With an arsenal of iconic desserts like crack pie and cereal milk soft serve, a seat among the judges on the reality TV show “MasterChef,” and a rapidly expanding chain of bakeries across the country and in Toronto, Milk Bar founder Christina Tosi is a baking and business powerhouse.
That’s why it came as no surprise when news broke in January that the latest season of “Chef’s Table,” a Netflix documentary series profiling the lives and passions of the top culinary talent across the world, would feature the New York City-based chef among its roster of pastry innovators.
In the first episode of the four-part, dessert-focused series, released Friday, the self-described “junk food junkie” guides viewers through a Virginia childhood defined by her grandmother and mother’s all-American baking, a post-college struggle to determine her life’s calling and a journey through culinary school and the kitchens of celebrated chefs Wylie Dufresne and David Change to refine her creative voice and establish her own food empire.
What comes across clearest through director David Gelb’s lens: her dedication to nostalgic American flavors and her dogged ambition to prove they’ve earned industry and public respect.
But as much as the show revealed to us about Tosi’s early years, the origins of her most familiar trend-setting treats and the inner workings of her Williamsburg commissary kitchen, we still had questions.
Read the batch of answers the compost cookie inventor and unfrosted cake evangelist, now 37, baked up for us below:
In the episode, you talk about how you didn’t have much of a social life outside of restaurants during the first 10 years of your career in New York City basement kitchens. You’re still really busy these days, so how do you balance your private life with all your work responsibilities? What’s a typical day in your life these days? Lead us through the morning through evening, if you can.
I thrive on being busy. I’ll go from a morning coffee meeting in the city, to an R&D tasting in our Williamsburg commissary, to a senior management meeting. It can be a lot, but I much prefer it to sitting still. I try to break up my day with 15-minute breathers — whether a Citibike ride to my next appointment, or a quick walk around the block during a phone meeting. Family and friends are still super important to me, too, so I make time in every week to see them. I’ll schedule early morning runs with my gals crazy enough to meet me before sunrise, dinner with friends pretty frequently (and use it as an excuse to check out the city’s new spots) and I try to block off my weekends for fam time.
When the lineup for this season of “Chef’s Table” was first announced, some were surprised and critical of the fact that you’re the only female pastry chef featured. How do you feel about it?
I’m excited to help pave the way for more amazing stories from amazing women to be told by talented teams — “Chef’s Table” and beyond.
The episode offers a rare, in-depth look at Milk Bar’s commissary kitchen in Williamsburg, where a lot of the magic happens. When you do take people on a tour, what surprises them most about the setup?
We rarely invite the outside world into our commissary, so this was a big deal for us. People entering for the first time are usually most surprised about the size. You can enter through our tiny Williamsburg storefront, under a counter and through a doorway, and suddenly you’re in a giant, 11,000-square-foot kitchen. The mixers are enormous — after all, we have a lot of cakes to make.
What qualities do you look for in employees you hire? Who makes the cut?
At Milk Bar, we hire what we call “hardbodies.” These are the people that have a sixth sense about them. A care, an edge, an independence and a work ethic. They work hard, but still have fun (and always break for cake).
In the episode, you talk about how chefs Wylie Dufresne and Dave Chang pushed you out of your comfort zone and forced you to get back in touch with your creative baking side when other tasks and responsibilities got in the way. Who plays that role in your life now?
My team first and foremost. It’s a gift you give, teaching others to be creative, then giving them the permission, the venue for that creativity. They keep me on my toes, keep me creative. My husband [restaurateur Will Guidara, a co-owner of Eleven Madison Park,] is one of the most creative people I know. I approach every day like an adventure — this builds in a sense of wonder and excitement that leads to creativity. My favorite unexpected part of the job is how many strangers and friends alike love having opinions and sharing ideas of what we should work on at Milk Bar next.
You obviously do a lot of research and testing before introducing a new item to the menu. How long does it typically take from the initial idea to the final product? How do you know when something is ready for the public?
It can take months. We workshop recipes endlessly. We tweak the flavor, texture, color, ratios, etc. We want to make sure that we are giving you the best possible version of a cookie or a layer cake or a cake truffle. We take flavor very, very seriously.
We’ve read that you were an applied mathematics major in college. How does that affect your baking and your creative process?
I studied math and Italian, and also graduated in three years. (I was so eager to get out into the real world.)
Math gives me an edge in the pastry kitchen because baking is so incredibly precise. That said, when it comes to innovation, I don’t always play by the rules. I studied math and a language because I’m curious about the world and how it works, and that same curiosity and inquisitive, playful spirit guides my baking.
Milk Bar is very diligent about trademarking its products. What’s the philosophy behind that and why do you think there are so many copycats out there?
We are super proud of the trends we’ve started — the return of soft serve, naked cakes (with unfrosted edges). We trademark our work to protect it. There will always be copycats that come and go, but they say imitation is the best form of flattery, right? I try not to get too worked up about it, but as a business, our work, our creativity, our recipes and their names are our identity and our value, so we have to be savvy about how we remain who we need to be for you.
What’s next for Milk Bar? What are your goals for the company over the next five years?
A little bit of everything! We’re psyched to be opening flagship storefronts in L.A. and D.C. this summer. We’re also opening in Harvard Square in Boston soon. I have a new cookbook, “All About Cake,” coming out in the fall. Milk Bar turns 10 this year. It’s a wild ride and I’m here for it!