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Why Authenticity Is Key to Christina Tosi's 'Milk Bar Life'

Plus an exclusive look inside her upcoming cookbook "Milk Bar Life."

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Paul Crispin Quatoriano
Hillary Dixler Canavan is Eater's restaurant editor and the author of the publication's debut book, Eater: 100 Essential Restaurant Recipes From the Authority on Where to Eat and Why It Matters (Abrams, September 2023). Her work focuses on dining trends and the people changing the industry — and scouting the next hot restaurant you need to try on Eater's annual Best New Restaurant list.

Milk-Bar-Life-Cover.0.jpgEverything's coming up Tosi: Momofuku Milk Bar chef Christina Tosi is a newly-appointed MasterChef judge (she's been spending a lot of time in LA filming). She landed a car commercial last year. She's working on opening a new Milk Bar outpost in DC. And next month she will release her second cookbook, Milk Bar Life, a follow-up to her hit dessert cookbook Momofuku Milk Bar. "I think sharing recipes is such an important part of baking and the baking world," Tosi explains of her decision to reveal the recipes that defined the Milk Bar menu.

Where Momofuku Milk Bar shared the recipes and techniques of her growing bakery empire, Tosi's Milk Bar Life shares a mix of savory and sweet recipes pulled from family meals, company outings, and meals cooked at home after a late shift. Recipes for a simple, mayo-laced grilled cheese and "Desperation Nachos" live alongside those for elegant Thai tea cookies and an extremely giftable lime, yogurt, and olive oil cake. There's the Tosi-endorsed chocolate chip cookie that you've always wanted, and the pickle-juice poached fish you didn't realize you've always needed. If the collection sounds a bit, well, all over the place, that's fine with Tosi. "It's okay to be all of those things," she says. "That's who we are. That's our voice."

In the following interview, Tosi talks about what makes a great cookbook and what living the "Milk Bar Life" means, and gives Eater an exclusive preview of the upcoming book. Read on:

What were your goals when you first started working on Milk Bar Life?
We wrote Momofuku Milk Bar what feels like an eternity ago, but it was really only three years ago. The goal of Momofuku Milk Bar was to share all the recipes from Milk Bar with the rest of the world. I know some chefs are a little bit more protective of their recipes and techniques, but for me, at least from a baking standpoint, it's so important to share your recipes to perpetuate the baking world and the world of food. The Momofuku Milk Bar cookbook is rather technical. I wanted it to feel like you were walking into the doors of our kitchen, it was your first day at work, and we were going to teach you everything.

I wanted a follow-up that felt more like you were baking and cooking with us at home. You're understanding how we create and bake the Compost Cookie, Crack Pie, and Cereal Milk all day every day, and where that spirit [comes from]: It comes from who we are, and how we live our lives, and what food means to us. That for me was the most important part of what Milk Bar Life is based upon and why it was important to write the book. You can have really fancy technique but also really pig out on Desperation Nachos when you come home after a day of crushing it: Approaching life with that sense of vigor, sense of humor, and ability to be a chameleon.

Speaking to the simplicity, to what extent was the home cook in mind as you were considering recipes?
It's a cookbook, so it's meant to be brought into another kitchen or another home, whether it's a professional kitchen or a person's home kitchen. I understand [this] from a marketing standpoint, but the thing I never understood from an author's voice standpoint is: when writing a cookbook, feeling like something is being dumbed down or edited in a way that undermines or tells less of the absolute, most personal part of a story.

"Hopefully it's a call to action in terms of inspiring people to get into the kitchen."

Most of these recipes are recipes from our homes... from our aunts, uncles, or our friends' homes. On that level, it's with the home cook in mind, but more than anything I want to share these recipes. It's meant to be a book that can be a cookbook, it can be a picture book, it can be a storybook. Hopefully it's a call to action in terms of inspiring people to get into the kitchen and have a really good time.

At no point is there this [question of], "Can a home cook really accomplish this?" That's not how we wrote Momofuku Milk Bar. That's not how we wrote Milk Bar Life. But because it's our off-the-clock story, it's absolutely full of one-bowl wonders and the simplicity of what you can put together with few ingredients. That, for us, is the beauty of cooking and creating food at home.

When did you decide that you were going to include savory recipes? Was that something you were at all nervous about?
No. We cook family meals for each other every day. A lot of our cooks have spent plenty of time in savory kitchens, savory restaurants, and we go home every night and cook, as well. I think that if you love food, you love everything about food. Just because we are working with 85 percent sweet things on a daily basis, I don't think you can love just one thing about food. I think part of our approach [is that] there has to be a sense of fearlessness. We're not a four-star restaurant, but our approach and our voice with savory food is very similar to our approach and our voice with sweets: We feel strongly about making things delicious, about coming up with really clever techniques.

It was really important to me to make a cookbook with savory and sweet recipes, not just sweet recipes. I thought, "We're going to get pigeonholed if we're not careful," to think all we know how to do is mix butter, sugar, flour, and salt. And that's so narrow-minded in terms of what our abilities are, both on the clock and off the clock. Savory and sweet recipes were always part of the plan: How you do anything is how you do everything. That is how we live our life.

Now that the book is almost on shelves, how are you feeling about it?
I just got the book, the actual book, in the mail two days ago. I can't believe it's real, looking through photos and pages that were so meaningful six months ago and eight months ago. It was a moment in time, and then reading your life on the pages — reading the voice and the stories of other people that mean so much to the story — all of a sudden, it comes rushing back to you. I'm just blown away. I'm so proud of the story we've told and how it came together, and just really excited. When you put yourself out there, there's always that moment of: "Are people going to get it?" Is it really going to come across the way you want it to come across, or feel the way you want it to feel, or be translated in the right way?

Broadly speaking, what do you wish there was more of or less of in dessert-focused cookbook writing these days?
I think the publishing world is hard because there's always a formula, more or less, to what a cookbook needs and has to be in order to be sold. But I think so many great great chefs are great chefs because they have their voice. They build a team that lives and breathes their mission. [I wish we could find] ways to get cookbooks to feel more personal and more like a look into people's worlds and less about the beautiful tiny things you want people to see, and more just, "Hey, this is what it is"... Less about what people are going to think and more about the reality of what it means to work so hard in the food industry, to have a voice, and have a point of view.

"Most chefs are heady, we're neurotic, we're paranoid. It's hard to feel strong enough to want to open up."

And that's hard. Not every chef is a great writer and great at putting those things into words. Most chefs are heady, we're neurotic, we're paranoid. It's hard to feel strong enough to want to open up. Being humble is one of the most important things, and not being afraid to put yourself out there is important. I think really successful chefs put themselves out there on a daily basis. You can never fake authenticity, and I think the more authentic we can get — the stories, the recipes, the trajectory, and how you got to where you are, how this recipe got to where it is — the more of that, the better. Nothing replaces authenticity.

You didn't work with a co-author, which so many chefs do. What was that process like for you?
It's a lot of work, a disgusting amount of work. I could never really decide what I wanted to be when I grew up, and for a while I thought that maybe I wanted to be a writer... I've always loved to write, that form of expression. People started asking for recipes for the Compost Cookies and the Cereal Milk. [I was] at that crossroads of, "Should we write a cookbook for Milk Bar, or shouldn't we?" And I thought, "You know what? We absolutely should."

I went to write a proposal for the cookbook, and all of a sudden this proposal turned out to be almost the entire introduction of Momofuku Milk Bar, because I had all of this story bottled up in me. It was so personal... and I realized that we had to write this whole thing ourselves. Nobody else is close enough to it, and it's something that we're capable of. We're smart, do-it-ourselves women.

For Milk Bar Life we basically [did the] same sort of thing. I started to think about what we wanted to say. What is the proposal? What is this cookbook going to look like? Then the same cast of characters [former Milk Bar chef Courtney McBroom to assist in writing and Lucky Peach's Peter Meehan to offer editorial guidance] came back together to tell the story, write the recipes, run through the editing process, run it through the gut check: Is this too ridiculous? Is it personal enough? Do we let people in enough? Do we let people in too much? There's no such thing. We spend way too much time writing and reading to each other and basically piecing it together, but I can't imagine it any other way, honestly. That's not to say that cookbook authors that bring in writers, or ghost writers, aren't doing it right. I think it's right for them, but for us, I just can't imagine telling so personal of a story to someone else to write it.

What makes a successful cookbook?
Authenticity. A really good balance of the story with great recipes, and recipes that aren't dumbed down. If I'm getting the Eleven Madison Park cookbook, my expectation is not that I can cook it at home. I want to feel like I'm part of the story when I read the Eleven Madison Park cookbook, which I do. I think that's a great cookbook, obviously.

"Reading a good book is like watching a great movie. You go there to escape."

Don't shortchange the at-home reader. More and more people read cookbooks to learn and experience the fine-dining techniques or learn and experience techniques you use in a professional kitchen. I think that the cookbooks written by home cooks or chefs that don't necessarily have their own restaurant are always so great and popular because the recipes are developed in the home kitchen. But I think across the board, the more broad range of technique and situations we can get out of recipes, the better.

I love a good mixture of story, recipes, photos. We read to learn. We read to be transported. Reading a good book is like watching a great movie. You go there to escape. So those that are the most authentic in that way, that share the most, that open up the most, are always the most successful. I think that's the recipe to success when writing a good cookbook.

Milk Bar Life will be released by Clarkson Potter on April 7. (Pre-order on Amazon)