Max Santiago Is the Doughnut King of Miami

Last year, after helping to start perhaps the city's most famous dessert concept, the Salty Donut in Wynwood, Max Santiago hit the road. He opened a place in New York and consulted at some Miami restaurants. But he couldn't forget those early days in Wynwood when people would line up around the block for a maple bacon- or mimosa-flavored treat.

So the lanky 43-year-old pastry chef, who wears his straggly brown hair tied up in a bandanna while baking, is back with plans to open doughnut shops across Miami-Dade County.

"I just had enough of it," he says of the Salty Donut. "[But now] I don't want people to have to drive across town to have my doughnuts."

Through a partnership with Otto Othman, the executive chairman and cofounder of the Miami-based Pincho Factory, Santiago plans to open storefronts in West Kendall, Doral, and Wynwood. One of the locations will house the heart of the operation. The other two will follow with smaller setups.

Slated to open by mid-2019, Mad Max Doughnuts will offer both sweet pastries and savory doughnut sandwiches.

"It's funny, because over the last few years, everyone has called me Mad Max instead of Max," Santiago says. "I'm sort of like a doughnut mad scientist, so it makes sense."

"Take the recipes. I'll make better ones. That won't stop me from being as good as I can be."

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Santiago, a 20-year pastry veteran, has been a fixture in Miami's dessert scene for nearly a decade. In 2014, he was in the midst of opening Seagrape, a restaurant inside the former Thompson Hotel, with chef Michelle Bernstein. "I was working 18 hours a day, sleeping at the hotel," he recalls. "We did everything from scratch and it was a labor of love, but the work is never-ending in a hotel."

But then he met a couple — Amanda and Andy Rodriguez — who invited him to listen to their business proposal. Together, they ignited a doughnut renaissance in South Florida when they opened the Salty Donut on NW 23rd Street in Wynwood.

Santiago had found his calling. "I knew right then I would rather focus on one type of dessert than do a bit of everything."

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Max Santiago: "I'm nuts... but it's a planned nuts." View a sneak peek of Mad Max Doughnuts here.
Courtesy of Max Santiago

He says the early days at the Salty Donut were the happiest in his life. The pop-up shop was an instant hit, selling thousands of doughnuts a day. He had access to the best equipment, eager bakers, and an abundance of high-quality ingredients.

During his tenure, Santiago and Andy Rodriguez won Cooking Channel's Sugar Showdown. They created three doughnuts on the show, including a cannoli-inspired variety.

But by March 2017, less than two years after opening the operation, Santiago walked away. He declines to provide details about the split but acknowledges he signed away his recipes. He didn't think twice about leaving all those hours of work behind. "If they lost those recipes, they lost the whole world, but you can't take away my skill," he says. "Take the recipes. I'll make better ones. That won't stop me from being as good as I can be."

By June 2017, Santiago had joined the Sugar Factory American Brasserie as a corporate pastry chef in charge of 19 locations, including outposts on Lincoln Road and Ocean Drive. He also opened Sugar Factory's first doughnut shop on New York City's Upper West Side.

About a year later, Santiago landed back on television as a competitor on Food Network's Best Baker in America. He won the first episode, where he was tasked with making a "mind-bending cake." His creation was a vanilla rum cake resembling a real python. During a cheesecake challenge, he surprised the judges by doing a cartwheel on the set after his dessert turned out better than he anticipated. Santiago says he actually planned the seemingly spontaneous stunt so he could be memorable. "I'm nuts... but it's a planned nuts."

Though he placed well, making it all the way to the semifinals and finishing in fourth place, he admits there was a risk to being on a competitive cooking show. "It's pretty terrifying, but I had enough faith in my abilities. I think I represented the 305 really well."

Since then, he's kept busy as a pastry consultant for Miami-area businesses while planning Mad Max Doughnuts. He's worked on the dessert menus for Meat Market on Lincoln Road and Valentino's in Fort Lauderdale. This past summer, he spent a few weeks in Portugal while helping to open Lisbon's first craft doughnut pop-up. Crush Doughnuts, which is owned by the proprietors of a popular Portuguese burger place, sells about 1,000 doughnuts a day.

Santiago says he's even in talks to open a doughnut shop in Saudi Arabia. "I'm living very tight right now, but for the first time, I'm not worried about money. I'm doing what I love, and the money will come."

At least he hopes it will, particularly after a noncompete agreement he signed with the Salty Donut expires in March 2019. Mad Max Doughnuts will be the first of its kind, featuring breakfast-inspired sweet and savory doughnuts using what he calls a "new and perfected brioche doughnut recipe."

Though the menu hasn't been finalized, a peek reveals items such as eggs "benedonict," served on a buttered and grilled savory doughnut with homemade hollandaise sauce and candied bacon. There also might be bourbon French toast and a health-focused line of vegan and gluten-free doughnuts, which will be baked and loaded with antioxidants, probiotics, and protein. Prices average $2.75 to $3.50 per item.

Other breakfast- and lunch-inspired doughnuts will include avocado toast on a savory tostada brioche doughnut dressed with micro-cilantro, pomegranate seeds, and a fried egg. Also expect a seasonal fruit granola bowl with a glazed cake doughnut and almond yogurt, as well as a maduro fritter infused with cinnamon and drizzled with an ancho-Jupiña glaze.

Another idea is a baked cookie dough doughnut dipped in dark chocolate. Then there's a buttermilk brioche doughnut filled with guava and cheese swirl and covered by a cream cheese glaze and Maria cookie crumbles. He also plans to offer a liquid nitrogen Nutella hot chocolate doughnut, in which hot hazelnut spread is squeezed into a doughnut topped with nitrogen-infused meringue, chocolate ganache glaze, and a nut streusel.

There will also be a rotating selection of nearly a dozen other gourmet doughnuts, with new items introduced each week, he says.

For now, Santiago is based in a Hialeah commercial kitchen, where he's been taste-testing and developing recipes. "I've done so much trial-and-error over the last few years," he says. "I want to position this as Miami's higher-end doughnut shop."