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When a major player in the bagel world gets into the game, New Yorkers take notice. And when Major Food Group — the guys behind Carbone, Parm, and Dirty French — open Sadelle’s, a bakery-turned-brasserie featuring egg sandwiches, caviar, and house-made bagels on the menu, you’d better believe the head of their pastry and bread program works with the precision of a chemical engineer.
Which is where pastry chef Melissa Weller comes in.
As a kid, the world of cooking wasn’t particularly compelling to Weller. She was born and raised in Pennsylvania, and while she craved food with a cultural backstory, her future seemed to be focused on a place far from the kitchen.
“I was a very good student in school, and particularly good at chemistry,” Weller tells the Voice, “so I think my parents just expected me to do something like medicine or engineering.” She got her degree in chemical engineering and started work as an engineer in her twenties, but she hit a wall early on: “I struggled because I wanted to find meaning in what I did. In the mid-Nineties there was a revival of this book — What Color Is Your Parachute? — that got me to thinking I should be doing something I enjoy.”
The idea of feeding people offered the cultural connection she craved, she realized, and that spark begged exploration.
After getting a degree from the French Culinary Institute in New York, Weller found work at Babbo under the late Gina DePalma, working largely with classic Italian pastry: “I poured myself into everything I did. It felt so rewarding to work that hard.” Yes, the long weekends and strings of no days off were hard — “I sometimes regret it, but it’s all worth it,” Weller says today. And that dedication led to her moving up rather quickly. As the head baker at Per Se, her days were filled with the high demands of devising modern-American desserts, and so to break up some tension she started to play with bagel making at home for fun.
“I’m a very methodical person,” she says, “and you need to be very methodical both when you’re an engineer and when you’re making pastries and bread. You need to understand science to understand fermentation.”
She enjoyed making bagels so much that she began doing so for staff meals at Per Se, using sourdough starter to lend a little more chew and tang. Then she started making them at Roberta’s on weekends while the head bread baker there. Finally, in 2013, Weller started East River Bread and began selling bagels and homemade cultured cream cheese at Smorgasburg in Brooklyn.
She knew it was only a stepping-stone to get her back in a larger kitchen, but she relished the hands-on time. “I had to say, ‘OK, I’m by myself now.’ It was fun, because anyone in a managerial position always wants to be on the line in the first place — it’s why you’re in the profession. Everywhere else I’d been behind the scenes, so it was a nice time because I sold the bagels and directly got the feedback. Well, it was both good and bad, because it was really intense: Someone would liken them to bagels I don’t like, or tell me the crust was too dark and it made the bagels too chewy. It made me really conscientious about being too sensitive, but it’s probably also where the obsession to get the right texture of the bagels came from.”
Weller continued to put those chemical engineering skills to work, varying ingredients, fermentation, ovens, time, and temperature until her relatively small, slightly sour plain bagels, a somewhat radical take on the everything (the onions are cooked and folded inside, then topped with sesame, caraway, poppy, fennel seeds, and salt), got eaters to take serious notice.
Which is where the Major Food guys found her.
Now dubbed “the bagel whisperer,” Weller is a managing partner in Sadelle’s, known not only for her bagels but for chocolate babkas, her cheesy blintzes, oatmeal cookies (that take four days to make), and a rotating variety of old-school Jewish pastries like bear claws and danishes. She went from making a few hundred bagels a week by herself to now making 2,000 of them on a weekend day alone, along with 200 sticky buns and 25 loaves of babka.
And that, of course, presented a few new challenges. “When it’s just me making something, I can make it perfectly and it’s gorgeous,” she says. “But when you have a staff, you have to constantly work on training them and having them make it in the way you want it to be made. That’s very hard to do.” When they first opened Sadelle’s, they baked mostly with an overnight team, and it was “very challenging from a quality control point of view.” They switched to baking most things fresh every morning in their Brooklyn commissary kitchen — but kept those bagels baking out every twenty minutes on site at Sadelle’s. “It’s an ongoing challenge…it’s hard. You find what works best for you, to continually train and hire your staff,” she says.
For now, Weller will focus on expanding her bagel production to supply Major Food Group restaurants on a wholesale basis and, of course, perfecting new recipes with the same precision as her bagels. She’s particularly excited about laminated yeasted dough: “It’s challenging to work with and it’s the most fun to eat. You have to ferment the dough properly and get the butter and dough at the right temperature at the right time. That’s always a challenge.”
The challenges may not have stakes as high as those in medicine or engineering, per se. Yet while Weller jokes that her parents “didn’t understand, and still don’t understand, me going into pastry,” it’s a challenge she’s still satisfied to accept.