Providence’s Milena Pagán, 33, arrived in Cambridge from Puerto Rico on a full scholarship from MIT, where she studied chemical engineering — a process not unlike bagel-making, she says. After stretches in consulting and in corporate research at CVS, she opened Rebelle not far from her home in 2017. Here, you can top your bagel with curiosities such as beet, dill, and horseradish cream cheese with a side of homemade Pop Tarts. In 2020, she opened Little Sister, whose empanadas and guava-coconut macaroons earned her a James Beard: Best Chef Northeast nomination. Later this year, she’ll open a second Rebelle at 249 3rd Street in Kendall Square, not far from her old dorm.
Tell me about the new Rebelle.
We started the process to move a store to Cambridge about two years ago. This has really been a long time in the making, to find the right space and to work out a deal. But we’re in a really cool building. We have tenants upstairs. There’s a park across the street that reminds me in a lot of ways of the neighborhood where Rebelle is right now. And being close to MIT is such a dream. That place has really good juju for me, so I’m really excited about it.
For those who’ve never experienced the Providence location: some details, please.
I would say it’s an unconventional bagel shop. We make everything by hand, from scratch, and we like to do funky flavor combos, like a squid ink bagel with black sesame and a kimchi togarashi cream cheese kind of vibe. That’s what we like. We make pastries. We’re super well-known for our Pop Tarts. We do espresso drinks. We make our own lox and have funky cream cheese flavors. So it’s just kind of a loud, fun, playful, cheeky bagel shop.
I know MIT holds a special place in your heart. But let’s go back to the real beginning. Where did you grow up? And did you always know you wanted to work in food?
It’s a winding path. I was born in Puerto Rico, in a town called Caguas, 20 minutes south of San Juan. I lived there all through high school. I was always a really good student, and I was always involved in creative pursuits. I always had some sort of hobby going on, fashion design or dance. I enjoyed cooking when I was younger. I used to throw parties with my friends.
When I was in high school, teachers were pushing me to apply to Ivy League schools, this and that. I looked into culinary school, but it didn’t really seem like you could make good money. I got into MIT. I got a full ride. I went to campus, and I just loved it. I loved how crazy different everyone was. Everyone was super passionate. It really resonated with me. And I just knew I needed to do that.
Did cooking feel like a risk after MIT?
Well, I studied chemical engineering, so they’re not so unrelated. At MIT, what I loved the most is that they really teach you how to think, how to learn new things. They encourage curiosity. They encourage tinkering.
So when I wanted to transition into cooking after my corporate job, I didn’t really feel like it was a thing I needed to go back to school for. It didn’t really feel out of reach. I was just like: ‘Let me start by making bagels. I’ll set it up like an experiment. I’ll grab a recipe, I’ll make it, I’ll take notes, I’ll watch videos, I’ll read interviews.’ There are scientific papers on how to make really good bagels with pictures of what happens when you try different variables. They’re not so unrelated.
After chemical engineering, people go pretty much into big pharma, big oil, consulting, or they go to school for more. So I did consulting for three years. And then I came to Rhode Island to work for CVS Health, doing retail strategy for them. Imagine having unlimited amounts of data and being given free rein to explore. I was teasing out projects on what kind of promotions people respond to better … a lot of strategic analysis. I did that for about three-and-a-half years in Providence, and then I quit my job to go into bagel-making.
What is it specifically about bagels that appeals to you?
I was eating bagels every day for breakfast when I was at work, and they were so bad. They were so average. They were pale. They were fluffy. They didn’t have a hole. They were like a bun. Why am I eating this bagel I don’t even enjoy? I was just putting food in my mouth. So I was like: ‘Let me give my mind something to play with. Let me try to make really good bagels.’
Do you think it’s easier to launch a food business in Providence versus in Cambridge?
I was already living here. I had a house that my husband and I bought. Practically speaking, it made sense. I still don’t know enough, to tell you the truth, to compare how easy versus hard it is in both towns. But I was already here. I was literally holed up in my home the whole day, making bagels and just perfecting my recipe. I went to cafes and went to restaurants and asked: ‘Who’s your chef? Do you want to try these [bagels]?’ There was no catch. That was fairly easy to do here, surprisingly easy. So then you just sort of keep walking through every door that opens. Every person you meet who enjoys your product, that’s awesome. Who else should I meet? Who else might enjoy this product? Can you connect me? Providence by virtue of being small and tight-knit really lends itself to launching a business like that.
We opened that store in 2017. Little Sister opened in August 2020, three years later, in the middle of the pandemic.
Tell me about Little Sister.
Little Sister is a tiny little cafe-slash-restaurant. We serve wine. We have Puerto Rican coffee and house-made pastries. A lot of them are Puerto Rican-inspired. And we serve breakfast, brunch, and some light bites at night. The idea is to highlight Puerto Rican flavors and culture.
What was it like to open in a pandemic?
It was insane. It was literally insane. We had already secured the space and started building it out in 2019. So the pandemic caught us with our pants down a little bit. And, you know, we just regrouped. My husband and I, and our contractor, we were in here every day, working on this space. … We put a lot of energy and time into making it beautiful, but it was really challenging opening in the pandemic and having to adjust the business model. Every time the restrictions changed, it was really exhausting, but we made it through the other side. I guess we’re on the other side now.
What’s the secret to your success?
I could beat the Energizer Bunny in a race. Legit. I have so much energy. Honestly, just sheer energy and eight hours of solid sleep every night. I am so disciplined about sleep. I think sleep is really important. I think exercise is really important. Eating well, right? If you take care of your body, then you can push yourself a little harder. And that’s what gives you the edge, because everyone’s day has 24 hours. So it’s all about what you get out of your time. And I am disciplined about getting good yield for my time.
What’s your secret to falling asleep?
Take up baker’s hours, when you have to wake up at one in the morning. You can put yourself to sleep under any conditions, I promise. There’s no amount of light or noise that can keep me from squeezing in a nap.
Is that really when you get up?
Not anymore. But in the beginning, before we opened Rebelle, we were working out of an incubator called Hope & Main, and we were doing pop-ups. So we had to show up super early to bake and then clean up that kitchen because someone else was going to come use it. Put everything in the car, and then go set up wherever we were going to pop up. We needed to have our bagels set up by eight in the morning, or we’d miss the window of opportunity, right? We were getting up really, really, really early to go do this. And it was in the winter, too. … It was sheer insanity. I don’t think I could do it again.
Let’s talk about the future in Cambridge. MIT obviously has special memories for you. Where do you remember going out as a student?
I loved going out. I lived in this dorm called Senior House, right on Memorial Drive. And so I would walk out of the dorm, walk down Memorial Drive, cross over the bridge, and then walk into the Back Bay and hang around on Newbury, Copley. All that area around Back Bay is so good for walking around shopping, having brunch, having drinks. So that was always my favorite. And in Cambridge, we used to go out a lot to Harvard Square, but it’s changed a lot since my undergrad years. A lot of the independent businesses are gone. It’s more banks. We’d go to Crema Café, Grendel’s Den, Upstairs on the Square, Kaju Tofu House.
Time for some quick, fun questions. What’s your favorite food vice? What can’t you stop eating?
Here, it ends up being a lot of misshapen pastries. Every time I bake in the morning, I set aside whatever pastries don’t look super pretty. And then we’re all nibbling at them throughout the day.
If I’m not at work, my favorite thing is french fries. It’s very simple, but just a really good basket of french fries and a glass of white wine can keep me there for hours, just going back for more.
Who makes the best fries?
I really like the fries at Atlantic Fish on Boylston, because they have the best tartar sauce.
What’s your food pet peeve? Something that you cannot stand?
I don’t like eating off of disposable-ware. If I sit down somewhere for a meal, it just kind of ruins the vibe for me. If you’re a food truck or whatever, then it makes sense. In a restaurant, I don’t want to eat off of disposables.
Bagel questions: toasted or not?
Warmed up and sliced.
Favorite cream cheese? Plain or creative?
Oh, definitely creative. There are so many to choose from. We do this caramelized onion one that tastes like French onion dip. I think that’s really good.