The Christina Tosi episode of Netflix’s culinary documentary series Chef’s Table: Pastry explores how the New York City-based chef/restaurateur built a trend-setting bakery inspired by her love of classic American treats. Tosi opened the first Milk Bar — a spinoff of David Chang’s Momofuku empire — in 2008, and now operates several locations throughout North America as well as an online business. In addition to her work in the kitchen, Tosi has written two cookbooks and has a third on the way in October 2018.
What was Tosi’s journey through the culinary world like?
Tosi grew up as a picky eater with what she describes as a “crazy sweet tooth.” Her parents held her to high standards, expecting A’s in school and nothing less. After studying hard and graduating from college with high marks, Tosi decided she didn’t want a standard nine-to-five job, so she moved to New York City — having never visited — with dreams of becoming a pastry chef. This didn’t sit well with her mom, who thought of baking as something to do in your free time, not as a profession.
Tosi bounced around restaurant kitchens for about a decade before she ended up working for Wylie Dufresne at his heralded restaurant wd~50. This is where she came up with “crack pie,” which is now a Milk Bar staple. She whipped it up for a family meal with the limited ingredients she had on hand one Sunday, and the exuberant reactions from the kitchen staff inspired her to make it a regular family meal dessert.
Tosi had been working at wd~50 for a couple of years before she connected with David Chang, at Dufresne’s suggestion. She first helped out as a hired hand to get food safety plan at Momofuku Noodle Bar in order. Chang then hired her to help run the business side of things, but he eventually demanded that she make some of those desserts. These treats also wowed the Momofuku team during family meals, and quickly become part of Momofuku’s menu.
In 2008, Chang was working to open Momofuku Ko, his tasting-menu restaurant in NYC, and Tosi was in charge of the dessert. In preparation for opening night, she came up with a cereal milk panna cotta. Chang was blown away. He encouraged her to open an entire concept centered on cereal milk in a vacant space his company had acquired, and Milk Bar was born. There was a line out the door on day one, and business steadily increased from there.
What was her “aha” moment?
Tosi looks back on her stint at wd~50 as her first opportunity to really make a name for herself in New York’s restaurant scene, but she quickly realized being the pastry chef at a cutting-edge, high-end restaurant was not who she wanted to be. She wanted to make simpler desserts that reminded her of her childhood — cookies, pies, cakes — and her move to Momofuku allowed that dream to become a reality.
What are some of her most awesome quotes? And what are some great quotes about her work?
- “Christina is a uniquely American chef. She’s not trying to be French, she’s not running off to Japan. She is America, and America’s delicious.” — Bon Appetit editor at Large Christine Muhlke on Tosi’s cooking style
- “I think the world is more often your oyster when you approach it with more of a childlike sensibility. The world is a more curious place. It’s a more beautiful place. It’s not always sunshine and rainbows, but within any given day in life, there should always be a moment where the weight of the world is just a little bit lighter on your shoulders.” — Tosi on her outlook on life
- “She’s so light and easy, it distracts you from just how incredibly ambitious and hardworking she is.” — Muhlke on Tosi’s work ethic
- “I was like, ‘Oh my god.’ When you eat it, you’re immediately at your childhood, and that was when I tasted something, I was like, ‘This is a world-class dish.’ And I remember [saying] like, ‘Christina, we need to put whatever the fuck cereal milk is in everything. It’s that amazing. I don’t know what the fuck you did, but we need to put it in everything possible.’” — Chang on his reaction to tasting cereal milk panna cotta for the first time
- “The spirit of Milk Bar is, ‘Come in. You’re welcome. We’re here for you.’ It’s not this elitist place, and that’s important to me. It’s not about, like, only if you can get a reservation and only if you have a certain amount of money or a certain amount of time. You don’t need to go to a fine-dining, multi-course menu to indulge.” — Tosi on her business philosophy