This past spring, around the release of Christina Tosi's second cookbook, Milk Bar Life, the James Beard Award-winning pastry chef was the subject of a lengthy think piece on the popular food blog Eater likening her to pop star Taylor Swift. But the comparison had nothing to do with Tosi's musical abilities or an affinity for dating bad boys. Rather, it was due to the fact that Tosi, like Swift, is the kind of fun, domestically inclined girl's girl you want to be best friends with.
Tosi has amassed her own legion of dedicated fans since opening the first Milk Bar bakery—a sweet spinoff of David Chang's Momofuku empire—in Manhattan's East Village seven years ago. Today, devotees flock to the store's seven locations in New York and Toronto for a taste of Tosi's one-of-a-kind, nostalgia-inspired creations, like Cereal Milk soft-serve ice cream, Birthday Cake Truffles and, her most famous concoction, Crack Pie. With a burgeoning TV career, a long list of collaborations with marketers including Kellogg's and American Express, and a line of baking mixes at Target, Tosi is bringing Milk Bar's playful lifestyle—and her own—to the masses.
What led you to pursue baking as a career?
My parents always made the rule very clear that no matter what you want to do in life, you have to get your college degree first, so I went to college to study applied mathematics and Italian. There was a point after my freshman year where I just felt burnt out from being an academic, but I was kind of stuck there until I got a degree, so I basically crammed four years of college into three. Around that time, I started baking two or three recipes a night, every night—that was my happy place. And when I was nearing the end of college, I knew that I didn't want a real job—I didn't want to really be a grown-up—so I decided to move to New York and go to culinary school.
How did you begin working with David Chang at Momofuku?
When I worked at [New York restaurant] wd~50, Wylie Dufresne asked me to write a hazard analysis plan for this cooking technique using reduced oxygen packaging. And Wylie and Dave were friends, so Wylie asked me to help Dave write a plan, too. At that point, Dave was just starting out—there was just Momofuku Noodle Bar—but he was doing something really cool, and I thought it would be really cool to meet him and help out. And we ended up hitting it off.
I was helping Dave run the restaurants, but I'd go home every night and bake. And when you're a crazy girl that bakes late at night, someone has to eat it, so I started bringing my baked goods into work the next day. They were simple baked goods—I wasn't trying to reinvent the wheel or anything. Dave would say, "This is delicious. You should put this on the menu." But I took it as more of a nicety than anything else. And one day, maybe a year later, Dave came in—he was mad about something that had happened in the kitchen—and I remember him looking at me and saying, "You need to go make something for the dessert menu, now." It was one of those moments where you're like, "I know I'm a strong person," but in my head I was going, "Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit." But I just kind of figured it out.
What did you make?
I made these European-style butter shortcakes with Tri-Star strawberries and some sour whipped cream. We put it in the Green Market section of the menu because we didn't have a dessert section. It sold out the first night, so we sort of snuck it onto the menu. Then I put another dessert on, and it started catching on, and we ended up [adding a dessert section].
When you opened the first Momofuku Milk Bar in the East Village, there was an ever-present line out the door. Why do you think it was a such a big success?
More than anything, I think it was because we found a desire that had been unmet in the industry. You have to consider that seven years ago, when Milk Bar opened, the market had just taken another big hit. But people still wanted to go out and be excited about food. So I think the beauty of Milk Bar was that it fulfilled that sense of wanting to splurge and do something fun and new with your friends without being too fancy or worrying about money.
The other thing was that we were willing to break down the concept of what a bakery could be. We didn't have cafe seating—we didn't even have coffee on our original menu—and we kept the store open until 2 a.m., because we realized that if we had all these restaurants right around the corner that are full until 2 o'clock, why wouldn't we keep our doors open? And so going out for dessert became a thing. It became a scene.
You have a chain of bakeries, two books and a line of mixes at Target. Do you see Milk Bar becoming a lifestyle brand?
In the past few years, as I've thought about Milk Bar, I've realized that our voice comes out through a cookie or a cake truffle or a slice of Crack Pie, but when I really think about our inspiration and who we are and what our mission is, it's so much larger than that. Our most recent cookbook, Milk Bar Life, is sort of us trying to explain why we created Cereal Milk ice cream or why we came up with the Compost Cookie. The more I talk about that and the more I have to answer those questions, the more I start to understand that Milk Bar isn't just about the food—it is an approach to life, in a sense.
How would you describe Milk Bar lifestyle?
I think of our mission as bringing a creative and fun spirit to life. I was raised by a mom and grandma who were very casual, but who celebrated everything to a ridiculous degree. When I got older and moved to New York, I started to feel like Christmas wasn't the same or St. Patrick's Day wasn't the same, and I realized that the reason those holidays had been exciting [when I was younger] was because my mom and grandma had created this incredible sense of celebration around the everyday and the ordinary, and on a funny level, that's what drives me.
How are you bringing the Milk Bar brand and lifestyle to people, in addition to the bakeries?
Our e-commerce platform has been a way to do that, but the retail baking mixes have really let us bring the spirit of Milk Bar and what we do to people who can't come to our bakeries. The cookbook writing has been another fun forum for us to share our stories and who we are. From there, the sky's the limit in terms of where else we want to go.
By introducing Milk Bar to a wider audience, are you worried it'll lose its cool factor? Part of the reason it's been such a success is that it's a sort of cult brand among New Yorkers.
Yeah, I think that's always a concern. But in all honesty, the number of opportunities that we have versus the number of opportunities that we choose to participate in are probably, like, a hundred to one. So we are already incredibly protective of the brand, because there's no strategy or marketing dollars that can make a brand authentically cool in the way that has made people so loyal to Milk Bar.
You've done a lot of collaborations with large companies. How did you get involved in that? Were you initially wary of associating yourself with outside brands?
I think that's always tricky because you want to make sure that the brands that you're a part of are brands that are similar to your own brand. Some of the decisions we make are to expose ourselves to larger, different audiences. We did a partnership with Fab.com a couple of years ago, and we ended up getting this amazing new customer base that we wouldn't otherwise have been exposed to.
Other brand projects that we do are to promote our own sense of creativity on different platforms. So, for example, the Band of Outsiders clothing line has a store next to ours in SoHo, and we make custom cookies every time they do a new collection. It's an amazing way to get in the kitchen and create without the worries of costs and production efficiencies and so on, because we only make 200 of each cookie. We did a shoot with Estée Lauder maybe six months ago, and it was just fun to promote women that take charge, are business owners, and to connect with other females who are looking for that "If she can do it, I can do it" sense of motivation.
On top of everything you've been doing with Milk Bar, you're also the newest celebrity judge on MasterChef and MasterChef Junior. Had you been a fan of those shows?
Yes. Curiously enough, I don't have cable and I work crazy hours, so I don't really get to watch regular TV. But when I really, really want to relax, I'll watch TV on Hulu or Apple TV or something, and I came across MasterChef in its first season years ago, and I loved it. It captured the spirit of being a home cook and wanting to take that passion into the professional space. And of course, I resonated with the judges. Then, when MasterChef Junior came on … It was one of those things where the next day I went into work and said, "Every single person needs to go home and watch this show." It completely restores your faith in humanity.
Do you think the contestants expected you to be easier on them because you're a female chef?
I think people didn't know what to expect on a bunch of different levels. Joe [Bastianich, the judge I replaced] was pretty tough in his own way, and so I actually got more questions like, "Oh, do they make you be mean?" No, but if someone wastes my time or talks back or is being disrespectful, they're going to hear it. I think that in any kitchen scenario, you have to be curt and you have to be direct, but you have to be able to encourage people.
What other areas do you want to expand into?
I'm still figuring it out. My head always has 20 different ideas in any given category, but you definitely have to figure out how to curb your ego and ask yourself the right questions. It's just like being a chef in R&D mode. Just because you think something's a good idea doesn't mean the world needs it.
All the exposure has definitely made you a celebrity. Is that something you want for yourself?
I think that the brand so largely represents me and I so largely represent the brand that trying to separate it out seems silly and like a waste of time. I think a lot of people love the brand in and of itself, but I do think that there's always value in connecting a face with a name. On a personal level, it's also about being able to use any persuasive powers that I have to motivate others who feel like they're in a similar place. But Milk Bar Life isn't even about me; it's about everyone that's a part of it, and that's part of my bigger push.
What's next for you and Milk Bar?
We're opening a store in Washington, D.C., which is where I grew up and where I'm from—also, funnily enough, where Dave is from. We're going to have a commissary kitchen there as well, so it'll be our first foray into building a kitchen outside of New York City. It's really exciting.
Do you envision a chain of Milk Bars all over the country?
I don't know. Inevitably, people always have the opinion that we should [expand nationally]. But to me, the most important thing is guarding the heart and soul of what we do and who we are, because that's what makes the brand so special and why people take such a grand sense of ownership of it as customers. So the idea of having a Milk Bar in every city, for me, is like, why push it?