This is part of a new series at Food Dive of Q&A’s with iconoclasts in the industry doing interesting things and challenging the status quo in the food industry. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Name: Christina Tosi
Where do you live: Manhattan, New York
Occupation: CEO, Milk Bar
In 2005, David Chang hired Christina Tosi to, of all things, create a safety plan for his kitchen so he could cook with a vacuum-sealing system. Tosi had recently created a plan for chef Wyle Dufresne’s restaurant.
During this professional cooking break, Tosi started baking at home and bringing in the goods for Momofuku’s restaurant staff. Chang quickly hired her to create the restaurant’s dessert plan. Previously,Tosi had worked at Bouley, interned at Saveur, and then worked at Dufresne’s wd~50.
Tosi opened the Momofuku Milk Bar bakery in New York City’s East Village back in 2008 in the restaurant’s epicenter. Famous for concocting unusual and truly unique desserts, including Cereal milk ice cream, the famous Milk Bar Pie (originally called “Crack Pie”), and a legendary sweet corn ice cream and compost cookie, Tosi brought a whimsy and creative nature to desserts and sweets that restaurants hadn’t yet seen. She told the New York Times that bringing her creative dessert concoctions to suburban grocery stores is “her gift to children looking for creative inspiration in a sea of mass-market blandness.”
Since then, Tosi has been working towards her goal of “democratizing dessert,” and as her creations have moved from being available in-bakery only to supermarkets and e-commerce sites across the country, she’s on the verge of turning that dream into a reality. Milk Bar was a bakery that was always a direct-to-consumer company delivering pies, cake pops and cookies across the U.S. Then the pandemic hit and Tosi wanted to take a step further to become easily available and now Milk Bar products can be found in more than 10,000 stores including Whole Foods, Target, and Costco.
The James Beard Award-winning CEO sat down for an interview with Food Dive and answered our 8 questions.
FOOD DIVE: What was your first job?
CHRISTINA TOSI: My mom is an accountant and she would hire my sister and I to do things like stuff the company newsletters in envelopes and work the shredding room.. I really loved the monotony of it —almost like that “I Love Lucy” chocolate bonbons assembly line.
That was my first moment of real agency. My first paid job in the industry was at this microbrewery in Harrisonburg, Virginia that’s no longer there, but I was hired as a hostess. I worked my way up and I eventually convinced them to let me work as a prep cook.
They definitely didn't take to me right away — they weren't used to taking girls seriously. I always knew I'd be a good worker, from that mailroom shredding role, but I knew working in food was for me when I started working thereI like to say I’ve been training for this moment my entire life.
FOOD DIVE: What inspired you to focus on your current work?
TOSI: Well, first and foremost, I have a sweet tooth. Most kids do, but I still do as an adult.
I learned how to bake because both my grandmothers baked and invited us into the kitchen. They would catch me stealing cookie dough behind their back, And they were like no, you're not allowed in the kitchen anymore.
So the only way to get the cookie dough was to figure out how to make it for myself. But really, what I learned very quickly was the power that dessert wields. I dare you to show up with a styrofoam plate of brownies and not feel like you have a superpower.
I'm an introvert, so I like to think of dessert as my way into being a part of people's lives and saying I care about you. I got you.
I love savory foods too, but what I love best about dessert is it's an opt-in course. There is no dessert on the food pyramid, right? It's this choice that we make. There's a very specific and sacred place that dessert occupies. So it’s both because I love dessert, but I also really love what it represents.
FOOD DIVE: What is the biggest change you have seen while working your current role?
TOSI: The thing I've seen change the most is that there's more dessert. People are more curious about food, and we're curious about dessert—what it tastes like, how it's made, and how to make it themselves.
It's a very proud moment to be a part of an industry that is something that people care about and want to be part of. That, for me, is the biggest thing—the ways in which it manifests.
We’re seeing more entrepreneurs, more pastry people getting in the game bringing their perspectives to life. It's just really awesome. I think we can all win.
FOOD DIVE: What was harder than you thought it would be? What was easier?
TOSI: I had no idea this would become what it's become. But I hate to use the word “hard,” because I think the word hard implies that you're not here for it. And I wouldn’t ever contextualize my business as a challenge with a negative connotation. I think challenge is good. Discomfort is good.
What's been challenging is learning how to move the goalposts and how to translate my dream of democratizing dessert and feeding everyone in this world a cookie. Learning how to evolve it and allow it to transform and shape shift through our bakeries, care package, grocery, and then also to dream to take that dream and make it bigger and make it more real every step of the way.
Daring to achieve your dream is the challenge and it's a challenge I'm super passionate about.
FOOD DIVE: What is a misconception that people have about you when they first meet you?
TOSI: we’re a bunch of kids that run a bakery. I laugh, because we ARE a bunch of kids that run a bakery.
But if you think that that's all we are, maybe it's underestimating the power of dessert, and the people that bring it to life. I kind of like being the underdog. I like when people put me, or us, in a box because it allows so much room for defying expectations. Being the underdog is one of the most marvelous thing to be—you have to be humble about it, right? It's not for the faint of heart. There's not really a lot of ego allowed, but I think it's also been one of the secrets to our success.
FOOD DIVE: What do you think will be the biggest change in the industry in 10 years?
TOSI: My hope is that there’ll be more delicious things and fewer things that are “meh”. We need more “better” and more individuality. I hope we as an industry and consumers, stop settling for less. And that’s everything from the ingredients that we have access to, our chefs, to the techniques and manufacturing processes.
I say that both as a business owner and a consumer. I also say it as a call to action: what if we decided that every meal we ate was going to be delicious. Imagine what that might look like.
FOOD DIVE: What do you wish someone would have told you about your current role or position when you started?
TOSI: It’s one step forward every day. Which is to say, you can aspire to conquer Rome in a day, but really, it's the one step forward that has a lasting difference. Small tweaks yield big results.
When you're surrounded by really passionate people that share the same values—this is how you do it. The other thing is knowing you're going to learn a lot along the way, but you need to be true to your heart and follow your own internal compass. Seeking outside resources and support is also really important and powerful. But don't forget who you are and what you know and what really matters, because no one else knows.
FOOD DIVE: What would be the foods of your last meal?
TOSI: I really enjoy everything about the preparation of a meal and then sitting down to it. I chose to work in a kitchen because I like to be in the kitchen. That's my safe space. I'm an undercover introvert; my happy place is hiding in the kitchen.
So let’s just say I've already eaten pizza. My last meal would be the opt-in course. I wouldn't consider my last meal the savory part; it would be dessert.I think my last meal would be recipe I use for testing cookies, but I would want to do it with my community of my favorite people. My husband is one of my greatest taste testers. So him, my team, and my nieces.
I’d make a big batch of chocolate chip cookie dough and go at it. See who can top the Cornflake Chocolate Chip Marshmallow Cookie or the Compost Cookie, or who can better the Chocolate Chip Pretzel Potato Chip super crunchy cookie that we have in the grocery stores right now.
We do R&D tastings in our kitchen every week, and they're about two hours long. It's just one long dessert buffet of tasting and consideration, and that’s just the happiest moment of my week. It feeds my soul and my curiosity.