Q&A with Milk Bar's Christina Tosi
Cereal Milk ice cream almost didn't exist. Ditto Compost Cookies, Crack Pie, and the other now-trademarked goodies created in the whimsical, mad-scientist mind of baking genius Christina Tosi. That's because when she first started at Momofuku in 2005, she was a food-safety consultant, working more often with the NYC Department of Health than with a dough hook. But once the restaurant's founder-chef David Chang got a taste of the toasted miso pies Tosi brought in for the staff, he asked her to whip up a pastry course for diners that very night. Soon she was in charge of the dessert program at all of Chang's Momofuku restaurants, and in 2008 Tosi and Chang opened the first Milk Bar bakery, next to one of his restaurants in New York City. (Momofuku still holds a stake in Milk Bar, but the bakery now runs independent of Chang's restaurant empire.)
Fast-forward a decade and Tosi is now one of the country's premier pastry pros: Along with overseeing 18 Milk Bar locations across North America, the Ohio-born, Virginia-bred chef has been a judge on both MasterChef and MasterChef Junior, was spotlighted in Netflix's culinary docuseries Chef's Table, and is a James Beard Award regular. (Tosi was chosen Rising Star Chef of the Year in 2012 and Outstanding Pastry Chef in 2015.) And 2020 looks to be her biggest year yet, with the debut of a flashy NYC flagship and Milk Bar's expansion into national grocery stores. We talk to Tosi about all of the sweet stuff ahead.
You launched a 4,000-square-foot flagship in New York late last year. Why?
CT: After opening our first bakery in NYC 11 years ago, it was fitting to open this store back where it all began. The flagship is unlike anything we've done before, a choose-your-own-adventure space where guests can come hungry and try our innovations in real time, flex their creative muscles designing their own wacky treats with a Milk Bar baker, or, my personal favorite, spread some joy by sending a Milk Bar care package anywhere in the U.S. It's a place to come see the world as we see it.
Milk Bar products are hitting national grocery stores. How do you balance growing your empire while still maintaining the brand’s small-shop ethos?
CT: In April we arrived in the cookie aisles of Whole Foods nationwide. Bringing our vision and voice to the grocery is a full-circle moment for me: The aisles of the supermarket were my entry point to inspiring flavors and formats, where I went to wander and fall in love with food and baking. I carry those everyday flavors into the bakery, turn them upside down, and see them with fresh eyes. As we've grown Milk Bar, we want to bring a zest for life, big color, excitement, and wonder back to the place where we first got our cookie fixes. This launch represents a step toward that. It's a dream come true for me.
You’re a hands-on boss. How do you juggle overseeing the everyday stuff (tasting, testing) with the larger-scale vision for the brand?
CT: Juggling it all is one of the most exciting and challenging parts of being a boss. But I'm at my best when I'm in over my head. I've been fortunate to have incredibly capable teammates alongside me—over 400 people from all walks of life who each bring something intelligent, gritty, unique. Trust in my team is key—you can't be a control freak if you want to feed the whole world cookies.
In a decade of Milk Bar creations, is there one that you are particularly proud of? Do you have any new creations brewing that you can hint at?
CT: Picking just one is like picking a favorite puppy! But by and large, I'm most proud of the classics, the ones that have been on the menu since day one: Compost Cookies, Cereal Milk, Milk Bar Pie. [Note: The brand renamed Crack Pie to Milk Bar Pie in 2019 to avoid any reference to the street drug.] I feel endlessly grateful that our customers keep coming back for them and that these desserts hold space in people's lives. That said, I live for the constant spirit of innovation. Spring will bring our new Strawberry Birthday Cake—it's basically strawberry shortcake's wacky big sister, perfect for birthdays, Mother's Day, Wednesdays.
What is the most surprising thing that has happened in your career over the past 10 years? And where do you want to see it grow in the next 10?
CT: I'm always having pinch-me moments. When I opened Milk Bar in 2008, it was a tiny shop in New York City's East Village—I didn't have a business plan, a profit-and-loss plan, a 10-year plan. I took everything day by day, to make the best baked goods possible. That was my North Star. My vision was strong but incredibly small. Never did I think we'd have stores galore or the online reach to show up at your doorstep! We ship our care packages everywhere—even the North Pole and Alaska. Ten years from now? Maybe we'll bring our cookies, cakes, and pies to the moon. Someone fit me for an astronaut suit, quick!
This article originally appeared in our Summer 2020 issue. Get the magazine here.