Kurt Vonnegut once suggested that we “enjoy the little things in life.” While he wasn’t referring to bite-size cake balls dusted with confetti-colored, sugar “sand” or leftover cereal milk, specifically, millions of Momofuku Milk Bar devotees would agree that treats like these make the world a happier place.
In Milk Bar founder and CEO Christina Tosi’s decidedly rose-colored world, crumbs, cookie dough, and cakes inspire nostalgia, and they’ve become the foundation of a multimedia empire. More importantly, they’ve provided her with a platform to inspire and help others through various philanthropic pursuits (she’s on the board of directors for Hot Bread Kitchen and Cookies for Kids’ Cancer, and also invests in food start-ups).
The 35-year-old James Beard Award-winning pastry chef, cookbook author, speaker, and television personality (she’s a judge on MasterChef and MasterChef Junior) had a decidedly less whimsical career path in mind while studying electrical engineering in college. After working in Italy as a translator, Tosi switched tracks and enrolled in the pastry program at New York’s French Culinary Institute (now the International Culinary Center). She worked in some of the city’s most prestigious restaurants, including Bouley and wd~50, before serendipitously being offering a job at Momofuku. There she helped founder and executive chef David Chang write food safety plans before launching a dessert program known for quirky creations such as cereal-milk panna cotta and strawberries with lovage, Ritz Crackers, and celery root ganache. She founded Momofuku Milk Bar in Manhattan’s East Village in 2008; today there are nine locations throughout the city, as well as in Toronto; Washington, D.C.; and Las Vegas.
Culture caught up with Tosi in between cooking demos (and legions of fans) at the Austin Food and Wine Festival. Read on to see why dairy is in her DNA and why she refuses to take herself too seriously.
On her agrarian roots
My mom grew up on a dairy farm in Ohio and my dad was an agricultural economist for the USDA Dairy Program. As kids, my sister and I didn’t go to camp or the beach in the summer; instead, we stayed on my grandparents’ farm. My parents wanted us to retain the values of a hardworking, grounded life.
On reality checks
Whenever my staff and I are stressed out, we remind ourselves that we make cookies for a living. It lends levity to what we do.
I love all forms of cheese, from the stinkiest washed rinds to the sweetest spreadable varieties, like cream cheese. It’s so great for baking: unctuous and diverse.
On food shaming
The whole point of some of Milk Bar’s most popular items, like Compost Cookies (pretzels, potato chips, coffee, oats, graham cracker, butterscotch chips, and chocolate chips), is to not feel embarrassed about eating them. We celebrate them!
On work-life balance
The challenge for me is finding enough time in the day to wear all my hats, including checking on my team and working in the kitchen. A day isn’t great if I don’t find time to go for a run and have a glass of wine with my husband (restaurateur Will Guidara). I have to take some me-time to be able to bring all parts of myself to my job.
I think my biggest heartbreak was when I just couldn’t get an American cheesecake with a saltine cracker crust and green tomato sorbet to work out in my favor.
Featured image: Winnie Au