Debbie Millman: No one teaches you how to be prepared for the things you chase down in life. Those are the words of Christina Tosi, who once upon a time was writing food safety plans at Momofuku when Chef David Chang asked her to make dessert for a private party at the restaurant. The cakes and pastries were divine, and so began the journey to creating Milk Bar at Momofuku. Shortly thereafter, it spun off as a standalone bakery in the East Village. Now, there are Milk Bars in New York City as well as bakeries in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Las Vegas, and Toronto. Christina Tosi is now a television personality and an author. Her latest book is aptly named All About Cake. Christina Tosi, welcome to Design Matters.
Christina Tosi: Hi, Debbie.
Debbie: Christina, is it true that you name all the refrigerators and your 11,000 square foot kitchen in Brooklyn after superheroes and celebrities?
Christina: We basically name every piece of equipment at Milk Bar because we learned early on once you have more than one refrigerator and more than one mixer when someone's like, "Girl, the mixer's acting up or the walk in's running hot." It's like which walk in? And when you say the Luke Skywalkin, you go Dwayne the Rock walk in. Yeah, or Christopher Walkin. Basically the logs that we send out when you work early in the morning, you send a log to basically your buddy that works the evening shift 'cause you work the morning shift. It's a lot easier to communicate and as you can imagine makes the job much funnier when the log reads, "Lil Kim was acting up today. Luke Skywalkin is running hot. Christopher Walkin is running cold." All of a sudden you are a member into a secret society where you're talking about equipment in the kitchen. But in our stores we do the same thing, our coffee hopper at or Williamsburg store, his name is Dennis Hopper. And so you can be Dennis Hopper is giving me real problems this morning rather than being frustrated about a reality of working in a kitchen or a storefront. But one of our core values is making things funny to keep them real.
Debbie: Well this makes me inexplicably, I have to say. Christina, you were raised in Springfield, Virginia outside of Washington DC. And growing up you've said that you and your sister didn't go to the beach on vacation or to summer camp. Instead you went to your grandparent's farm, and this is because your parents wanted you to retain the values of a hardworking, grounded life. Is this when you began begging with your grandmother?
Christina: I was actually born in Ohio and we moved to Virginia at an early age. My mom grew up on a farm, one of five. Both of my parents were raised by the salt of the earth people. They were both first generation college goers. We were always raised waste not, want not. I didn't even own a pair of jeans until I think I was in sixth grade going into middle school and seventh grade my mom was like, "Christina, how about you own a pair of jeans? Maybe that's a good thing." Because up until that point my grandma would sew all of my, I basically wore [inaudible 00:03:51] shorts in crazy patterns.
And that was just how I was raised. That was how my parents saw the world and that was how my parents knew how to raise children in the world because that's how they were raised. And I started baking at an early age because of that. Baking, cooking was a big part of the identity of women in my family. And it's not because it was their only identity, but they were the kind of women that got it all done and having a home cooked meal was key. We always baked. I still I go to my grandma's farm and when someone's like, "Hey, do you want to go to a restaurant for lunch? They really mean go to the Windies, that's a 20 minute drive. That is the restaurant that you go to.
So it wasn't also just a home cooked meal because that's what we believed in. That was the only way you were going to get fed, and baked goods came long before me in my family as a vehicle for everything. For love, for care, for support. We all have really sweet tea. If you've ever met anyone in Ohio, we Miracle Whip more than we like Hellman's mayonnaise because it's sweeter. Everything is sweeter in Ohio. But the love for desert and the desert is a vehicle for many things, was not something I created. It was just the way that I was raised.
Debbie: It seems that your grandmother's dense oatmeal cookie with some cinnamon thrown in had a profound impact on you.
Christina: One hundred percent. That recipe I use as a guide on a bunch of different levels. One, she would take that cookie dough and she would roll it in a bowl of confectioners sugar before baking it, and send my uncles to college with these cookies. And no one in their little dormitories would touch them because they thought this little crackling of white dust was mold growing on the cookies. Little did they know it was confectioner sugar and it was just the way she liked to do it. She would send them in the oatmeal container that the oats would come out of because she was like, "This is the container and we're not going to throw it away, and it's fun to get oatmeal cookies and an oatmeal container." It's kitschy before kitsch was a thing.
It's the recipe that I crave the most. It's the recipe that I could stand, she has since passed, but it's the recipe that I could stand next to her literally and make the same recipe side by side to her. And somehow my oatmeal cookie never came out the same. It never tasted as good, it never tasted it had been made with the same love. And it was then that, that cookie that I realized, one no one's gonna make a better oatmeal cookie than my grandma, not even me. And two, it's because she made it. It's a time. It's a place, it's a spirit. If you want to get super technical, everyone has germs. And so literally, my grandma's germs are the secret ingredient to it. And it was then that I realized my path in desserts was to not create something that had already existed.
One because that feels less creative. But more importantly in this example, it's because it wasn't my job to compete with the reason I love that oatmeal cookie has nothing to do with the technician or trained pastry chef I am. It's a moment that has been sealed in my heart and tugging at my heartstrings and taste buds long before somebody who I'm sure makes a great oatmeal cookie has ever come around. And that's a big part of why we don't sell oatmeal cookies, let alone chocolate chip cookies or apple pie at Milk Bar.
Debbie: Is that when you started to become more creative in the way you were interpreting recipes? For example, I know when you were in high school, you made cookies every day. You would bake all night instead of going out. But one of the things that you made were Rice Krispie treats. But you would amend them with anything but Rice Krispies.
Debbie: So talk about how that happened.
Christina: My poor mother. I would always search out an early age. I'd literally walk into the pantry and I'd be like, "I'm going to make cookies." It was just a given. I'm going to make cookies, I'm going to make brownies. And then I became obsessed with this pursuit of the Rice Krispie treat when I was in 10th grade, I would make a batch of Rice Krispie treats every single night clockwork. And I'd cut it up into eight squares and bring it in for my girlfriends and we'd eat them outside the lockers every day.
Debbie: Must have been very popular.
Christina: I'll tell you what it was that, it became a very demanding thing, but the Rice Krispies rarely had Rice Krispies in them. And what I loved about that pursuit was I was just going into the pantry. We never really kept Rice Krispies in the pantry. We always kept whatever cereal I wanted to eat with milk. I started falling in love with mixing and matching them and going what if I make a Rice Krispie treat, but with only this cereal? Or with this and this kind of cereal and sesame seeds or that kind of cereal and butterscotch chips or what have you?
And what I found amongst my girlfriends was they all loved something different. Right? And they loved the pursuit of the surprise and delight of what's it going to be today? And then making the request for the thing that they had fallen in love with the week before. It takes maybe maximum 10 minutes to make a Rice Krispie treat if we're being-
Debbie: It takes 10 minutes in your world, Christina. Not mine.
Christina: I mean, I had it down through Debbie. I used the same pot. I had cut up the stick of butter into how many recipes were-
Debbie: I think you used twice the required butter.
Christina: One of the secrets to a great Rice Krispie treat that no one will ever tell you is that you should use way more butter than any recipe.
Debbie: Doesn't that just make everything better way more better?
Christina: It does. But that tinkering, that falling in love with. I think also I love to bake because I love to eat myself. But I also love to see the joy, the expression on people's faces that I bake for. It's not about me. I'm an introvert. I'd rather just hide in a corner. But it becomes the look on their face when they're bonding with this crazy kooky Rice Krispie treat, or this cookie or whatever it is that I've dreamed up. But I have been tinkering in the kitchen from a very early age. Also because with the Rice Krispie treats, I would play this game of well what happens if I add too much butter?
Zing, now we're talking, but I'd go what happens if I add too much marshmallow? And I'd be like that's not really my thing, but I would constantly question the rule that was put in front of me, but only in the kitchen. I was a total rule follower in every other place of my life, but the kitchen became the place where I could ask the question, "What if?" And that is a really big part of my guiding principle. Just asking the question what if. I totally get what the rule is, but what if ...
Debbie: Now given your career today and given what you've just told us, I think people would be shocked to learn that you're actually a picky eater. You were a picky eater as a kid. You didn't have your first raw tomato until you were 18 years old.
Christina: Girl I still remember that day because I was about to throw that out there for you. I remember the time and the place. I had gone to the University of Virginia for my first year of college to the engineering school because I was like, "Great. I like a good challenge."
Debbie: That and applied math. We'll get to that in a minute.
Christina: I remember sitting outside at this sandwich shop with this guy that had become my buddy because he had all of his engineering classes with me. He was a little bit of an outcast as was I at this fancy school, and he was ordering a sandwich and I was getting a cheese sandwich with mustard, which is like my go-to. He was like, "Yo Tose, why don't you get some tomato on there, some lettuce?" And I'd be like, "Nah, I don't do that. I'm not here for that." And I remember the light going off being a tomato could be cool.
I don't actually even know what that tastes like. Which is crazy to think that I spent summers growing up on a farm that always had tomatoes where I'd be like, "Don't bring that near me. I'm here for cheese. I'm here for bread."
Debbie: What was the response? Did you like it?
Christina: That moment was a really big tipping point for me. I always love dessert and I know exactly what I like in desert. I know exactly what I don't like in dessert 'cause I eat so much of it and I still do. But that opened this incredible universe of wow, I've never even had that before. I've never had this. And I think one of the things that drove me into the curiosity that I have in the kitchen and with flavors is because I basically limited all the flavors that I had access to up until that point.
So I didn't know what arugula was. I definitely never had an avocado until I was in my twenties, and it was my taste buds were coming alive and awake in a deep, exciting way and I couldn't get enough of it.
Debbie: Why were you so picky?
Christina: My poor mother. Probably because it was fun to be picky. Because when you're a rule follower, you have no control. I am the lowest on the pecking order in a family of women that are all Scorpios. I just get steamrolled and I think it was one place that I could actually have control and drive people a little crazy, I don't eat that. I would eat sweetcorn anything with butter and sugar and flour and chocolate boom. But anything else, mostly no. I liked orange, but if it's creamsicle not a real orange. And 'cause when you can have cheese pizza everyday or mac and cheese every day, why would you let anyone know that you're interested in anything else?
Debbie: True. I could, and often have had pizza three times a day. I consider it a food group. So your mom was an accountant, your dad was an agricultural economist. And you've said that they were the most passionate accountant, an agricultural economist you could ever meet. And they wanted you to find something you were passionate about it at university. That being the case Christina, how did you end up majoring in applied math and Italian at James Madison University.
Christina: So I transferred from UVA because I didn't see myself there. I didn't realize in leaving high school that I knew myself pretty well. Going to college was a given. You certainly weren't going to argue with two people that worked their booties off to make sure that you got a great education and it was brass tracks you can do whatever you want to do, which is what they would say was you can do whatever you want to do but you're getting a college degree. So I went to UVA and I realized really quickly that I stuck out a sore thumb.
Christina: Because I'm really casual. I'm casual and I'm unapologetically casual. I've always from a young age liked to march to the beat of my own drum. These colored [inaudible 00:15:01] that my grandma would sow is a great example. I ran competitively through high school. And when you run competitively in high school, you were the matching the equivalent of a running jacket, but for the varsity jacket and you have all these uniforms and you wear the fancy running clothes. And I'm like, "Yeah I'm not going to do that." I cut my hair really short and I would wear these obnoxious shorts that were like spandex with them with obnoxious textures on them. Or instead of the warmup pants, I would wear pajama pants that I liked because I don't know, I just liked going into a crowd and knowing that I needed to assimilate and that I would, but also making very clear that I was going to play by the rules. But that I needed to have my space in a room.
And when I went to UVA, it felt there was nobody else that understood the need for that space. And engineering school wasn't the right place for me. I ended up becoming obsessed with all of my applied mathematics classes, and I took languages as my electives. And those were the two things that I woke up every morning excited to go do. So I transferred. I was like, "I want to be happy, I work hard to follow the rules to be happy." And those were the things that made me happy. So I studied them, and I got the heck out of college. Got my degree and get out.
Debbie: You got it in three years I believe. Right?
Christina: I'm pretty intense. I knew that college was not going to be the thing that I held onto forever. So I was like, "Let's get this done."
Debbie: Was there any part of you that was imagining doing something with applied math when you graduated?
Christina: After my first year of college, I remember getting home and my mom would do this when we were done with elementary school or middle school. We'd get home she'd be like, "Cool, we're going to the farm. Let's go back up your stuff." I remember getting to my freshman year of college. My mom was like, "Cool, when you getting a job?" And I'd be like, "What are you talking about?" "When you getting a job girl?" And she would send me to temp agencies and because I'd be like, "Oh mom, you're such a drag. Why won't you just let me be a college kid?"
And I had gone because they were like, "Well what are you interested in?" And I would say math. So they would make me temp at actuary offices in places where quote unquote 'professional mathematicians' were, which that's a totally legit thing. But after working the front desk there for a few days, I was like, "I gotta get out of here." I realized in graduating that there were certainly professional tracks for the subject matter that I had studied. But I think the one thing that kept tugging at me was I don't want to sit all day. I want to be on my feet all day and I want to be exploring. And I like to travel, and I to wander. I had a voice in my head that was like, "I want to be creative for a living," and that was something that was not a part of my upbringing.
Being creative was absolutely a part of my upbringing. You've never met a more artsy craftsy family of women, but that was what you did in your free time. That was what you did when you got home from work. It was certainly not something you made a profession out of. So I set out to figure out what that was.
Debbie: After you graduated, you applied to the French Culinary Institute.
Christina: I did.
Debbie: Was that when you decided, okay, I want to devote my life to this? Or was it just more of a hey, let's see how this feels?
Christina: I had zoomed through college because I was like I got to get, I got to get out, I got to get out, trying to sprint my way out that the second I was out I was like, "Oh man." I didn't have a next step planned. I was working in a restaurant while I was going to college because I was like, "I'm not here for Frat parties, this is not my thing."
I got a job in a restaurant because I was like, "This is great. It will be the social hour of going to a frat party, but I'll be around something that I'm interested in and I'll be making a living. That's fun. I learn a skill set." I became really obsessed with restaurant culture, the sense of family that existed. I would bake a ton at home and bring the baked goods in, and it just triangulated itself to like what's the next step? What are you going to do? And the only answer I could answer for myself is I to make cookies. And I was like, "Great, that's an answer. Go." And the go for that was okay, I have a college education. My parents are really big on education and professionalizing yourself, and professionalizing yourself if you'd to make cookies means becoming a pastry chef.
So I was like, "Great, well I want to go to the most difficult place there is where the best restaurants are and where I will be put in a super intensive culinary school program." And the answer was French Culinary Institute, New York City. Right there on Broadway and Grant amidst a ton of restaurants in a bustling city that never slept.
Debbie: How'd you do in school?
Christina: Great. I was actually just at my alma mater last night and was telling a story. Someone was like, "What are some of your culinary school memories?" And I was like, "Well I remember graduation mostly because I wouldn't let any of my family come because there was a little bit of a juxtaposition of my parents being like, 'What are you doing?' A little bit why would you do this?" And I was like, "The only way they're going to be proud as if I win every award."
And so I was like, "You can't come to graduation because I was nervous that I wouldn't." And I did. And then I was like, "Oh, they're not around. Okay. It's fine, that's my fault."
Debbie: Good lesson.
Debbie: Your first jobs in the industry were as a maitre d' at Aquagrill and you also had a gig at Bouley. What did you do at Bouley? What was it like working with David Bouley?
Christina: Wow. That was the most amazing experience. It was the equivalent of when you get out of school and you say, "I'm going to go work for" ... My mom's an accountant, so she would say like, "You go work for the big four." That's what you do. You basically go to the top of the mountain with the least experience and you go, "I want to work for that person," and you get your butt kicked everyday you get worked like crazy.
You get torn down just in case you weren't already torn down and terrified of that being your first New York City kitchen job. I got torn down, and thrown around, and I was so blissfully happy because of it. It was those moments of just you're just dog tired, you feet hurt, your hands hurt, you know nothing. And you couldn't be happier because you're in motion, you know that you're getting somewhere even though you're literally at the bottom of the mountain. I made that decision and I couldn't be happier because it has given me the backbone and the strength for everything else I chose to do before.
Debbie: What is the biggest thing you learned from David Bouley?
Christina: I learned a lot. I learned the thing about leadership and teamwork that I learned that I carry with me and that has helped me assimilate in any situation to this day is the only way I was going to learn anything there ... Because no one wants you there.
If you're not going to help, no one wants you there. And when you're a brand new culinary student to be clear, you're not helping. Or you're helping and then you're messing something up. It's a zero-sum game. The only way I was even going to be able to get my foot in the door with the pastry team was to assimilate. So it was this incredible trio of Dominican brothers that had been there for years, and they would make fun of me. They wouldn't let me do anything, and I figured out who their mom was, who worked in different parts of restaurant. I figured out that they loved baseball more than anything. They were Red Sox fans, so I basically studied the entire Red Sox team and if I could hold my own in a conversation of what was going on in the baseball game, that was at least my way in while I worked as hard as I could and fast as I could. Figuring out how to find a common ground, how to share in a goal, and how to get people to trust you and to let the respect come after that. To show that you want to give something to the relationship and to give it first.
So a huge part of teamwork and leadership that I tried to bring into the team now. I think the other big thing about Bouley that you find a lot in these really big fine dining restaurants is you're at the top. Your consumers' expectation is so huge, but typically it's you're a swan above water, but underneath the water you are paddling like heck. And I learned how to look ahead, how to see ahead, how to guard my part of the job for the greater good that no one was going to give it for me. That I really learned how to go out into the world of restaurants on my own. I'll still go to an event and be like, "Over prepared is under prepared." Being prepared for anything and walking into a situation expecting nothing to be ready for you because you have to get it all done yourself.
And the value of proactivity that you give what you get. I was not going to get anything out of that engagement unless I started by looking around and saying not just what is the job and what are their requirements, but what do I want to get out of it? It's a professional setting in a wholly unprofessional setting of I want to learn how to do these six things before I leave here .And the only way to start doing them is by looking around and start doing them or to say what does this team need that it doesn't have? That's how be a valuable member of the team, not just to meet with someone's told you the job is. But to look around and look for the things that aren't being done and just start doing them. I learned that and so many more things there at Bouley.
Debbie: After your early jobs, you found yourself making intriguing desserts cornbread ice scream at the hip molecular gastronomy hub. WD-50. Where you started working for free?
Christina: Yeah, girl.
Debbie: How did you manage that?
Christina: To be clear, I worked at Bouley for free. I would work as a maitre d at Aquagrill to pay the bills. Then on any of my nights off I would work at Bouley for free until they would pay me. And to be clear, it was not a lot. It was $317.25 a week. But I wanted to get my foot in the door at WD-50. I knew it Bouley I was going to get my chops. I knew that. At WD-50, I wanted to learn how to think about food. While he was thinking about food, that was what he was known for. I knew I needed that in my toolbox. I knew that that was a part of my development that I desperately wanted. That's something you don't learn at contrary school. You learn to execute. You learn classic technique.
At Bouley I got my chops, I learned how to work in a restaurant. I learned how to execute other people's food. At WD-50, I wanted to learn to think about food and think about food for myself. It was a tiny close knit team and the only way I was going to get any experience was to just show up and be like, "Well I'll just show up when you need someone and I will work for free until a job becomes available." I think for the entirety of WD-50's history, they never posted an ad for a job. To be clear, it was a pastry cook from Spain. Her visa ran out so she technically had to leave. Girl, you know I was standing right there at the front of the line ready to be like, "I'm here. I'm ready to be your pastry cook."
Debbie: Meanwhile you realized you didn't really relate to the fancy desserts being served in the restaurants you were previously working in, and you've described them as precious. What would be a precious desert?
Christina: A precious dessert is one that you have to eat with a knife and fork, you can't just pick it up and pot. One that includes multiple sauces. I think more than anything, the most precious part of a precious dessert is the beautiful thing that is shooting up from the dish, which is usually a pastry chef terms called a tuile of some sort. It's the thing that you adorn a beautiful dessert with, and to handle it technically you have to be incredibly precious about it because it's highly shareable and you have to be very delicate about placing it, and that was really heavy. And I in a bull in a China shop when it comes to that storage sort of stuff. it would kill me every time.
Debbie: I found a quote that I love. Apparently you're not a fan of food that feels smarter than you.
Christina: It comes from probably back in the college days at UVA, I always felt people are walking around trying to make clear that they were smarter than me. And it's like I'm fine with that. There's plenty of people smarter than me, but I don't the era of it. And I think-
Debbie: That's smugness.
Christina: Yeah. I think that food, the best food, the most successful dishes at WD-50, at Bouley, at any restaurant are the ones that are putting something out into the universe and allowing you to connect with them, and not being like, "Well you don't that just because you don't get it."
It's not a getability and I don't believe that it's up to a chef to say well you don't my dish because you don't get it. You either connected with it or you didn't. And maybe you didn't connect with it because you didn't have a grandma that made these crazy amazing oatmeal cookies that you love so much. But it doesn't mean that a chef is smarter than someone or that a student is smarter than another. It's just getability factor. And that was my biggest pet peeve with food was the the finicky nuance of it. And the spirit of smarter than now of it. I just have a much more democratic approach to it all.
Debbie: I believe that philosophically, the opposite of that style is what first attracted you to the work of chef David Chang. Is that correct?
Christina: That's correct.
Debbie: How so?
Christina: In so many ways. Dave was the male version of my history. He literally grew up in Northern Virginia miles away from where I did. He went to school. He always, seeking acceptance or knowing that he was an outsider. I suppose it depends on the day or the description. He also hilariously enough went to the French culinary institute. He worked in fine dining restaurants to get his chops, and he ended up leaving it all because of the smug factor. He decided to open this ramen shop called Momofuku Noodle Bar. And his approach was just to make simple, delicious food. And ramen on Japanese terms is the most low brow type of food, at least back then that you could serve. It was not something nowadays you hear ramen like of course ramen. It's this thing. It was not a thing, especially not in Japanese terms. He just had this democratic approach and this democratic vision to creating a restaurant and feeding people.
It was simple. It was pure. It was necessity. He had very little money to get it done, so you got this really raw human factor out of it and it spoke to me.
Debbie: Interestingly, it wasn't cooking that ultimately led you to working in David Chang's kitchen. It was the fact that you were good at writing hazard analysis, critical control point plan. So. So tell us how cryovac machines of all things lead you to Momofuku.
Christina: Okay, so always wanting to be a straight a student. When I was a pastry cook at WD-50, the situation was much more humane. You worked five days a week. Strong kitchen hours is 14 hour day, but I would have two days off and I had moved up enough in the world that I would just be like [inaudible 00:30:55] what can I help you with?
This is someone whose brain I want to be a part of. And one of the things you needed help with was figuring out how to use a culinary technique, which is cryovacing, which is essentially putting food, putting it in a bag, and removing all of the oxygen from it, creating an anaerobic environment so that you could do fun things with it. Either freeze it for shelf life, cook it at a slow and low temperature so that it was impossibly tender while maintaining all of the aromas that were in the bag. That's a really big part of it, if you ever had chicken that's been cryovaced it tastes incredible because none of the vapors have gone out into the ether. They're trapped in a bag.
But the problem with an anaerobic environment is it is where bacteria multiplies at exponential rates if there is bacteria. And the health department was freaking out about this new culinary technique that had come over from Europe and didn't know how to allow, what to allow. How do you measure? How do you basically make sure that no one's getting killed through this technique? And in order to plan out how you are not going to kill anyone, you write a HACCP plan and you establish critical control points where the 'kill step' for the food safety nerds will happen along the way.
And I basically taught myself how to write these plans. I wrote them for WD-50 and once I was done writing them for Wiley, on one of my days off he was like, "Hey, will you help my friend Dave? He's basically having the same problem." And I did. We hit it off.
Debbie: But you joined David at Momofuku. It was during your second year in New York. But your jobs there included payroll, clerical work. Your title was, etc.?
Debbie: Why not cooking? You graduated with every award from the French Culinary Institute, you were working at Bouley and Aquagrill.
Christina: Yes. So I'd been in New York at that point for several years. It was Momofuku Noodle Bar's, second year on earth. So Dave was starting to gain some pretty significant acclaim. The world of food was starting to take notice. We were giving up white table cloths to go and sit at his wood cladded noodle bar. I was drawn to him. There was a magnetism to what he was doing, to his vision. Honestly it was equal parts that. I got him, I got what he was doing. I saw it. And I was raised in a family where when someone needs help and asks for help, you say yes and you don't think twice. You just go and you do.
And he offered me a job. And I said, "Well what would I do?" And he was like, "I don't know, we'll figure it out." So I just jumped and was like, "Yes, I'll do it." Because at that point Debbie, I was like, "I don't know the whole pastry chef thing. I don't think I want to be, if a pastry chef is one that suffers and toils over this delicate twill on a desert, this is not me. That's not who I am. But helping this guy and being a part of this thing, I'm here for that."
Debbie: And you became his first pastry chef.
Christina: I did.
Debbie: So what kind of desserts? I understand that you're now legendary cereal milk soft serve ice cream began as a failed experiment while working on making fried apple pies.
Christina: So cereal milk itself was a success of an experiment but it wasn't my backup plan because I had this plan to make a fried apple pie, essentially a riff on the McDonald's classic. Because I would go around and ask all of the guys that worked at Momofuku. I was the only girl. "What's your favorite dessert?" And part of me was still in pastry chef mode. And I was like, "Why do these guys keep talking about a banana cream pie? Why do they keep talking about fried apple pie? Why won't they give me an elegant dessert?" And they just kept saying fried apple pies. I was like, "Fine, I'll make you fried apple pie," but I'll make it on these fancy pastry chef terms. And I couldn't figure out how to get it right. And so I was like, "I need to come up with a backup plan," and a backup plan in pastry chef terms is a desert that's quick, that's easy. You don't need a lot of equipment for, you don't need a lot of technique to. I had landed on a panna cotta, which is essentially, well technically it means cooked cream in Italian. But technically it's flavored milk that set with gelatin. And I was like, "Okay, what flavor is it going to be?"
There's vanilla, there's buttermilk, there's lemon, maybe there's chocolate. Panna cotta usually is a boring flavor. And I landed on cereal based on a very late night walk to a Bodega that's open 24 hours in the East Village and just walking through the aisles being like basically are you my mother? Could you be my flavor of flavor of milk? Could you be my flavor of milk? Could you be my flavor of milk? I walked down the cereal isle and was like, "Well it's either a good idea or a bad idea." And I made this cereal flavored panna cotta. Syrup flavored milk that I set with gelatin into a panna cotta and I said to Dave the next day.
I gave it to him, I ran out of the room and he came chasing down after me was like, "What was that? Whatever that is, you should make it all the time, every day, in any and every way." And the world was better because of it.
Debbie: Absolutely. Have you shared how you make cereal milk, what cereals you use?
Christina: Yeah. It's hilariously enough, super simple. It's Cornflakes. It's Cornflakes, we toast them in the oven. Again, this toasting to enhance the flavor of it is something I learned at WD-50. The technique of it, it's corn flakes, a little bit of light, brown sugar, some salt, a little bit of freeze dried corn that we grind into a powder to enhance it.
Debbie: Just corn flakes. That's all.
Christina: But it's not meant to taste corn flakes. It's meant to taste like in the same way that I-
Debbie: Heaven. It tastes like heaven.
Christina: But in the same way of I would never dare make this oatmeal cookie, I would make something that would celebrate the feeling of this oatmeal cookie. Cereal milk is meant to celebrate the feeling of the bottoms up after you eat your bowl of cereal. It's not specifically meant to taste one cereal or another, but more the spirit of that moment.
Debbie: Now despite how much David liked it, you ultimately had to convince him to let you buy a soft serve machine.
Christina: Well, I'm starting to add desserts to these restaurants that we had opened. And let alone being the only girl in the kitchen and helping run the company, and needing to gain everyone's trust there and prove that I met business and I wasn't going anywhere. These restaurants are doing fine on their own Debbie.
In these guys' minds, it was a turn and burn kind of restaurant. People waited in line for an hour, hour and a half. They still do. To get into, sit at the bar, eat your food, slurp your noodles, get out, and just keep bringing them in, bringing them in. Dessert slows things down. It takes up space. It requires humans to serve, and people linger in desert. And on standard restaurant terms, no one's here for that. So my theory was if we get a soft serve machine, I can do all the prep work. Soft serve machine is really easy. Someone pulls a handle, puts it in a bowl. You don't need anyone that technically don't even need to know what they're doing. And ice cream melts really quickly. Soft serve especially because it comes out at a higher temperature, which is why we like it more. It tastes better on the taste buds. And I had to convince him and he wasn't convinced, so I bought a soft serve machine on Ebay just to prove my point because I'm pushy and I was like, "This is just it." And I'm glad I did it because we changed the world of soft serve ice cream.
The poor soft serve ice cream machine people thought I was crazy. You don't make soft serve ice cream from scratch, you buy a base. That's what everyone does. I was like, "Nope. We're going to make delicious ice cream and put it through a soft serve machine."
Debbie: You opened your first Milk Bar next to Momofuku in the East Village in 2008.
Christina: Girl 10 years ago.
Debbie: Happy anniversary. That's incredible. Today you have a network of stores all over the US. Bon Appetit has described Milk Bar as one of the most exciting bakeries in the country. David Chang, who was an investor and helped you get this space because he knew it was your dream, says you're the most talented person he has ever met.
Christina: That's a very kind statement. I do say the same thing about him really and truly.
Debbie: To celebrate opening this store. You bought what you've described as your power pumps and you're wearing them today. Your red converse sneakers that you wear to this day, to all of your openings and meetings. So why red sneakers?
Christina: I've always used what I put on in a day to be a reflection of who I am and what I mean in the world. And when I get dressed I look in the mirror and I'm like, "Some piece of what I'm wearing today, is it fun?" If I'm dealing with something hard am I going to be able to look down, am I going to be able to walk into a room and be like, "Yes, I'm here. I mean business, but I'm here because I'm excited about life." And that's what I think about.
I don't wear these shoes every single day of my life. I wear them a lot, and when I'm not wearing them, there's always something else that I choose to put on that grounds me in that way and that gives me a sense of self and a sense of purpose because I think it's always been easy to lose yourself, whether I've been a teenager or a grown up, especially in this day and age. It's just something that grounds me because I'd rather be seen as less of a grownup than too much of a grownup because that's why I made every decision that I have up until this point in life.
Debbie: Well thank you for wearing them today. You've described your philosophy a number of years back, and I quote. "You have to embrace the failures as much as the successes. Much of the boundary crossing parts of Milk Bar came from mismeasurements, over baking, or stumbling upon a discovery and a failed recipe test. It's about staying strong and getting creative when the going gets tough that really defines who you are. Embrace, embrace, embrace the burnt batch of cookies." How long did it take for you to get to that oh so magnanimous place?
Christina: Well cornflake chocolate chip marshmallow cookies are the cookie that I'm speaking I suppose to in that sentence more than anything, which is one of the best sellers on the menu. Has been since day one, and it came because someone over baked the cornflake crunch for a nicer dessert on one of the other menus at the Momofuku restaurants. And I was like, "My grandma would not be enemy throwing away this cornflake crunch." And when someone came to say like, "Chef, I burned this." I was like, "Great, what are you going to do with it? Because the answer can't be put it in the trashcan." And they were like, "I don't know." And I was like, "Great, why don't you make a cookie and put it in the cookie for family meal?"
And we were cleaning up our area and we had some chocolate chips and we had some mini marshmallows. We really had zero plan except for feed some people for staff meal, put it together, and went. And I think it's the resilience of that. That is a great success story of we could have missed something hugely important. It's one of my favorite cookies. We're not great at Milk Bar because we're great at Milk Bar. We're great at Milk Bar because we're resilient, and we're great at Milk Bar because we're not afraid to take chances. We're not afraid to get into arguments with each other. But more than anything, we're not afraid to. And this happened in my life, a month and a half ago when we opened the LA Milk Bar, I'm not afraid at 2:30 in the morning even though everyone's been up since 7:00 AM to be like, "Yo, this walk in is not the way we're going to leave it. So everyone put your bags down, we're going to scrub, we're going to do what needs to be done to do it right. We're going to be honest about it." It's that the underbelly, the gritty underbelly of it, of resilience that I think she'd be celebrated more at the very least be talked about more because that is the secret sauce. That's the secret ingredient.
Debbie: In 2012, you won the James Beard Foundation's the 2012 Rising Star Chef of the Year Award, which was honoring a chef under 30 who was likely to have a significant impact on the industry. They got that right. You're the only pastry chef to have won that award. A few years later you won for best pastry chef and you recently appeared on fortune's 40 under 40 list. So your journey has been marked by remarkable hustle as you've recounted for as long days and nights and quite a lot of improvisation. I read how you once churned heavy cream into butter when the butter delivery didn't show up.
Christina: Yeah girl.
Debbie: All told, you've said that you're at your best when you're in over your head. I'm wondering if that ties back to the underbelly and that resilience, and if your enjoying that part of it is what fuels or helps to create or foster that resilience.
Christina: It definitely does. I think about how much of my brain am I using in a day? If the butter delivery didn't show up, would I really celebrated heavy cream, right? Guess what butter is. It's just dairy churned into butter with the ... I won't get technical about it.
Debbie: You can. I'm learning a lot.
Christina: And I was so proud of that moment of being, I look at heavy cream differently because the day that I was like, "We can't not make the frosting for these cakes." That resilience, that accessing. Being forced, for me I put my hand in front of my face and I always put it above the nostrils of my nose and I go like, "This is where I'm at my best." Because when I'm fighting to keep just that part of my nose where I can get a breath of air in, when I have to fight to keep my head above that just for a breath or two, I'm at my best because I'm more plugged in. I'm plugged into my environment.
I'm in this beautiful battle mode of how am I going to work this out? How am I going to take this idea, this dream, and make it a reality? Because it's in the everyday. It's an everyday when no one's looking that it matters, and I feel most alive in those moments. I don't feel alive when things are going well. I'm not complaining on the days that go well. I celebrate them, but I don't feel alive. I just feel relaxed, and relaxed gets old at least to me pretty quickly.
Debbie: It sounds that's when you get your most creative of.
Christina: Yeah. Back me into a corner girl and I will come out fighting because that's when else are you going to look at a box of cornflakes and be like, "Maybe." You're willing to be daring. You're willing to take bigger risks. And to be honest, you're willing to make something out of nothing, and it's the making something out of nothing that has really been the secret to it all.
Milk Bar was made out of nothing, or at the very least very little. And everything about it is making something out of nothing. And that's the currency of it, right? It's how do you value creativity, but creativity is all there is all there is to value.
Debbie: Let's talk about some of your side hustles.
Christina: So many.
Debbie: Over the years you've written several books. Your first, Momofuku Milk Bar came out in 2011. Did you experience any paranoia at all giving away any of your recipes?
Christina: No. Call that silly or goofy. Probably both, but I stand behind it. My philosophy was very simple. I referenced my grandmas a lot because I spent a lot of time with them growing up. They were my best friends. They were my biggest cheerleaders. They also real talked me the most. I was just like, "I learned how to bake because someone gave them a recipe because they gave me the recipe. We wouldn't know how to make chocolate chip cookies if someone didn't give us that recipe." Ditto apple pie. Again, if someone needs help, you stand up and you help them. If someone needs a shirt, you give them the shirt off your back. And you share. What are you here for? What do you stand to gain by not sharing has always been my mantra. Share.
Debbie: I'm assuming that because your germs are unique to you, maybe your version of your own recipes do indeed taste different than anybody else's that are making the same thing.
Christina: Well, the thing that I always say with my team, because of course the reality is that plenty of people are putting our items on their menus and calling them their own. And the thing that I'd go back to is we're the ones who created it, so we know why there's this much light brown sugar. There's this much salt. If there's this many pretzels or potato chips or coffee ground. We know why we mix it as long. We know why we bake it as long. We know why we put it in our sweet little package the way that we do. You can follow a recipe, but without knowing and understanding when we recipe test, I will drive the team crazy about give me .25% baking powder and baking soda and bring it down on flour. I like to know the boundaries before I land in the bullseye, and we know exactly what happens when and if. And no one can recreate that. They didn't create it and so the recreation of it will never be possible.
Debbie: Your second book was Milk Bar Life, and your third which just came out, is titled All About Cake. Here we get the goods and had to make your most famous creations, but there's more. You include a two minute microwave mug cake, which seems to be quite dangerous.
Christina: Hotcakes girl.
Debbie: Yeah. So how come no one eats their cake hot?
Christina: That's what I'm saying. I feel it's a Seinfeld standup waiting to happen. What about cake? How come no one ever talks about eating their cake hot? I like my cake hot.
Debbie: You include in the book your cake ground rules, and I'm wondering if you can share them with us and maybe tell us a little bit about how you came up with them because they're really wonderful.
Christina: So cake is the vehicle for celebration. It's on a table when we celebrate something, it comes along with celebrating something. But my issue with it is that, or had been up until that point that there's not a lot of thought that's put into cake. We're taught that it's fussy, it needs to be beautiful and gorgeous and all these things and I just thought no, that's not right. I disagree with that. It's always soft. It's soft on soft. There's not that many flavors that you find it, and it's not that clever or creative. I like frosting, I'm here for it. I'm not trying to pretend I didn't eat cake as a kid. But as a pastry chef running the whole gamut, I just thought there was a wild world of what Kate could be that we've just never questioned. So was like, "Alright girl, well you can complain or you can fix it." And in my fixing, I first needed to give the issues that I had with cake. Issue resolution is basically the way that I approached it. Here are my issues. And so here were my resolutions, my cake ground rules.
The cake must always have a strong point of view. Some sort of flavor story. Why this cake? One of the cakes we make is an apple pie cake, because we aren't going to make apple pie. I will not touch your favorite apple pie, but I will celebrate your apple pie memory. So if this cake is all about apple pie, that's a great starting place. We know when we're done, we've been able to elicit that memory. So it's got to have that strong point of view and flavor story. Every single layer has got to be amazingly delicious on its own. Easy enough to understand, right?
So hidden gems of texture within that cake are key. I love texture. When you look in my freezer, I have every single ice cream that has as many different inclusions and chips and bites and fudgy swirls and this and that. Cake is soft on soft, which for me is you gotta give me more than that.
So these hidden gems of texture within the cake, that was key in my ground rules. And last but not least, there is no way and HE double hockey sticks because my mom's probably listening, that we are going to hide all of that ingenuity, that time, that flavor story, those layers, the hidden gems of texture behind a thick coat of frosting. I want to let the people in. I want to let them in. I don't want them to be so worried about cutting up this beautiful little work of art. Let them in, let them see the cake. So I'm not going to frost the sides of the cake. We're not doing that.
Debbie: That's my favorite part of your cakes, being able to see the actual cake.
Christina: Yeah. We're not gonna.
Debbie: They're beautiful. They're beautiful looking at it on the side like that.
Christina: Thank you.
Debbie: Now you also are on television. I want to talk a little bit about your experience on television for a moment. You've said that you watched the cooking competition show MasterChef before you were a part of it noting, "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.'" So how did you end up on both shows, and has being on those shows met your expectations of what the shows were about?
Christina: The story is as simple as I got a call one day from someone that was like, "Hey, do you know the show MasterChef and MasterChef Junior?" I was like, "Yeah, why? Do you have my Hulu subscription password? Are you checking my Hulu recently watched?" They were like, "They're looking for a new judge and they'd like to consider you." The funny things in life often happen that way, right? You're not that far off from these dream scenarios happening. If you say yes, if you pick up the phone, if you open the door, if you offer the shirt off your back, right? It's funny. It's funny how the world works when you say yes to it. I said, "Great, I'd love to find out more." And fast forward three months later and I'm on the set and they're putting me in high heels and fancy dress and a lot of makeup and I was like, "What are we doing here?" They're like, "Those red high tops are not coming on this show," sort of thing, and it's been a really great experience.
I decided to do it for a bunch of different reasons, and it wasn't because I loved watching the show. It was something that I had to think long and hard about over those three months. And one of the first reasons I did it was because up until that point, there had been three male judges. And besides the fact that one of them was not a pastry chef, there were three male judges. I was never short of having role models in my life. I had these strong women that were like, "You do whatever you want to do. We believe in you. We support you." But it had become increasingly clear to me that that was not everyone's story, and that I had the opportunity to go on and bring visibility to the fact that women in my profession exist. And they exist, and they look different, and they sound different, and they are different and different is great.
One of the other reasons I decided to do it was because I worked for a decade for other people, and I worked in the basement of kitchens and I worked for free and sometimes I got paid. I got beaten down. And the only thing that connected me to my family when I worked for other people was the visibility of the chef that I worked for. In an article, in a magazine somewhere for my family to see, "You're not calling me. You're not showing up for the holidays. You're not coming to any event. You won't even take a day off for me. But I understand at least the caliber of what you're doing based on the fact that I can see the person that you work for." And it was really important for me that this was a win for women and for pastry chefs, but for my team that they had the visibility to say that is the person that I work for, that is what I stand for.
And Debbie, I would be lying if I said I didn't learn 101 things along the way and I've been better because of it. I run Milk Bar, I started it, I run it. I like to be uncomfortable, but I'm also always in charge. Putting yourself out there like that, you are not in charge. I mean of course I'm in charge of who stays and who goes along with the other judges, but it's not my show. And I put myself back into that I'm uncomfortable and I'm not in charge, and I know the least out of anyone here. That being uncomfortable was incredibly uncomfortable, but also really great and there's plenty of boundaries to still break down. But it's been an incredible journey and the impact that it's had all the way around has been entirely worth it.
Debbie: I love that you told the kids that if the show existed when you were growing up, you'd have been eliminated.
Christina: Are you kidding me? I probably wouldn't have even made the cut. They'd be like, "Who is this chubby little redhead with a bowl cut who's trying to make Rice Krispie treats? Girlfriend, we're asking you to butcher a chicken." I'd be like, "I don't know what that is. I don't eat chicken. I eat Mac and cheese. How about that?"
Debbie: "Keep the tomatoes away from me." Christina, my last few questions are more personal ones. You're married to the restaurateur Will Guidara whose Eleven Madison Park has been consistently ranked in the world's 50 best restaurants. He has won the James Beard Foundation awards. He co-owns the nomad establishments. How much collaboration is there between the two of you, if at all?
Christina: It's really funny. We joke about this a little bit. When we first met a few years ago, we refused to talk about work. I think on some level for me, I can't speak for him, but for me I was like, "I don't want you to think I you because of your job." If anything, the concept of liking someone that runs a business that from the outside world seems like the exact opposite to the zany, very quirky, very accessible bakery. So we kept each other very out of work life. Now we collaborate all the more often. I think we use each other as an incredible soundboard, and I think we have found very quickly once we let each other into that part of our world that when you're a creative person and you're successful at bringing your creativity to life and inspiring that and building that in your team, we have very similar businesses. They are just as fun and as playful as we are, and we are just as tidy and serious as they are. We just look different out in the wild.
Debbie: So my last question is this one. Do you ever fight about who should make dinner?
Debbie: Who does most of the cooking?
Christina: I do. And the best part about, there's so many great parts about my relationship. When it's dinner time, I think the funniest part of our relationship is I make dinner and he is so excited to set the table and set the setting because he's the restaurateur, right? For him, of course it's about the food, but it's about the time and the place and the spirit. What's the theme? What am I cooking? How are we going to, if we are at someone's house and I'm cooking dinner and there's multiple people, leave that man in a dining room in your house and he will have gone through all of your doors and figured out how to make a safari theme or this theme, how to make dinner and dining and the experience of sharing a meal together fun. And that's what he does best. So it really is a match made in heaven.
Debbie: Christina, thank you so much for making the world a more fun, delicious place, and thank you for joining me today on Design Matters.
Christina: Thank you.
Debbie: Christina Tosi's latest book is All About Cake, and you can find out more about Christina at www.milkbarstore.com. Milk Bar is celebrating its 10th anniversary. This is the 14th year I've been doing Design Matters, and I'd to thank you for listening. And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do. I'm Debbie Millman, and I look forward to talking to you again soon.