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Christina Tosi on the Milk Bar Cookbook and the Culture of the Kitchen

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It has been a big year for Christina Tosi: the Momofuku empire pastry chef was nominated for a Beard Award, the fourth location of her Momofuku Milk Bar just opened on Manhattan's Upper West Side, and on October 25, Clarkson Potter will release her first cookbook, Momofuku Milk Bar (preorder on Amazon). Below, Tosi talks Milk Bar culture, bodega ingredient shopping sprees, and writing recipes during zombie hours.

I know this is the first time many of these recipes have appeared in print, and in the book's introduction you refer to "surrendering" the dishes. Why give away your secrets?
I guess I've sort of been raised a little differently in the food world. It depends on where [chefs] have worked and who they worked for. I feel like a lot of the pastry chefs and chefs I worked for and worked under were always really, really big on the philosophy of everyone's in it together in the food world. Sharing those recipes is like added knowledge for the people and of the people, it's not about figuring something out and then not sharing it.

I think with something similar like wd~50, so much of what they do is about the evolution of food and technique and you share, you share what you learn. That's part of the process. Otherwise you're taking but you're not giving. The whole giving part is something I was raised on in terms of how I thought about food and how I thought about the food industry.

They're just baked goods. It's just the right amount of sugar, the right amount of salt, whatever it is. I think that's the best part of a baked good. The difference in a pound cake is the amount of sugar, the amount of butter, they're not really secrets. They're just ratios or recipes. Baking's meant to be done at home. It's meant to be a good time. It's not about like, hoarding secrets. It's about sharing them.

So do you see it then as equally as much a book for professionals as home cooks?
Yeah, for sure. I mean I know some of [the recipes] are a little kookier. Some of them you have to make this crunch or this crumb first but that's also what sets them apart on another level. It's not just a cookie with chocolate chips in it, you have to take the extra step or the extra step or two if you really want your baked goods to stand out. I think it's totally applicable and appropriate for a home cook.

I guess I look at it from the perspective that I was a home baker before I was anything else. I gave my mom a copy of this five months ago before it was really edited and she bakes out of it all the time and she is the most impatient baker in the whole wide world. I definitely look at it as almost more for the home cook than the professional, accomplished baker.

What was the process of writing the cookbook like for you?
It was very tricky. Until we got down to the last process of editing I didn't write at work. I always wrote at home or away from work because at the end of the day when you're doing anything except for the hands-on work at work it doesn't connect, it doesn't feel right. Your first priority is always going to be the food or the staff or the menu development or the recipes. And we're such a small staff that if I'm coming to work it's to work because I need to be there. I'm just sort of another warm body on the line.

So I did all of the writing at home during zombie hours or early mornings or what have you. Part of it was really just making myself sit down to write it. The writing part was actually pretty easy, I think the hardest part was the recipe part of it. Scaling down the recipes was pretty easy, especially since we start in grams, so the mathematical division of it was very simple.

But writing in terms of the home cook is — when you work in the industry for a while — you sort of lose touch with what the home cook does or does not have, or what the right way to direct them is. We use a lot of weird, funny terms in our kitchen so I'd be writing recipes and think, "Nobody's going to know what that means." I think the recipe writing part of it was real challenging for me, which I really didn't think about how much work goes into the directional part of it. Not the recipe part of it, like this many grams of butter. But the directional part was the hardest part because, you know, it's meant to be a cookbook that you have at home that you bake from, so really making sure that it translates as that takes a lot of time.

I think a lot of the miscellaneous stuff we would do late at night at work where it'd be like okay, we have to do this equipment section, this ingredient section. So we'd just go downstairs and make a long list, and then we'd turn on the tape recorder, drinking a beer, after a long day and be like "Okay. Flour. Oh, flour." I think that was a fun way to tie in working at Milk Bar and brought in a different voice.

You sort of brought this up, but reading the book, there seems to be a very unique culture that's developed in the Milk Bar kitchens. How is it different from other kitchens you've worked in?
I certainly didn't plan on having my own kitchen. It sort of just happened. I do think that in working in a bunch of different kitchens, outside of the city and in the city, I always just tried to do enough reflection — not like "Dear Diary" reflection — but enough reflection on "What I really loved about working here was this" or "What I really love about working for this person was that." Or "The one thing I really didn't like was this."

I think when happenstance put me in a place where I had my own kitchen, it was like oh, PS, you get to hire people. You don't have to do it all yourself. You need help, it's time to hire people. I think I naturally tried to take my time in each kitchen and working for each chef and go, well, how did I grow the most there? How can I put that into my own terms and my own environment? Then it becomes, you know, I've never had a kitchen where this happened, or a kitchen where that happened.

And I think — not to be a "sensitive female" about it — but I do try to remember it's a hard job. Not like "woe is me" a hard job, but it's a trying job. So if I'm going to be the boss, what are the things that we can afford? No one's going to make twenty dollars an hour here, but what can we afford to our staff and our team that you don't get in every kitchen that money can't put a value on. And I think a lot of that is having a good time and working with people that you like and that you respect and that feel the same way about you. We can't determine our hours, but what can we do to create this culture and create this environment to make the differences where we can. It's just about a ton of effort to make it happen, but it doesn't cost anything to make that happen. That was really important to me.

I also think a lot of the culture of it really came out of working at wd~50 where everyone is like "What's your point of view? What do you like? What don't you like? How do you want to contribute?" I think all of those things tie in, whether it's "Bring in the dumbest picture you have at home on your refrigerator and put it on the refrigerator here" or "Hey, we're working on this new recipe, what do you think?" Let your personality shine through.

What's a typical day for you like? How much time do you spend baking and recipe-testing versus managing the shops?
Honestly, it's cliched, but every day is totally different. Two days ago it was like, I gotta get my ass out of bed and into work because I know that we're working on these four or five new things in the kitchen or menu development things or what have you and I need to get in and start going on them. If there's a hole in the schedule, I'm on it. I'm going in, sort of like back to the old days where I'm just doing prep work, placing an order.

Other days are more like I have to go upstairs and sit at my desk for two or three hours. I've gotta jump on the subway because somebody thinks that the plumbing is messed up here, or the health department's at Ssam Bar and what if they walk across the street, or we just opened the store on the Upper West Side and we don't have anyone who works there yet. So I have to wake up at 5:00AM and just go up there and be an employee. Just be a counter employee.

And none of these things were things I ever intended to do. I mean, the whole reason I got into this industry is because I was like "I don't want a desk job. I don't want to work 9-to-5. I want a crazy job where I can be creative and on my feet." And in many ways I've got that, and in many ways I've got the job I pretended like I didn't want. But I like the challenge of it. I mean, my parents wanted me to go a very traditional route where I had a safe desk job. I like to be in over my head always, at all times. Sometimes it's just in the kitchen, sometimes it's at a location, you know what I mean? Different every day.

Well, and I have to imagine the desk parts of your job are easier to swallow because they concern something your passionate about.
Absolutely. And I think when it's yours, that's absolutely it. It doesn't seem like work, ever. Even when you wake up at 5:00AM it doesn't seem like work because it just doesn't register as such.

I'm not sure if you're a cookbook nerd or anything, but did you draw on any other cookbooks or food writers for inspiration for this book?
I love cookbooks, I certainly have my fair share at home, but I'm a really funny cookbook person. I don't really ever cook out of cookbooks? I like cookbooks for the commentary or the pictures or the history. I really love how cookbooks mark a moment in one kitchen.

I approached writing the cookbook similarly to figuring out what was going to be on the Milk Bar menu when we decided to have this bakery called Milk Bar. I'm not trying to do anything that is not me, that I can't relate to, that doesn't come naturally. I kept a really big distance from trying to be one thing or another.

I think that the one thing I certainly related to was the Momofuku cookbook. From playing a role in it and seeing the editing process and seeing it so many times before it became a book, I think more than anything else that's the one thing that influenced me on the largest and most minute level. The fact that it's the commentary and the story and a picture book and a great book to cook from.

Beyond that? I have all the Maida Heatter and Martha Stewart cookbooks that I'll bake from at home. But I think the challenging part of the cookbook process is you write this proposal and they want you to be like, okay, go to the bookstore and let me know what kind of cookbook it's going to be like. Well, I just want it to be my cookbook, I don't want it to be like anyone else's cookbook. If it ends up being like somebody else's cookbook, that's fine, but at least it was an honest approach. So I feel like my relationship with cookbooks — it's not a large part of my life in the way it is in Dave [Chang]'s life or Wylie [Dufresne]'s life. I just sort of enjoy them for what I enjoy them for.

So do you see the book as a complementary volume to the Momofuku book?
Yeah. I think the easiest way to put it is to say it's my story starting where the Momofuku cookbook left off. It's not documenting what Dave's doing while we were opening or anything, but it documents what was happening next door. Right after Ko opened, this other thing was happening right as the Momofuku cookbook was being edited and published. It's the same size, it's a few pages shorter, it's meant to sort of sit on the shelf next to the Momofuku cookbook. No other part of it is really meant to be, though. There were no real rules to it, I just think it came out as a really nice complement.

Several times in the book you talk about getting inspiration from just going to a bodega and getting things to play around with. What draws you to ingredients you might not find in other pastry kitchens?
I sort of approach it from two ways. One, I go okay, what do pastry chefs have in their kitchen, what do they use it for? And then, every pastry chef has milk powder in their kitchen, but what don't they use milk powder for that I can use it for? Things like milk powder and glucose are things that are always in pastry kitchens but are not frequently found in the baked items. And what purposes can they serve beyond their standard purposes?

And then the corner store/bodega stuff comes a lot from when we were probably a few months away from opening Ko. And we were sort of like a bunch of kids who were about to open this restaurant that's supposed to be tasting menu only. And it's like somebody believes that we have the talent or the skill but we are not clear if that's true or not. I think in figuring out what dessert we would start to serve, we would just throw out ideas and brainstorm.

The one thing I really took from that was all these guys have a ton of skill and a ton of experience but they don't get very far beyond what they know and what they can relate to. What's familiar. And I am not going to make a flourless chocolate cake, but how can I pare down things I think are not necessarily great ideas and turn them into something else? Dessert is always typically served last and the one thing that makes a dessert really successful is something that is super delicious but is also relatable on some level. Whether that's several flavors or just one. It's relatable and people get it, but it's familiar in a way that tastes so much better than anything else.

When you ask somebody to describe their favorite dessert they've ever had, you get these sort of little sound bites. So I thought a really cool way to do that would be to get flavors that people have some sort of relationship with, that are on some level familiar and figure out how to take those flavors and make them into fancy things or not so fancy things. Give them to people in different ways, with different accentuated flavors. Put a splash of them on a plated dessert or put them in a cookie. That's how I make my mark with their memories of this dessert or that dessert. And going to the corner store, the bodega, it's shopping for the people. You know, it's open 24 hours on Second Avenue. This is probably a great place to start, a great place to get thinking. Whether or not I actually use anything from the store, it's a great place to get those wheels turning.

What do you wish people knew about Milk Bar?
I think a lot of people miss the culture. Or don't miss it, but don't inquire. I think a lot of what Milk Bar's about is the culture. How it's made, how it's sustained, how it relates to the food or how the food is perpetuated because of it.

And then I think a lot of it too is like the flavors and the menu development. It's not about childhood flavors, I don't have a notebook at home that's like "What do I remember when I was a kid?" It's about being able to relate to people through this food that you're making. And they are these nostalgic flavors, but they're not intentionally "childhood" or "breakfast," they're just meant to be flavors that people have carried with them through their lives and you can continue that through how you decide to put that flavor in the dessert.

· The Eater Fall 2011 Cookbook and Food Book Preview [-E-]
· All Christina Tosi Coverage on Eater[ -E-]
· All Cookbook Coverage on Eater [-E-]

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