by don chareunsy
Christina Tosi is a pastry chef, entrepreneur, star of “Master Chef” on Fox-TV and two-time James Beard Award recipient. But what it all boils down to for the newlywed and mastermind behind Milk Bar is a motto of her company: “Milk Bar is here to make your day a little sweeter.”
Milk Bar opened its outlet at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas on Jan. 1. Tosi, who is friendly, natural and very passionate about desserts, spoke with Luxury Las Vegas shortly before Milk Bar’s opening at The Cosmopolitan.
Welcome to Las Vegas.
I’m so excited. Thank you!
Why Las Vegas now?
Las Vegas is the food mecca of the West. Being an East Coaster, we have the New York market down, more or less. New York is our home. It’s where we started Milk Bar. We opened in Washington, D.C., a year ago, and we have a store in Toronto. We just turned 8, (and now) we have nine stores.
I like to bake because I like to feed people; and the more people you can feed as a chef, the happier you are, the more fulfilled you are. So the real question was, “How do we reach more people through Milk Bar?” Well, we have to open more stores.
You want to open a store where people are going to be excited; where people understand food; and where people want to be a part of it, and celebrate it and be wowed. For me, the Las Vegas food scene is absolutely that. And partnering up for this incredible opportunity with The Cosmopolitan has been awesome.
People know you from “Master Chef,” as well. What makes Milk Bar stand out?
When I opened Milk Bar eight years ago, I wanted it to be this fun, quirky place that was super accessible. That was important to me. I worked in fine dining for almost a decade in New York, and I loved the very high-end, precious nature of what that type of refined kitchen environment is like. But I was raised in the Midwest.
Being able to grab a cookie off the table and have that make your day a little brighter, sweeter (and) having access to great food is something that I very much relate to. My own spirit is very casual, so Milk Bar is this quirky place that’s fun and that piques your interest, and is easy to get and be a part of any time of day. It’s a quirky take on a classic American bakery.
There’s nothing at Milk Bar that you have had before, but everything is very relatable; everything has its roots in something very traditional. We don’t sell apple pie, but we have an apple pie layer cake: layers of buttery crumbs, layers of gooey cinnamon apple, layers of brown butter cake and pie crumb frosting.
We don’t have a chocolate chip cookie, but we have a corn flake chocolate marshmallow cookie. We have a compost cookie that has chocolate chips, but it also has pretzels, and potato chips, and coffee grounds, and butterscotch. It makes you giggle, and you get it the second you have it, even though you’ve never had anything quite like it before.
You’ve mentioned quirky and fun, so obviously names like crack pie, compost cookies and cereal milk ice cream make sense, but how did you come up with those names?
A lot of Milk Bar’s items have been on the menu since we opened eight years ago, and a lot of them have been in my repertoire before Milk Bar opened. The names — crack pie, compost cookie — all have a little bit of sense of humor.
I’ve been making crack pie for probably two to three years before Milk Bar opened. It’s sort of a mix between Southern classic chess pie and a pumpkin pie, without the pecans. It’s a dense, buttery, sugary slice of heaven.
What is your go-to or favorite dessert on your Milk Bar menu, or, in general?
I can never choose one — that’s like choosing your favorite child! I will say that in order to fairly distribute my love across the Milk Bar menu, I have a routine every week where I will switch from one cookie to another; one cake truffle to another; one slice of pie to another, so I’m currently on the blueberry and cream cookie kick this week. It is amazing!
It keeps me sharp because I’m constantly revisiting these recipes. Are they right? Are they as good as they possibly can be? Inevitably, that’s part of what being a great chef is — the pursuit of making the best possible bite you can. That’s the difference between a good chef and a great chef.
How do you juggle all of your businesses and opening businesses?
I have a lot of to-do lists. It’s a juggling act, for sure. I realized at a pretty early age that I’m the type of person who likes to be in a little over my head. I’m at my best when I’m really, really challenged. If I’m not struggling to keep it all going, it’s almost boring to me, so I like having a lot of things going on.
I sleep, but I really love what I do. When you love what you do, there is a never-say-die mentality, and you make it work. You find ways to make one thing feed into the other.
This is a change in topic, but how does it feel to be a two-time James Beard Award winner?
(Laughed) You definitely have to pinch me sometimes. There’s no way that happened. First and foremost, being named the first female pastry chef, then being given the award for rising star chef, was just incredible. That was the moment where my mom was, “I am so proud of you.”
I incorporate it into new-hire orientation at Milk Bar because so much of who I am and what I built Milk Bar on is challenging the norm and surprising people, and having that never-say-die mentality. We challenge what food can be and what a great bakery can be. The world is our oyster, and we can go out and get what we want. They are really cool awards that I share with the team, and that I use to motivate myself and the team.
If you weren’t a pastry chef, what would you be?
I had so many other professions planned for myself. I really wanted to be a truck driver. I love to travel. I love to go on road trips. I just got married this summer, and instead of going on a romantic getaway, like to the Caribbean, we went on a two-week road trip through America.
I love speaking foreign languages, so I thought, “Maybe I’ll be a translator. That allows you to travel.” I really love animals, so I also wanted to be a veterinarian. I love what I do. I love dessert — I could eat it all day, I do eat it all day, every day, and I love that years of hard work have paid off.
Any resolutions for 2017?
I try to be the type of person who doesn’t wait until New Year’s to have the resolution list. I’m very much a to-do-list-oriented person. I always try to have that running list for myself year-round. More pleasure reading is on my list. I have a little tab in my inbox that is my to-do list, and at the top, it says, “Get creative.”
I get to be creative on a bunch of different levels from a Milk Bar standpoint. I love to read and think about how to be a better person — and challenge myself even more. I was reading this beautiful article about if you can get yourself to be creative outside your normal space of creativity every single day, it fuels you so much more.
Have you been to Las Vegas very often, and what is on your to-do list here?
Yes, and I definitely have a Las Vegas to-do list — no surprise there (laughed). I come to Las Vegas four to five times a year. I’m excited because I now have an excuse to come here more often because of our store and our kitchen, where we do our baking and soft-serve making on-site, too.
When we are here to open, team-building wise, we are going to go to Vegas Indoor Skydiving because I think that’s awesome and go to the new Taco Bell Cantina because we love the high and the low at Milk Bar. That’s very much who we are as food.
I really want to go to the Neon Boneyard. We have an awesome Las Vegas-inspired Milk Bar sign. I love signs and signage, and the old-school Las Vegas signage. And, inevitably, going to see a lot of the shows and music. Everybody on the team is very excited about the fact that they can literally walk out of work and, five steps later, be somewhere incredible