I’ve found my new girl crush in the form of one Chef Christina Tosi. I had the opportunity to meet and chat with her at the opening of the new Momofuku Milk Bar in Toronto. Here’s part one of my chat with her– pardon the slight and potential ramblings— I’m writing this at 2am 😉
The Bake the Book event allowed attendees to partake in an interactive meet and greet as well as an opportunity to taste one of her innovative creations: the birthday cake truffle. As we watched her turn a sheet tray into truffles, she divulged the story of Milk Bar’s inception as well as her own baking roots and personal story.
Protection and integrity was one of the major reasons cited for the initial delay and reluctance to expand beyond New York’s borders and open additional Milk Bar shops. Before making the leap, she had to ensure that the culture and the people in the kitchen that reproduced her baked goodies exhibited the same passion and care her staff did in New York. When she was present for the Momofuku Noodle Bar and Daisho openings in Toronto and saw how wonderful the people were, she became much more receptive to opening a store here. Her fears of growing too large to quickly were alleviated. Torontonians, she felt, embodied the same spirit, culture, and community her homebase did; knowing this, Christina was confident that this would be expressed in the food too. In the end, it was a decision she was glad she made. Torontonians, and their sweetooths definitely rejoiced as well.
As for Milk Bar’s philosophy, it taps into many things: childhood nostalgia is a major factor. Her passion for baking came from her grandmother and mother. She has fond memories of devouring a Funfetti cake from a boxed mix her mother would make her. In many ways, Milk Bar is an homage to the birthday cakes her mother made her. Tosi says that it is an American Bakery but on her own terms– and certainly not an average one. While it is a combination of the ‘trashy’, guilty pleasure foods– such as the frosting you’d indulge in from the plastic container with a spoon– or fingers–being a big fan of textures, colours, and flavours, Tosi has elevated the humble cake mix with the use of European butter (note, boost in richness!), French Valrohna Chocolate, and Tahitian vanilla. The sprinkles and ‘trashiness’ is still visually present, but there’s definitely flavour refinement and thoughtfulness that shows through. It takes a lot of skill to make her cakes and sweets look like something from the grocery store– but with a discernible difference in taste. That’s the genius of her ‘marketing’ and ‘branding’, so to speak. Taking an already familiar product that most people have an emotional connection to but elevate the flavour profile (high quality ingredients and french techniques such as a play on the triumvirate in her cakes and truffles) and ultimately garnering a loyal following and consumer base that continues to grow today.
With regards to appearances of her desserts, in particular, the homemade and unfinished look was simply out of practicality- she admits without hesitation that she is an impatient person. Tosi feels it takes too long to frost a cake. In addition, she prefers the raw look; you can see all the pretty layers– to her, it is something you shouldn’t hide but shine a spotlight on.
Considering her background in Electrical Engineering and her passion for numbers (she majored in applied math), it seems fitting that she ended up in baking and pastry arts rather than cooking, the former affords minimal room for error and requires much precision to ensure these types of dishes turn out correctly. When she was in school studying, she always enjoyed baking for her friends and classmates. Her fate was sealed when she convinced a restaurant in Virginia to work in their kitchen. Of course, the sweets she baked and brought for the staff everyday certainly helped too. While working as a morning prep cook, it was then she realized she was relishing every moment. With her engineering degree completed, she made the move to New York city and enrolled in culinary school.
Upon graduation eight and a half years ago, she worked at WD-50 with Wylie Dufresne as a pastry cook but more to conduct a scientific analysis on the then new technology of sous-vide and cooking foods using this technique. Another person who was interested in this new form of cooking was Wylie’s friend, David Chang. Dufresne sent her to help him with how to cook proteins using this temperature controlled ‘water bath’. At the time, Chang had already opened Noodle Bar with plans to expand. As Tosi got to know Chang, he found out she was ready to move on from WD-50. Knowing a bit about her background, he offered her a job on the spot as Community Manager– which Tosi describes as a job requiring one to be a ‘jack of all trades’ ( keeping ‘house’, greeting guests, diffusing toilet flooding crises,etc). Even though the job primarily involved care of all matters related to the Front of the House, again she couldn’t be kept away from the kitchen. As with the restaurant she worked at in Virigina, here and again, she would bring baked goods and sweets for the staff. One day, David finally caved and she was allowed to tinker in the kitchen. At that time, his restaurant offered no desserts…
… part two to be continued….