Christina Tosi always wanted to be a pastry chef. Growing up in northern Virginia, "I was raised by a gaggle of women who all loved to bake," she says, and "dessert always existed after any savory meal. I was raised with cookies on the plate, brownies in a Tupperware container, and so on."
Tosi baked throughout high school, though her parents were stern about college. So Tosi agreed to go, opting to major in math. But she still devoted her free time to baking. When it came time to decide what to do after college, "I got a little freaked out, because I wanted to love what I do," she says. "I didn't want a desk job; I knew I'd get bored."
With her parents' blessing, Tosi enrolled in culinary school in Manhattan--"when I'm going to do something, I go all in"--setting her sights on landing a pastry job where she could work her way up before graduating. When that inevitably happened, Tosi soon realized "I loved the job, but was missing the baked goods aspect of it. I missed the beauty of giving someone a brownie." What she really wanted to do was open a bakery.
In 2008, Tosi's old boss, Wylie Dufresne, suggested she help David Chang, the Korean-American chef who'd founded the Momofuku restaurant group, with some paperwork. Tosi had already put in her notice to leave Dufresne's doomed WD-50 restaurant, so it was fortuitous that Chang was looking for someone to head the bakery branch of Momofuku.
"He knew that I was a crazy baker," she says laughing, whipping up miso butterscotch brownies with all sorts of unusual things in them. They also shared a love for "challenging flavors and formats and texture, the use of sugar and salt and acidity, and making loud, bold movements on the plate," she says. Launching Milk Bar under Momofuku's umbrella was destined to be her dream job.
On November 15, 2008, the tiny East Village outpost, named Milk Bar, opened to serious buzz. "We had a line out the door, around the corner, and it feels like it has not let up since," Tosi says. Customers couldn't resist the creations, which range from compost cookies made with pretzels and potato chips to cake truffles made from gingerbread scraps.
"I think the cereal milk is my most proud achievement," she says of the conflake-infused milk she developed as a nod to the best part of eating breakfast cereal as a child. "That's where I learned the most about the power of dessert being transportive, taking people back to a moment in time, and also that desserts are for the masses and it's about creating in ways that jostle the memory and play with nostalgia." To no one's surprise but her own, Tosi was named the James Beard Rising Star Chef in 2012.
Within months of opening Milk Bar, it became clear Tosi couldn't serve everyone as quickly as she wanted, so she began scouting a much bigger kitchen. Eventually she settled on an 11,000 square foot facility smack dab in the trendy Williamsburg neighborhood.
Slowly, she built up her staff to 178 people, adding specialized equipment and hanging funny signs ("It gets WILD when we turn the mixers on!") in an effort to maintain the principles Milk Bar started out with: namely, find the extraordinary in the ordinary. "We have a don't take yourself so seriously mentality 99 percent of the time," Tosi says. "The one percent is when you need the right butter."
This relatable approach helped Tosi scale up the business without losing what made it successful. As always, she hired for "strong personalities" as opposed to culinary experience, and remained brazen about taking risks. "You can't teach someone that knows how to bake how to care," she says, but "you can teach technique to anyone that cares."
Tosi also remained "very picky" about her research and development process. "Typically, what happens is [we have] a great idea, but we can never figure out how to translate it into a final product," she explains. "You have to be really good and comfortable at taking risks and failing--you have to edit, you have to be open enough to criticize and question the why as well as the why not."
For example, once when she was testing a chocolate fudge pastry, she wasn't sure if it was sweet enough. "We were adding glucose, maple syrup, and someone added molasses," she recalls. Tosi hates the latter ingredient, but once she gave the pastry a try, she realized it worked. "Oh my god, this small amount of molasses [gave] a really awesome flavor to this chocolate filling." Being able to check herself is what's most important.
Using revenue from the East Village shop in July 2013, Tosi opened a small shop in Toronto and launched the successful e-commerce site, Milk Bar Store, as well as a series of popular baking classes. Next year, in addition to releasing her second book, Milk Bar Life, Tosi will open a store in Washington, D.C., which like Toronto, will sell fresh baked goods made by the Williamsburg factory (excluding items that don't keep overnight). Though the company keeps its revenue stats private, its foray into new markets signals evident growth.
When asked if she'd liked to go national, Tosi says she'd be open to it--with caveats. "We're still a really small team, so if we did it, we'd have to figure out how to do it, and do it right," she says. For now, she's basking in the after-glow of being a finalist for the 2014 James Beard Outstanding Pastry Chef award and continuing to put her playful spin on homestyle desserts. "They're all really simple things but have a different point of view or perspective," she says. "A lot of them I find when I go visit my aunts."