. It’s a business of anticipation but also of problem solving.
The day builds momentum from the instant Chelsea opens the kitchen, a mind-blowing (cue the new emoji!), eye-squinting 4:30 a.m. on Sundays. The morning is the most hectic because because the team needs to knock out all orders for the restaurants, to supply everyone — and they want things fresh. They base everything off Ella’s timeline so that means 8:30 a.m. delivery. On days there are early orders for Michael Schwartz Events, that could be 7:30 a.m. Rye Butterscotch Brownie trimmings make it all better, of course. So does the surprise, creative elements unique to each day.
“We never do the same thing. Everyday is different,” Chelsea smiles. “There are certain routines and things we need to make. Sometimes we do cupcakes or special cookies. Whoever is making the donut gets to make what they want to make and have a creative outlet. If we want to bring something in we always make sure we have a plan for it. I’m working on developing the brunch menu to reflect the arrival of season. So if I bring in pears, we find ways to cross utilize them across many restaurants and formats.”
Then there’s the fun of watching MJ and Chelsea bat back and forth like a tennis, crosschecking tasks and playing off each other’s moves and sensibilities, which are opposed in the most fluid and collaborative way. Complementary, like any effective creative pair.
“I think everybody at the commissary really enjoys working here,” MJ reflects. “We all come with a purpose and work equally as hard, and at the end of the day that’s what worth it.”