It takes more to become a James Beard award winner (and one of the nation’s best known pastry chefs) than just pedestrian red velvet cupcakes or chocolate chip cookies. In fact, well before Dominique Ansel’s Cronut had taken New York by storm, Momofuku Milk Bar’s Christina Tosi had already introduced her own series of game-changing sweets to the culinary canon, like Cereal Milk, Compost Cookies, and Crack Pie.
“Nearly every one of our creations has a hilarious story behind it, which always reminds me to never take myself so seriously,” Tosi laughs. “For instance, the Crack Pie was born out of a determination to make a sugar pie — a self proclaimed cross between a gooey butter cake and a chess pie — without measuring a thing and under-baking the sucker. It truly named itself,” she adds.
Tosi’s process may seem off-the cuff, but her creativity and drive has gotten her far, catapulting her from food safety officer for Momofuku’s David Chang to chef, owner, and founder of Milk Bar’s ever growing dynasty of quirky dessert shops, currently including six popular outposts in New York and one in Toronto.
“Opening Milk Bar has definitely been my greatest personal achievement,” concedes Tosi. “I created it, painted it, baked it, sliced it, and served it on my own volition. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do and I wouldn’t change a thing about how it changed, challenged and shaped me as a person, a friend, a leader or a chef.” We also spoke with the inspired creator of Bagel Bombs and Thanksgiving Croissants about why women tend to dominate the pastry world, her favorite (savory) guilty pleasure food, and how she plans to reclaim her “Best Comfort Dish” title at the upcoming New Taste of the Upper West Side.
Were you always into food and cooking, growing up?
I was an infamously picky eater as a child, but also had an infamous sweet tooth– all I wanted was dessert for every meal of the day. My mother stopped allowing me to only eat dessert, so I stepped into the kitchen to teach myself my favorite desserts. I loved it so much, I decided to go to culinary school and make it my profession.
What made you decide to pursue a career as a pastry chef instead of being a savory cook?
I have sweet teeth (as opposed to savory teeth) and I wanted to find a job that challenged my creative mind, that kept me on my feet, bouncing around all day, that pushed me to be tough and fierce, and never gave me the opportunity to feel bored or stagnant. I also LOVE to bake for people, to feed people. So I crossed my fingers, got my foot in the door in some kitchens, applied to culinary school and jumped!
What job would you say really kick-started your career?
I was hired as the head baker on Star Island, an island off the coast of New Hampshire, tasked at baking for 800 people, 3 meals a day, 7 days a week. I had my own little bakery kitchen and finally a real audience! I worked crazy hours, subsisted off of cookies, cakes and pies, and loved every minute of it. I knew there was no going back after that.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received from a chef friend or mentor?
From my mother: “Christina, just be yourself.”
What advice would you give to chefs (pastry or non) just starting out in this business?
Make sure you really mean it, and you’re getting into this business for the right reasons. From there, keep your head down, protect your sense of self and whatever you do, keep pushing!
How did you originally get involved with David Chang, and what inspired you to launch Momofuku Milk Bar?
I worked freelance for Dave doing food safety work. And I guess he saw some kind of “push” or “promise” in me beyond HACCP plans! He offered me on full time to help work “operations,” which was mostly office work, as much as a restaurant office is “office work.”
Besides the Crack Pie, can you share the origin stories of some of your other signature creations?
The Compost Cookies were born on Star Island where storms would roll in and we’d be tasked with churching up a cookie with not enough chocolate chips to make chocolate chip cookies or oatmeal to make oatmeal cookies, we’d clean out the cupboards and fashion together “compost cookies.” The Cereal Milk was an attempt to create a panna cotta (one of the most simple desserts a pastry chef should have up his/her sleeve) but in an interesting flavor that would hit home and compete with the memorable savory courses that always come before dessert!
As it is, your desserts combine some rather unlikely ingredients. But are there any recipes you remember testing that absolutely did not work?
There are ALWAYS more failures than there are successes. The recipe developing process is always, always, always about editing. About checking your ego at the door and learning to let go of your inspiration when it just doesn’t translate into a successful dessert.
What trends in the pastry world do you really get behind, and which do you wish would just die already?
I think of trends as coming and going… I don’t push to stay cutting edge. I push to keep it real within myself and within the walls at Milk Bar. I try to teach to never judge, to never worry about what’s hot, what’s not, what’s upcoming, what’s on trend. I don’t believe you can truly create with those things in mind. It’s not about being like anyone else or fitting in, it’s about being yourself and confidently standing up for and embracing it. That’s the secret to Milk Bar.
If you could only eat one kind of dessert for the rest of your life; cookies, pie, cake or ice cream, which would it be and why?
Chocolate Chip Cookies, fresh out of the oven….
Are there any ingredients you just cannot bring yourself to work with (or eat)?
I believe in being a very open minded person. I’ll try anything once.
What’s your favorite (savory) guilty pleasure food?
Why do you think it is that women seemingly dominate the pastry world, whereas men gain greater notoriety as executive chefs?
I have no clue. I only worked for male pastry chefs before standing at the helm of my own pastry kitchen. Like most hot topics, I think it depends on whom you ask and what their experience is.
I would imagine you get asked all the time what it’s like to be a woman in the restaurant community. Do you think that the disparity between the sexes is an important conversation to keep having, or do you think it’s actually harmful to keep shining a spotlight on the differences?
I was always taught to just be me, and not to worry about the rest. I work very hard to make space and encourage anyone and everyone in this industry and plan on doing so until the bitter end!
What was it like to win a James Beard Award for “Rising Star Chef,” and was it particularly sweet to beat out ‘savory’ chefs in that category?
It’s a pretty phenomenal feeling. First off, you black out; you don’t realize what REALLY just happened and you sort of just stand and smile and stumble over a few words. But AFTER the fact, wrapping your head around what it really takes to be nominated and then actually WIN?! It’s a very honoring place to be. It doesn’t mix the cookies any faster, but man, it makes you feel so darn energized hunched over a 140-quart mixer.
Your Cake Truffles won you the “Best Comfort Dish” title at New Taste of the Upper West Side last year, which you’ll be defending on May 30th. Who do you see as your fiercest competition, and what do you think it’s going to take to win again?
There’s a LOT of talent on the Upper West Side. It’s any man or woman’s game! I think the winner will keep it simple, but find a way to hone in on flavor, texture and comforting inspiration in a new, clever way.
What’s next for you? More branches of Momofuku Milk Bar, another cookbook, a stint on food T.V., perhaps?
In Spring 2015, Clarkson Potter will be publishing our second cookbook, Milk Bar Life, highlighting the way we celebrate the hilarity of life in and out of the kitchen, through both savory and sweet recipes, and good ol’ fashioned story telling.