June 2024
Local Food
Chef Molly Beverly

500 Bagels and Magic Chef Max

Chef Max Pelham with his mountain of bagels

It’s Theodore’s magic bagel factory, and I get a tour!

Chef Max Pelham is the magician and Theodore is his dog. Theodore’s Fine Foods is the hit of the Prescott Farmer’s Market, with bewitching bagels, pastries and doughnuts running from the opening bell to sold out, with a long queue of happily hooked eaters.

Rolling the dough with Chef Max

I’m one of them, so I’m thrilled to have a chance to visit the magic shop itself — the commissary kitchen. Chef Max meets me at the door and tours me through the former restaurant at the corner of Marina and Sheldon Streets. The dining area and bar are bare, with great potential for fresh ideas, and Chef Max has a few. He walks me through the projected revamp. Plans are sketchy till we pass through the kitchen doors. Here real magic is happening now.

Max introduces me to his assistant Ezra and a bubbly mass of poolish. Poolish is the fermentation starter — flour, water and a bit of yeast. It’s already been working for several hours. I watch Max pour the sloppy batter into a big mixer bowl sitting on a big scale. He adds more water, flour, salt, yeast and a bit of enzyme supercharger (diastatic malt powder), all carefully weighed and measured. The flour is Arizona grown from Hayden Mills (haydenflourmill.com) mixed with organic high-protein bread flour.

At this point Chef Max pulls out his stash of magic ingredients and adds flavor punch to the dough. The green chili-cheddar bagel batch gets Hatch green chili powder (Max says “Hey, don’t inhale as I throw this in”). The Turkish bagel batch gets paprika. Another batch gets coarse cracked pepper and black-pepper essential oil, for the salt-and-pepper bagels. The one for fig-and-olive bagels gets chopped figs and kalamata olives.

As we talk Chef Max dances with the dough, turning batches from the bowl to the mixer, to the scale, to the rolling table. Every 145 gm (5 ounces plus) is individually weighed and hand rolled into coiled rings. Then 500 coiled rings go into the fridge for 24 to 36 hours, where the magic of yeast fermentation and enzymes slowly break down starches into flavorful, digestible sugars. You can taste it in every bite. Compare this process to commercial bagels, which take three hours from start to finish on a conveyor belt, and they taste blah. Max’s bagels are fan-damn-tastic.

Three days after the poolish starts, the bagels come out of the cooler and it’s time for the final magic — boil, dip and bake. Boiling gives bagels that thin, chewy crust. (Commercial bagels are steamed on the conveyor belt.) Boiling also leaves a surface sticky enough to hold all the savory seed toppings: everything on an Everything Bagel and all the dried onion, sumac, and Aleppo pepper, granulated honey and coarse salt on a Turkish bagel. After dipping the bagels are baked in a high-heat, fast-drying convection oven.

There’s more. Magic Chef Max makes his own live-culture cream cheese and salt-and-sugar-cured, cold-smoked lox, for an unbelievable “Bagel With Lox” morning treat.

But bagels aren’t Chef Max’s only trick. He also makes laminated doughs, with 64 alternating ultrathin layers of pastry and butter, for an array of flaky French pastries. Some of these are laced with cocoa powder, producing a rich mahogany-brown, deep-flavored chocolate croissant. All the fillings, frostings, glazes, spreads, dressings, and toppings are produced right here in Chef Max’s magic kitchen. Even more: Chef Max also produces doughnuts with the same care, attention to detail and personal commitment.

Do you need another reason to head for the Prescott Farmer’s Market on a Saturday morning? I got there at the 7:30am opening, in time to see Chef Max smiling behind a mountain of 500 otherwordly, magical-tasting, delightful bagels, his display case loaded with 100 beautiful pastries, 24 cinnamon rolls, and 100 doughnuts. Everything screams “eat me!” I came back four hours later, almost at market closing time, and everything was gone. Better get there early!

Chef Max will be renovating the old PUB restaurant location at 239 North Marina, to open sometime late this summer. Then we’ll be able to catch the magic every day, not just on Saturday morning. By the way, is Theodore’s Fine Foods magic or hard work and dedication? It tastes like magic, but I think it’s a pinch of all three.

Find more on Theodore’s Fine Foods at theodoresfinefoods.com.

Chef Molly Beverly is Prescott's leading creative food activist and teacher. Photos by Gary Beverly.