"We'll have to stay away from this kettle," warns co-owner Michael Robinson of the Chesapeake Bagel Bakery, leading 17 three- year-olds from River Park Nursery School past what one child has dubbed "a swimming pool for bagels." Hot tub might be a more accurate term, for the water is boiling and teacher Christine Mayer reminds the kids: "Remember, we said there would be things too hot to touch." Boiling the bagels is a few steps down in the process, anyway,and the group gathers around a huge mixing bowl. "We put a hundred pounds of flour in here and luke-warm water and -- the rest of the ingredients of our secret recipe," explains Robinson. "Sometimes we have to add more water or more flour because of the atmospheric conditions." The children are more interested in action than in atmospheric condtions, so Robinson turns on the machine. The roar of the big dough hook attracts the kids like a magnet and, even though there is a safety guard over the bowl, the air is thick with apprehension. "I'm going to turn this off, because I'm getting a little nervous." says Robinson, leading the tour to "our own magic bagel- maker." The magic bagel-maker is a machine called a Bagel-Matic, and the chief dough- maker, Adam Reiss, is putting some dough into an opening at the top of the machine. "This machine can make fifty dozen bagels an hour," says Reiss, and already the double circles of raw dough are being pushed out of the machine and riding down a belt toward some cornmeal-covered trays. Some are not quite perfect, and Reiss whirls the offenders around a finger, making sure that the center hole will be round. The bagels that pass Reiss' inspection go onto the trays, which are placed on covered racks so the dough can rise. "The dough we're making today will be baked tomorrow," explains Reiss. But there's no need to wait that long, for on another covered rack are some bagels ready for "proofing" -- taking a brief bath in the boiling pool. If the test bagel comes to the top in five seconds, the batch is ready to go into the freezer, which will stop the action of the yeast. When the freezer door opens, the kids want to go in too, which is all right with their teacher as long as they go in small groups and don't stay too long. "All right, Jenny out, Kristen out, Eric out," she insists after a decent interval. "Noah, do you want to go into the freezer?" It's five below, Celsius, in there, so the kids don't want to stay in too long anyway. The bagels stay in at least six hours, however, before they're ready for boiling. Chief baker Dan Rothchild, who takes over where the dough-maker leaves off, slides the bagels off their trays and into the churning caldron. "We're going to make what we call in bagel parlance a triple-header," says Rothchild, fishing the boiled bagels out of the kettle with a ladle and placing them on rosewood boards covered with burlap. Three kinds of toppings -- poppy, sesame and onion -- have been put on the various boards to be baked into the bagels. As Rothchild slides the boards into the rotating oven, which has been going since five in the morning, 17 pairs of eyes widen in disbelief. "That's much bigger than our oven," says a little girl. "That's much bigger than anybody's oven," says a boy, opening his arms as far as he can. In two minutes, when the racks inside the oven have completed two revolutions, the oven door is opened again and the bagels are taken off the boards and placed directly on the oven racks. It will be another 12 minutes or so before the bagels are ready, so the children decide they'd just as soon eat some from dough-maker?" "No," says a child ready to make a career decision at age three. "I'd like to be the baker."

TOURING THE BAGEL BAKERY The Chesapeake Bagel Bakery at 215 Pennsylvania Avenue SE will show its facilities to families and groups of up to 20 people, by appointment. Tours must take place between 7 and 10 a.m. and 3 and 4 p.m. For an appointment, call Michael Robinson or Alan Manstoff a week in advance on 546-0994.