Working Hard Pays — & Christina Tosi Can Prove It

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SuperWoman_LandingPage_ChristinaTosi_1Photographed by Winnie Au; Designed by Gabriela Alford.
Crack pie, compost cookies, cereal-milk-flavored soft serve — six years ago, these hilariously named confections would have been the stuff of fantastical sugar-laden dreams and late-night binges. Today, they’re signature trademarks of Milk Bar, the growing bakery and dessert stores co-owned by David Chang and his pastry chef Christina Tosi. These madcap items are more than just trailblazing baked goods — they’re Tosi’s edible manifestations of what it means to be unapologetic about what you believe in.

Of course, trusting her gut plays heavily into the 32-year-old’s story of finding success as a chef and entrepreneur, most notably when she moved to New York to study pastry at the French Culinary Institute), and again when she joined David Chang’s Momofuku team — taking on a non-cooking job — back before the restaurant group was even a shadow of the globally known phenomenon it is today.

Since becoming Momofuku’s pastry chef and founding the spin-off Milk Bar in 2008, Tosi has seen it grow from a handful of employees to more than a hundred, with five New York City locations (and another on the way this fall), one in Toronto, and a massive bakery HQ in Williamsburg. She also put out a Milk Bar cookbook in 2011 and scooped up the James Beard Award for Rising Star Chef in 2012.

Not that it was all a piece of proverbial cake for the Virginia-born chef. In an industry known for its machismo and rough characters, Tosi put her head down and spent the better part of a decade working like a warrior, sometimes at the cost of missing family functions and friends’ weddings. Even before having the legit title of “owner,” Tosi says she “owned” just about every task she took on, as well as every mistake she made along the way.

Today, her official ownership over her expanding business is stronger than ever, but Tosi still gets the importance of kicking back and having some fun, whether that's literally kicking up her feet in her back yard or showing off her silly side in an '80s-workout themed promo video for Karlie’s Kookies, alongside the cookies’ namesake supermodel.

Read on for Tosi’s take on being a boss and mentor in a notoriously difficult industry, keeping perspective, the top-choice dinner spots in Williamsburg, and what’s next — including, ahem, a new cookbook!

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001ChristinaTosi04_028_szPhotographed by Winnie Au. You didn’t initially go to college for culinary arts. Did you have another career in mind?
"I was raised by a mother and father who were the first generation of their family to go to college, and that was something that was always a big focus in their lives. A conversation that they always had was, ‘You can do whatever you want in life, but you are going to college first. No matter what happens, you have that to fall back on.’ I sped through college and got a degree in applied math and Italian language because those are two subjects that I love, but I would come home and bake every single day. "

What was the turning point?
"Eventually, I thought, ‘I followed all the rules, so now my parents can’t say anything. I want to move to New York and become a chef.’ I didn’t even tell [my family] until I was about to leave. I’d only been to New York once before on a day trip, but I just knew that’s what I had to do."

Topshop dress, Oscar de la Renta belt and heels, Khai Khai jewelry.
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002ChristinaTosi02_165_szPhotographed by Winnie Au. The pastry field seemed very different back then.
"This was probably about 10 years ago when being a pastry chef meant being a pastry chef at some place like Le Cirque. I knew I didn’t want to be a fancy restaurant chef, but I loved being in the industry, so I got a job at Saveur as an editorial assistant; I would work for a friend who was a food stylist; I worked for a friend who was a caterer, I got a job at the front of house for Per Se for a year. Inevitably, I knew I had to get back to the kitchen."
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003ChristinaTosi03_335_szPhotographed by Winnie Au. And, you did, right? You were a pastry cook at WD-50 before taking on what was essentially a desk job for David Chang at Momofuku. What prompted that departure from the kitchen again?
"I left WD-50 and didn’t know what I wanted to do. I traveled to Thailand for a month. When I came back, Dave needed help with this Health Department Hazard Analysis Plan that I had experience writing, so I started helping him do that. There was just something about what he was building, his vision, and the way he was forming his team that I was drawn to. I liked the idea of being part of a small team, bootstrapping it, doing your best to make delicious food with an interesting perspective, so I’d be anything from makeshift facility manager to the operations person to payroll specialist."

…to in-house pastry chef?
"I did the same thing I did in college: I’d go home every night, bake, and bring that stuff in. [Dave] knew I had pastry experience. He sort of pushed me into it in a supportive way. Because there were no desserts on the menu, there was no pretense, so I was able to find my voice in that kitchen."
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004ChristinaTosi03_260_szPhotographed by Winnie Au. In an earlier interview, you said that in order to be the best employee, you had an insane work ethic, but it was sometimes at the cost of being the worst family member or friend.
"Yeah, I was never around…probably my first eight years of living in the city. I wouldn’t request time off even when there was a wedding, or I was supposed to be a bridesmaid. I didn’t want to be seen as that person [in the kitchen]."
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005ChristinaTosi03_268_sizPhotographed by Winnie Au. Any regrets? Is it different now?
"No regrets. I spend so much time now trying to be present and supportive. I’m not married. I don’t have kids the way that a lot of my family and friends do. And, I think they love that because that’s a part of their life that they get to live through me, and I get to live through them. It’s actually a really cool balance."

How did the conversation to found Milk Bar come about?
"If I put my mind to something, I’m going to own it like it’s mine, regardless. I think [Dave] saw that. Every job I had prior, I left because there was a point where I stopped feeling challenged and there wasn’t room for me to grow. I think he saw that in order to retain me that was going to be a big part of it. He knew I always wanted a bakery, and he said, ‘You helped me accomplish so much of my dream and vision, and I want to do the same for you.’"
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006ChristinaTosi03_296_szPhotographed by Winnie Au. In terms of being a boss, did it take some time to feel comfortable in that new role?
"I built Milk Bar from the ground up, so I was my own boss before I was anyone else's!"
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007ChristinaTosi02_090_szPhotographed by Winnie Au. Would you say things definitely changed after you opened Milk Bar? Were there any negative side effects that came with the territory?
"No. I feel like I have always had that entrepreneurial spirit. It's certainly been a long and winding road, but like most things, its important to lead by example, be fair and always stay on your toes. What worked for you yesterday isn't going to work for you tomorrow."

How many employees do you have at Milk Bar?
"I would say about a hundred. It hasn’t even been six years. When we started, it was me, my sous chef, and two other friends in the kitchen."

Tanya Taylor dress, Oscar de la Renta flats, Khai Khai jewelry.
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008ChristinaTosi02_123_szPhotographed by Winnie Au. In terms of managing growth and meeting high public demand, have you ever felt daunted or even out of control of the situation?
"Never. I like a good challenge. I think so much of how you behave as an owner, manager, and leader is all about perspective. When you start out with these really basic parameters of wanting a bakery, and what you want it to be, it’s just organic. We’ve taken it one day at a time, or month at a time, or holiday season at a time. It’s more like, ‘Alright! How are we gonna get through this? How are we gonna prepare for the battle this year,’ in a really fun, motivating way."
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009MilkBarDetails_013_szPhotographed by Winnie Au. There’s a fine line between seeing something as exciting and being scared by it.
"We always try to remember that at the end of the day, it’s just cookies. Don’t stress that hard, because it’s a terrible thing to take home with you."

What's the best career advice you’ve received?
"From my mother: 'Christina, just be yourself.' Also, make sure you really mean it, and you're getting into whatever business for the right reasons. From there, keep your head down, protect your sense of self, and whatever you do, keep pushing!"
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010ChristinaTosi01_090_szPhotographed by Winnie Au. Who’s been an inspiring mentor to you?
"Wylie [Dufresne of WD-50] definitely has because he taught me how to think about food. He created this environment where he taught you to have an opinion about food rather than just be a soldier for someone else. And, I think Dave is a big mentor from the standpoint of just going for it, being okay with failure and yourself, and not apologizing for what you think tastes good, what a restaurant can be, what it can look like… just marching to the beat of your own drum and being disruptive. Standing at the gate and shaking it and screaming."
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011ChristinaTosi01_031_szPhotographed by Winnie Au. Do you try to be a mentor in the same way?
"I try to be a mentor not only to my team but to anyone in the industry. It's cutthroat like any other competitive industry, and I think I do tend to have more of a female nurturing mentality. I want to help other people. I want to be the opposite of what people think they're going to get if they get into the industry [and find themselves in over their heads]."

You’ve also said that you encourage women coming into the industry to think of themselves as individuals wearing aprons just like everyone else — undefined by gender. But, kitchens are notoriously macho environments. How easy is that, really?
"My mom's a managing partner of an accounting firm in Virginia, which is a little bit of a good-ol'-boy state. She raised me to just be myself and to make sure you really mean it and you're getting into whatever business it may be for the right reasons. From there, keep your head down, protect your sense of self and whatever you do, keep pushing! You’re gonna get yelled at in the kitchen for messing something up or not working hard enough or being clumsy, but own yourself as being a clumsy person, not a clumsy woman."
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012_OPENERb_ChristinaTosi01_145_szPhotographed by Winnie Au. Would that be the same advice you give to any chef, male or female?
"Yeah, own it. But, I do think that female chefs tend to look for more advice from female chefs than males do."

That said, do you ever feel pushed into a position of being a spokesperson for female chefs beyond what’s comfortable to you?
"No, I think I’m often asked these questions, but my feedback is, ‘I know I’m a girl, and I love owning that, in work and out of work.’ I will say that my favorite chefs are male chefs who say, ‘the best employees are female chefs because they’re not worried about anything other than doing the best job. It’s not that they’re not trying to prove themselves, they just don’t have the same machismo that other male chefs have.’ I think that’s always such an interesting point of feedback from male chefs."
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013_OPENERb_ChristinaTosi01_191_sizedPhotographed by Winnie Au.What can you tell us about Milk Bar Life, your new book coming out in April?
"Our first cookbook includes all the cult favorites from our kitchen, and this one is going to have an ‘off-the-clock’ vibe. Each chapter will focus on a different theme: backyard barbecues (a fixture of summer hanging out and team building for us); snacks to make when you come home dog-tired at 11 p.m. and need to eat something but have only war rations left in the cupboard — that’s a specialty of ours — and more."

At the end of the day, what do you do to unwind?
"I love more than anything: coming home after a great meal, going out into my backyard, laying out on a bench with my feet in the sky and sipping on a cocktail or glass of wine while I stare out at the stars. Makes any and every day in this silly city worth it!"

What are some of your favorite Williamsburg spots for good eats?
"St. Anselm is a casual newish steakhouse that doesn’t take reservations, but the steak and patty melts will steal your heart for a lifetime. I get down and dirty with a 'De Pabellón' arepa at Caracas once a week, and my favorite sleeper hit recently has been Zizi Limona for the mash-up of Mediterranean cuisine like tershi, fattoush, and shawarma. The Brooklyn Star is always a go-to for loving, comfort food like country-fried steak and cornbread with bacon and jalapeños."
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014MilkBarDetails_075_SzPhotographed by Winnie Au. As Milk Bar has grown into a widely recognized brand, people still want to associate it with its founding personalities. Sometimes, that means spending less time doing what you’re actually known for (e.g. baking) and spending more time as a spokesperson for your brand. How do you manage that?
"I think that balance is different every day. One of the reasons I didn’t want a real job when I got out of college was that I like to move around. I get bored quickly. I need a job where I’m always on my feet and every day’s different. And, I still have that."

But, how about something like this, even — doing a photo shoot for a fashion website — or something similar that isn’t inherently related to the food industry. Is it hard for you?
"I think I’ve gotten better at it, because I know it helps tell our story. It’s what gets people on our team, who work so hard and feel so positive about what they do every day, and what their part in all this is. It’s motivating to create something that’s bigger than cookies."



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