Last week I visited momofuku milk bar and chatted with Christina Tosi—milk bar’s chef, owner and founder. Join us as we talk baking advice, creating that perfect recipe, and (of course) cookie dough.
It’s a sunny spring afternoon in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, current headquarters of momofuku milk bar. I’m a few minutes early, relaxed on a bench at the window and enjoying the change of scenery. An ice-cold arnie palmer is at my side. Life is outrageously idyllic.
Christina Tosi arrives, looking like she stepped out of an issue of Lula. She carries a J.Crew bag. “I’m Christina,” she says with a smile. I drank two cups of coffee and almost hyperventilated before this meeting, but her engaging manner puts me at ease in under thirty seconds. This is my first encounter with Christina’s effervescent personality. It’s easy to see that she truly loves what she is doing. Enthusiasm practically shines out of her.
Christina Tosi is someone I want to know.
I ask if she’ll be present at the upcoming Bronx Academy of Letters Benefit. She will, but she has a baking class to do first. Baking class? Apparently milk bar started offering them this February. I do not know how I did not know this. Before milk bar’s base of operations moved to Brooklyn, baking would often be visible to customers coming in for a fix of crack pie or cookies. Christina tells me that the baking classes were born out of missing that type of interaction.
Accessibility of this kind is unusual in the industry (or at least it seems so to me). From holding baking classes to giving out the recipes in cookbooks, momofuku is incredibly available to anyone, and I think that’s partly why the restaurant group boasts a huge cult following. Sure, you can follow chefs on Instagram, but classes with the chef where everyone from the raw beginner to the seasoned expert is welcome? That’s almost insane. It’s also very, very personal.
milk bar – and in fact every momofuku location – has a well-edited menu that doesn’t often change. Product development can have a long run time, Christina says. “Honestly, from a day, to a month… I’ll say, ‘I love this idea. We’ll work on it.’” She worked on ssäm bar’s pancake cake for four years. Sometimes the process is more important than the final product, she confesses. It’s fun to create something with an amazing back story. To make it onto the milk bar menu, something “has to be the most delicious version you can make of it. It’s also gut feeling, like… is it really done? The birthday cake? That had to be absolutely perfect.”
pancake cake aside, the most difficult thing Christina has ever had to make is the fried apple pie at ko. “With a tasting menu, you only get one chance. There was a time that I thought I was going to have to quit my job… Making it almost broke me.” I ask how she deals with working through hitting a wall during the struggle of creating something new. Does she step back? Get an outside opinion? At milk bar they try to incorporate recipe testing into the everyday schedule, but she says that being in the restaurant business really prepares you for getting things wrong. Christina stresses the importance of being honest—with your own creations as well as when scrutinizing others’. “Being inspired but not being influenced is an important thing to talk through. Your honesty is only as strong as [the product] you’re giving your customers,” she reflects thoughtfully.
It’s safe to say that Christina Tosi is one of the most creative chefs in the world. She’ll also dish out advice on how to become more like her in the kitchen: “It’s all trial and error and not being defeated. No idea is a bad idea. Some things are terrible,” she says, amused, “but the idea is never bad. You have to let go.” She doesn’t go to the store to buy ingredients for a new recipe. She’ll make sure she has two sticks of butter, and after that what she creates is born from whatever ingredients are on hand in the pantry. As someone whose only good baking is attributed to Williams-Sonoma cookbooks, I can’t even imagine what kind of terrible creation I would end up with. Of course, that’s why Christina Tosi makes the compost cookies and I just eat them.
“Would you ever sell the cookie dough at milk bar? Not for people to buy and bake, but for people to just sit with here and eat with a spoon,” I ask. Sometimes I have cookie dough, and it just doesn’t really make it into the oven, you know? “Girl, I hear you,” Christina says, and admits to often having a preference for raw cookie dough over the actual baked cookies. Offering cookie dough at milk bar is one of her visions. I’m sure it’s a health code nightmare, but I think that if anyone can do it, it’s milk bar.
Before I depart, Christina hands me a bag full of cookies. Earlier I revealed that I’m lactose intolerant, so she includes the dairy- and gluten-free 5 boro and perfect 10 kookies. “This is a great one to have late at night,” she says, indicating the chocolately 5 boro. “This one for the middle of the day.” I immediately ask about breakfast. Her answer? The compost. Definitely.
Christina Tosi (as well as cookies from momofuku milk bar) will be attending the Bronx Academy of Letters 10th Anniversary Benefit on April 30th. She would love to dream up special treats for events; however, everyone always asks for the cookies. milk bar’s latest treat is the molasses rye cookie, exclusively at booker and dax. Christina advises anyone into cocktails and mixology to give it a try. Look out for her new cookbook milk bar life, slated for 2014.
HOw fun for you
I have made a couple of her cookie recipes
It was definitely so much fun! Maybe if I take one of the baking classes I’ll get a book and try out the cookie recipes myself… cookies are easier for me to do than cakes!
Stellar interview Alex! I would love to visit momofuku, and taste those ‘best of the best’ confections for myself.
I’m definitely not one to experiment in the kitchen. I love to bake, but I’m devoted to my recipes.
Maybe next time you’re in New York! There are a bunch of locations.
I’m a recipe or nothing kind of person. Well actually more like a recipe or disaster kind of person, ha!
love her skirt Xo Megan, http://www.TfDiaries.com
Awesome! I need to get my butt there… heard so many wonderful things :)
Um, yes you do! Maybe we can have an excursion sometime! Bloggers take over milk bar?
Lol yes definitely need a blogger take over ;)
Hopefully we can do brunch again soon!
beautifully written article, Alex. And how lucky that you got to meet Christina! I read an article about her on NPR last year and just think she’s genius!
Thanks Laura! I was in agony for half the night over my lack of copy editor. I must have 8 different versions of this, and each one basically only different in editing style!
It was so great to have the chance to talk to Christina. I may start an interview series for the blog.
Shen Dove says
What a well written and insightful interview! I hope you do more pieces like this in the future.
Thanks Shenneth! I need to make time to do some real writing like this.
I might do an interview series in the future. Any recommendations for people to ask for interviews?
Great writing Alex…makes me want to go to milk bar and meet Christina! Pancake cake?! Hello!!! It will be one of my “must go to” if I ever get to go to Brooklyn one of these days!
milk bar is all over the place! There’s the East Village, UWS, Midtown… hopefully you can get to one of them!
Lisa - respect the shoes says
What a great interview – you’ve put Milk Bar on my list of need-to-go places next time I visit NYC!
This is a very well-written interview and review. I loved it. Christina’s style is really great. I’m now following you on Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I also liked your Facebook Page. =]
Thanks for taking the time to leave me a comment! momofuku gets an incredible amount of press, so I really wanted to do something a little different with this story and make it personal.
I’m in awe right now because this post is so freaking fantastic- going to read it again!!
Thanks! I don’t make the time to write any more… and I should! I’d forgotten how much I like to do long pieces like this one. Maybe an interview series is in my future.
Milk Bar is now on my must visit list…Great piece!
You should definitely go to milk bar if you have a chance! The desserts are so much fun!