Two simple white chairs sit on a plain, dimly lit wooden stage, a small white table wedged between them, in front of a stark white background inside the Hirshhorn Museum’s theater Thursday night. Then out comes Christina Tosi — a redhead with a vibrant, youthful personality, and the vibe entirely changes. She takes a seat across from The Washington Post’s Food and Dining Editor Joe Yonan, crosses her legs froggy-style like a young child being read to at story time, and begins to talk about the rise of her empire, Milk Bar, a Lisa Frank-esque bakery as fun and carefree as she is.
Tosi may have seemingly managed to find the magic elixir that bestows eternal youth, but her baking is far from juvenile. The Virginia native is a professionally trained pastry chef who worked her way up through renowned establishments in New York City from Bouley to wd~50.
The chef sat down with us before taking the stage at the Smithsonian Associates' event to explain why she decided to leave the fine-dining scene behind and create a colorful world of her own. (This interview has been condensed for space and clarity.)
The cover of your new cookbook, “All About Cake,” is unique [all black with a neon pink cake design]. Tell me about it.
With the first book I knew I wanted it to just be the milk sign cause that was such a beacon of opening. We opened off of a block on a street that no one really walked down in the East Village, and I was like …, "We need some kind of beacon that people can see.” And at night, once you saw the milk sign, you knew to come in. But traditionally, [for] cookbook publishers, a black cover with a neon sign doesn’t exactly scream, like, anything, and I finally whittled them down over three books for them to believe in that [cover design].
Do most top chefs try too hard to be fancy or high-class?
I can really only speak for myself, but the reason I got out of the more fine dining kind of kitchen was I just knew that my voice in food was through a cookie, and through a piece of cake or a slice of pie, because that was the reason I connected with food in the first place. And I knew that my voice through food was one that I wanted to reach as many people as possible, and I wanted to reach them with humility and accessibility while also challenging them. The tradition of a cookie or a piece of cake is a long, long tradition, but then I like to turn it on its head and I like to break the convention of it. That’s who I am.
I think with other chefs, the ones that are successful are the ones who speak from the truest part of who they are, and some of them are fine dining chefs. That’s just not who I am. I was raised by women who were like, “Eat this cookie. Take this plate of bars to a bake sale,” and that’s how my love for food grew.
You have all this formal training but your baking has such a down-to-earth feel.
I worked for like 15 years for fine dining chefs and for that culture, and I think that in a large way is where I developed grit and I got my chops. When you first get out of a school, I’m a big believer that you go and work in the hardest place in your profession to really gut-check whether or not you mean it, and whether or not you have what it takes.
Getting my butt kicked there and building myself up in those very treacherous kitchens is also what makes me as strong as I am today, and what allows me to be able to, I guess, speak both languages. I can walk into a fine dining kitchen and know how to speak the language and walk the walk and talk the talk, but the team that I built at Milk Bar is a funny mix of home bakers, career changers and profession-trained pastry chefs like me that are like, “I’m going to make cereal milk soft serve every day because I get that spirit and I have that spirit, too."
Where do you find your inspiration?
I grew up in this area, and my access to food was very simple. It was in the aisles of the grocery store. We did not go out to eat. When we went to Dairy Queen, that was like a big outing.
As I started picking it apart, even in fine dining culture, the most successful dishes are the dishes that connect with people on an intellectual level but more than anything else on the guttural, like, “What does your tummy think?” level. Even people who don’t cook home-cooked meals often know what a home-cooked meal is, and those foods and flavors and ingredients are found in the aisles of the grocery store. So it’s kind of leveraging the flavors that are connected to your heartstrings, that you already know. And for me, it’s finding a way to re-create them and rediscover them.
You were living and working in New York City for a long time. [Tosi eventually opened Milk Bar locations there and in other cities.] What made you come back to the D.C. area, and why open the flagship here?
I remember the day I told my parents I was moving to New York to go to culinary school, and I knew they would not enjoy the message. But I knew that I had to go develop myself into this pastry chef, hoping that one day I would be able to bring it home. So bringing it back to D.C. and bringing everything I had learned home was really special.
Building that store in Logan Circle was building the store that I probably dreamed about as a kid in the area while watching my dad go to work at the Department of Agriculture, taking family on monument tours and stuff like that. That was important to me. It was an emotional decision and one that I think paid off creatively and from a business standpoint.
The name of your “crack pie” has been somewhat controversial. Would you ever consider changing it?
In a funny way, I didn’t even name it. A bunch of co-workers named it. It comes from a pure place, and it’s also like, it cracks you up, it cracks in the center, it cracks you out, and it’s not meant to be offensive.
I think a tricky part of even what’s going on, on so many levels in politics, is it’s so easy to be offended by anything. As a leader, as a business person, as a female, there are so many ways and places I could be offended. I do believe in being the type of leader that’s able to understand and see as many sides as possible, and to create a place where everyone’s voice is allowed to be heard, but I also think as a creator you can’t be so worried about walking on eggshells.
The D.C. area finally has a Michelin three-star restaurant [The Inn at Little Washington]. How will that affect D.C. as a food destination?
I think it’s huge. D.C. has been on the food map for a long time. I think it continues to reinforce that D.C. is such an incredibly well-read, well-educated, curious, well-funded community that is here to support business and business growth. And there’s also so many different communities and cultures to leverage that other food towns do not have anywhere near.
Would you ever make your own line of the headbands you’re known for wearing?
Oh, totally. I tried to get my mom and my aunt to do something with me a while ago, and they were like, “Girl, we like doing it for the entire team and classroom, but we’re ladies that have a life.” But we talk about it a lot. I’m all for the flair and all about when you show up in a room being like, “I am here and I’m not going anywhere. I mean business.”