Avenue 32: Christina Tosi

Originally published in the Avenue 32 Magazine.
Photograph by: Skye Parrott

Few people can claim an insatiable childhood sweet tooth as responsible for a much-lauded culinary career, but that’s precisely from where Christina Tosi, doyenne of desserts at David Chang’s Momofuku restaurants, derived her gastronomic mojo.  The head chef of Milk Bar and author of a recently launched cookbook that bears the same name draws on her childhood obsession with cookie dough and the “down home” baking style practised by the women of her family for inspiration in her adult oeuvre to create such unexpected delicacies as Compost Cookies, Cereal Milk ice cream and Crack Pie.

It was a somewhat circuitous path that led Tosi to where she is now at the helm of Chang’s New York City sweet shop and as the pastry chef for all four of his restaurants in Manhattan. Despite a lingering love of baking, Tosi completed degrees in Italian and Applied Mathematics before succumbing to her sweet tooth and attending the French Culinary Institute’s pastry program. It was there that Tosi harnessed her predilection for desserts and created a craft of which everyone now wants a slice. A stint at Bouley and in Wylie Dufresne’s kitchen led to an “etcetera” job with culinary genius Chang, who recognized a star in Tosi thanks to the pies and cakes she made for staff meals. In 2008 Chang added Momofuku Milk Bar to his empire, a bakery to showcase Tosi’s talents, and three and half years since its conception, crowds still flock to the East Village bakery and its three additional outposts to get their “fix” of Tosi’s signature sweet and salty creations.

It is Tosi’s adventurous approach to baking that has led to some of her most famous treats. Though most people consider baking an exact science that uses quantities and proportions to create balanced, “properly” textured final products, Tosi admits to never measuring quantities at home: “I bake with a cook’s sensibility of taste: add, taste, add, but it allows me to constantly create something new and different, some of them are successes, some of them are failures, but the process of creating is that much more poignant because I bake with that soul.” That spirit is evident in every mouthful of her extravagant nibbles, which make taste buds reel and ricochet between sugar shock and salty scrumptiousness, and play on the palate with their nuanced textures. Pretzels, potato chips and coffee grounds—relics of a childhood junk food habit, become star ingredients in Tosi’s able hands.

As for her personal style, Tosi is partial to clothes imbued with history: a wrap dress that her mother designed and made, vintage shoes handed down from grandmothers and great aunts—clothes “with soul, that feel like home.” Even in the kitchen, Christina’s personal flair is evident: Tosi dons well-worn red Converse high tops rather than the traditional (and decidedly bland) kitchen clogs, and wraps vintage scarves from the matriarchs of her family around her head to tame her auburn locks. For a young woman whose profession necessitates hauling fifty pound sacks of flour and sugar and getting elbow deep in chocolate and dough, Tosi enjoys the occasional day off, when she sports a dress and “relishes being a little lady of the city.”

Tosi’s youthful sensibilities are evident in her uninhibited concoctions, reminiscent of childhood potions with their unexpected and seemingly haphazard ingredients. After all, what could be more pleasantly irreverent than a cake bejeweled by M&Ms or soft serve ice cream infused with Lucky Charms? In a culture obsessed with looking young, Tosi’s confections satisfy the soul that wants to feel young, and other than a slice of Crack Pie, what could be more addictive than that?

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