The xoJane Interview: Momofuku Milk Bar's Chef Christina Tosi
Christina Tosi is the chef, owner and founder of Momofuku Milk Bar, called “one of the most exciting bakeries in the country” by Bon Appetit Magazine. As founder of the dessert program at Momofuku, Christina helped Momofuku Ko earn TWO MICHELIN STARS. Not only was she the 2012 recipient of the James Beard Rising Star Chef award, she is a finalist for the 2014 Outstanding Pastry award. In short, she's very impressive.
If I was this impressive, I would probably get pretty full of myself pretty quickly, but Christina is one of nicest, warmest people I have ever met. She is one of those people who truly believes in working hard and staying true to yourself. (Which happened to be the subject of her talk at the Cherry Bombe Jubilee.)
I literally want to eat every single thing at Milk Bar. The soft serve, the crack pie, the corn cookie, really all the cookies. I haven't even tried any savory items yet, but I yearn for the pastrami and rye pocket.
Chef Tosi was nice enough to answer my questions. I did my best not to fan girl all over her, but it's hard when she says things like "the only exacting point of mixing a batch of cookies at home is that I will eat exactly 3 rounds of dough before I’m willing to consider baking anything."
Claire Lower: When you started out at the French Culinary Institute, did you expect that you would one day be running your own kitchen?
Christina Tosi: Honestly, I had never made it that far in my head. My goal was to move to NYC, get enrolled into the FCI keep my head down, learn as much as humanly possible and find a big name restaurant that I could apply myself (Bouley!).
CL: Do you like being the boss?
CT: Depending on the day, being the boss can be a double edged sword. That said, I wouldn't change it for the world. I build what I have from the ground up, even on the most trying day, I relish in what I've built with my amazing team. I don’t like to play the “boss” card unless I really have to. I look at milk bar as a collective. It only works if we all work together.
CL: Would you say you are a perfectionist?
CT: I’m a perfectionist when it comes to integrity and hard work. I try not to sweat the small stuff i.e. a pristine apron if the heart is in the right place, the rest will come.
CL: I know a lot of home cooks (myself included) who have literally cried over a burnt batch of cookies. How do you keep perspective about failed experiments or recipes?
CT: You have to embrace the failures as much as the successes. Much of the boundary crossing parts of milk bar came from mis-measurements, over baking or stumbling upon a discovery in a failed recipe test. It’s about staying strong and getting creative when the going gets tough that really defines who we are. Embrace, embrace, embrace the burnt batch of cookies. I was raised by a mother who would literally scrape the char off, smile and hand you the cookie. "No thank you," was not an optional answer.
CL: A lot of people are intimidated by the exactness of baking. What’s your advice to home bakers who are intimidated to try tricky recipes or worry about exact measurements?
CT: No way! That sounds like a quitter’s excuse! I bake with a cook’s mentality. I taste everything, I’m very liberal about how I measure when baking at home. I don’t fret -- the only exacting point of mixing a batch of cookies at home is that I will eat exactly 3 rounds of dough before I’m willing to consider baking anything. You have to understand the how’s and why’s. What undermixing/overmixing dough will do, what too much/little sugar might bring, salt, baking powder baking soda, etc. Baking is safe because there ARE measurements, but you still have to use the same senses you use when cooking: common sense, eyes, ears, nose, mouth. It’s trial and error, but not exacting and scary!
CL: Do you recommend weighing ingredients for home chefs or are volumetric measurements “good enough”?
CT: If you want to get it just right, scaling ingredients to the gram is going to get you dead on precision. If you’re making a batch of cookies, you don’t need to worry, if you’re making a finer pastry or dessert component with several ingredients of varying small quantities (i.e. ¼ teaspoon, 1/8 teaspoon, etc. a gram scale will get much sharper, more precise results.
CL: Your pastries are very playful and nostalgic, but also aesthetically simple. Do you ever feel the urge change things up completely and get really fancy with the decorating?
CT: I’m not really a fancy decorating person, my style of sweets just isn't that precious. I’m a down home baker with formal pastry training. I relish in making food that looks irresistible to the sweet tooth, that’s impossible to say "NO" to. The precious pastries for me are so visually stunning I never want to cut in and eat, just smile in precious awe.
CL: I love the exposed layers in your cakes, where did the inspiration for this look come from?
1. I’m not fussy enough to want to crumb coat and flower up a cake
2. Each of our cakes has a point of inspiration and a deconstructed formula to the layers: cake, flavored soak, filling 1, textured layer, filling 2, cake, repeat, top frosting, etc. A GREAT deal of time and care goes into each element, flavor, layer, color, etc. It always seemed like a shame to me to cover it all up with icing. (And trust me I love icing more than anyone else I know!)
CL: Do you ever worry that you’ll run out of ideas?
CT: Inspiration = ideas. So until this world is devoid of inspiration (and I take it in from all around, not just food!) there will never be a shortage of ideas or passion or enthusiasm from Milk Bar.
CL: Our culture seems to view home cooking as a very “female” activity whereas being a professional chef is perceived as very “macho.” What do you think the reason for this discrepancy is?
CT: Honestly, I know more men who cook at home and a kitchen of gals (and guys too) at Milk Bar who are killing it. I suppose it’s just about who you ask and how you ask the question.
CL: Professionally, how much of a barrier has sexism been for you? Did you ever feel like you were limited or discriminated against in kitchens or school because of your gender?
CT: Nope. A professional kitchen, in general is a place for grueling, knuckle grinding, sometimes offensive work. I never looked at myself as anything other than a cook and expected nothing back in return other than being looked at as a cook.
CL: Do you feel that it’s the media or the industry that is mostly responsible for perpetuating sexism in the culinary world?
CT: I honestly don’t spend much time considering or participating in the conversation. I keep on doing me, and encouraging others who are strong, passionate and hard working at what they do to do the same.
CL: You’re participating in the first ever Cherry Bombe Jubilee [Note: this took place last Sunday. Go here for the re-cap! -Claire], which some are saying is a response to the TIME Gods of Food Debacle back in November. What are your hopes for the outcome of this event?
CT: I hope it’s a venue for people to come together and share anecdotes about life in this crazy world of food and more!
CL: This must be like choosing a favorite child, but which ingredient is more important to you: butter or sugar?
CT: Depends on what I’m making!
CL: Cake or cake frosting?
CL: I think I already know the answer to this but: cookies or cookie dough?
CL: How often do you eat out, and when you do get the chance, where do you like to go?
CT: I have my favorite spots (St. Anselm, Alder, ABC Kitchen) but I also love to try new spots. I eat out anywhere from 1-5 nights a week depending.
CL: Are there any new chefs or restaurants that you’re excited about?
CT: I just had one of my most memorable meals at Attica in Melbourne, Australia. Talk about creating something clever, honest, personal and delicious out of nearly nothing, Ben Shewry is killing it—very inspiring.
CL: Other than the items created at Milk Bar, what is your favorite dessert?
CT: On my day off, I’m a classic chocolate chip cookie kind of gal!