Christina Tosi: A Chef Walks Into A Milk Bar

Jul 5, 2012
Originally published on September 4, 2014 12:40 pm

This week on Ask Me Another, we welcome Christina Tosi, an award-winning chef and the brains behind Momofuku Milk Bar--the dessert outpost of David Chang's ramen noodle empire. Tosi is proudly one for pushing the boundaries of normal bakery fare, featuring such confections as "crack pie" (it's addictive), "cereal milk" (which tastes like a bowl of cornflakes) and "compost cookies" (filled with chocolate chips, coffee grounds or potato chips--sometimes all in the same cookie). Tosi tells host Ophira Eisenberg how she keeps her sweet tooth sharp, and why it is so rewarding to play with one's food. Then, Tosi steps up to the plate for an Ask Me Another Challenge entitled "Name That Recipe," which pits her against a fellow foodie to guess famous dishes named after historical figures.

About Christina Tosi

Christina Tosi is the chef and owner of Momofuku Milk Bar, called "one of the most exciting bakeries in the country" by Bon Appetit Magazine.

As founder of the dessert program at Momofuku, Tosi helped Momofuku Ko earn two stars from the Michelin Guide and Momofuku Ssäm jump onto Restaurant Magazine's Top 100 Restaurants in the World list at #31. She is the 2012 winner of the James Beard Foundation Rising Star Chef Award and named to the New York Times T Magazine's "Nifty Fifty" list. Christina and her confections have appeared on Martha Stewart, Live with Regis & Kelly, Conan, and The Today Show among others. Tosi wrote and released The Momofuku Milk Bar cookbook in the fall of 2011. She lives in Brooklyn, NY with her three dogs and eats an unconscionable amount of raw cookie dough every day.

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Welcome back to ASK ME ANOTHER, NPR's show for trivia nuts and the people who have to live with them.


EISENBERG: I'm your host, Ophira Eisenberg and joining me is this week's mystery guest, owner and chef of very trendy, jam-packed, New York's Momofuku Milk Bar and I said that totally wrong.


EISENBERG: I don't know why I've been doing that all day. Momofuku Milk Bar.

CHRISTINA TOSI: It gets [unintelligible]. Momo - Momofuku.

EISENBERG: Momofuku.

TOSI: Mimofuki.

EISENBERG: Momofuku Milk bar. But he's the most important part. Christina Tosi, that's the most important part.





TOSI: Thanks for having me.

EISENBERG: Now you're - My pleasure, I - Now it's really my pleasure because, Christina brought bags of goodies for us backstage.


EISENBERG: We had compost cookies.

Now let me describe for you - I'm going to eat one, you know, over the radio and in front of my audience, being like this is delicious.


EISENBERG: Because that would just be sad for them. They are - They're squishy in like a good way. But you eat them and you, you - It's like salty and sweet and then you're like a little jittery, because you're like, what's in there? Turns out coffee grinds, there's coffee grinds in there? Is this old coffee or fresh coffee grinds?

TOSI: It's fresh coffee.

EISENBERG: Fresh coffee grinds.


EISENBERG: It's not from your coffee maker in the morning?

TOSI: No, it wasn't like leftover from my morning beverages.


EISENBERG: But that would be a great idea, don't you think?

TOSI: It - Well, oh food cost.


TOSI: Yeah.

EISENBERG: But, but I mean there, there's some crazy different combinations of ingredients in the compost cookie.

TOSI: Yeah. We're sort of like a very, don't take yourself so seriously establishment.


TOSI: And...

EISENBERG: Really, with crack pie, that wasn't...

TOSI: Yeah - No, no, I didn't get that at all. I think, you know, it's just - I think it's just about like the personality that goes into it and how it's received. I mean it's baked goods. It's a cookie or it's a slice of pie, it's not like a composed, beautiful, intricate dessert. It's mean to just sort of be shoved in your mouth and you're supposed to have a good time while doing it.

EISENBERG: Yeah. Well it works, I mean they're delicious. But how - I mean I teased this earlier about you playing with your food as a kid, because the weird flavor combinations.

TOSI: Yeah, yeah.

EISENBERG: How do you dream that up?

TOSI: You know, I'm a very like, don't follow the rules sort of person.


TOSI: Especially when it comes to food and I have sort of like, ever since a kid, been really into like awkward and disgusting flavor combinations.


TOSI: Like Doritos and Miracle Whip.


TOSI: And sour cream, brown sugar and Ruffles potato chips. It's sort of like a salty, sweet, gross but good sort of - Snack attacks are really big in my family.

EISENBERG: Snack attacks.

TOSI: My mother was a horrible cook so.


TOSI: It's a very fend for yourself sort of atmosphere. She's going to kill me.


EISENBERG: So, so it wasn't so much that you were allowed to play with your food, it was that you were unsupervised.


TOSI: It was more of an unsupervised and a - I really loved eating cookie dough and my grandmothers were really great bakers and I would like - get to like lick the spoon or lick the beaters and then they sort of like caught on what was going on. I'd be like hoarding cookie dough. Or they'd make cookie dough in advance and leave it in the fridge to like bake the next day and half of it would be missing.

It's like, you're going to get salmonella poisoning and it - it ended up being a little bit of like a survival of the fittest sort of moment in the kitchen.

EISENBERG: Now, so baking is pretty precise right? It's a precise art?

TOSI: Yeah it - you know, it's a very precise art but I feel like, I'm a - I'm the kind of person that's like I'm casual, as long as you can get away with it, until you have to be precise about it.


EISENBERG: OK and you have beverages on your list like cereal milk.

TOSI: Hm, hm.

EISENBERG: Which is?

TOSI: It's like, what's left in your bowl when you eat all the cereal out of it. Everyone knows that flavor, yeah.

EISENBERG: Yeah, delicious and you make this in...

TOSI: We make it in very large batches.


EISENBERG: Pretzel milk?

TOSI: Pretzel milk.

EISENBERG: What brought on that idea? I've never looked at a pretzel and thought, you know what this needs? Milk.

TOSI: It's - Yeah. You know, it's sort of one of those like salty, sweet obsessions.


TOSI: And I sort of look at like - I'll eat three bites of cookie dough, one potato chip. Or like a pickle. Because you need the like salty and sweet balance in your belly, so that you keep wanting more cookie dough.


TOSI: No? Like yes right?


TOSI: I was a judge at a county fair once, for like all of the baked goods.

EISENBERG: I bet you were.

TOSI: And you had to try like 20 different chocolate chip cookies, of all different calibers and the only thing you were allowed to eat in between was a slither of pickle, to cleanse your palate and get your like tummy ready for another chocolate chip cookie.

EISENBERG: More cookies.

TOSI: I mean...


TOSI: ...I just thought everybody - No?

EISENBERG: Ate pickles with cookies?

TOSI: Yeah, yeah, no?

EISENBERG: I will now, I just didn't know beforehand, I'm not a pro.

TOSI: Yeah, it's all about knowing ratios.

EISENBERG: You know, I'm just an amateur.

TOSI: It's like weighing ingredients. It's three parts cookie dough, one part potato chip or a slither of pickle.



TOSI: Potato chip is not available, slither of pickle is, is an equal substitution.

EISENBERG: So what I'm learning from you is that your innovation comes from deep in your soul.

TOSI: Yeah.

EISENBERG: This is just who you are. You're like, why, why wouldn't you put pickle.

TOSI: Very unfortunately. I went to culinary school. I'm formally trained, but I - I worked in really fancy restaurants in New York and I had a really great like uphill battle of a challenge and I sort of just ended up being like, I don't really want to put a fancy delicate tweel on a plate. I just want to mush a bunch of things that are salty and sweet together and then give it to you.




EISENBERG: Obviously you take risks in the kitchen. Are you a risk taker when it comes to games?

TOSI: Oh yeah.

EISENBERG: Really, do you play games?

TOSI: I'm ready. Uno was really, really big.


TOSI: I would smoke my grandmas. Like after the cookie dough was gone, I would just smoke them on the Uno table.

EISENBERG: You're going down grandma.

TOSI: Yeah, moved onto like Skip-bo. I don't know if you're familiar with Face Tan. It's sort of like a cutting edge Uno, that's come out in the past few years?

EISENBERG: OK bragger, I get it. You know your games.


TOSI: Really big.

EISENBERG: I love that you're like - Do you ever play high stakes Uno?

TOSI: Really big, yeah.


EISENBERG: I'm not sure if you're familiar with this. All right well...

TOSI: Fistfuls of cookie dough.

EISENBERG: ...we would like to put you in the trivia hot seat for a little ASK ME ANOTHER challenge.

TOSI: OK, I'm nervous but I'm ready.

EISENBERG: You're - Don't be nervous. I just need to know, well, do you accept the challenge?

TOSI: I certainly accept the challenge.


TOSI: I do.

EISENBERG: Let's give her a hand.


EISENBERG: Christina Tosi. And let's put you behind the podium. And we found a contestant that is willing to play against you in "Something To Do With Food." This is Jesse Friedman everybody.


JESSE FRIEDMAN: Hi everyone.

EISENBERG: Interesting fact about Jesse, he works for Google. So when you put in a search item, he is the one that writes you back with your different things.


FRIEDMAN: I hope you're not searching right now, it'll take a while for me to get back to you.

EISENBERG: Yeah, give him a chance everybody. But also, you've been working this project, United Noshers.


EISENBERG: Where you're cooking your way through the United Nations.


EISENBERG: What a great idea. Where are you right now?

FRIEDMAN: Well where we are right now, we just did Brunei, which was our 25th country. We're going alphabetically, so it'll take us between five and six years.


EISENBERG: Good for you, with a plan for five to six years.


EISENBERG: This game - Let me talk about this game. When I go to a deli, I often look at the menu and go, what would it take to have a dish named after me? Wouldn't that be amazing? I've already decided what my dish is going to be called.

FRIEDMAN: What is it?

EISENBERG: It's going to be called Eggs Eisenberg.

JONATHAN COULTON: Sounds delicious.

WILL HINES: That's great, yes.


EISENBERG: Eggs Eisenberg. OK, so that's the subject of this game. We're going to briefly describe how to make a specific dish, as well as the famous person it was named after. And it is your job to tell us what the dish is called. Here's an example. Will?


EISENBERG: If I were to take two pieces of bread, put meat or anything...


EISENBERG: between it.

HINES: I'm with you.

EISENBERG: And name it after an 18th Century English aristocrat.

HINES: Right.

EISENBERG: You would answer?

HINES: Well that would be a sandwich named after John Montague, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich.

EISENBERG: That's right.

HINES: But sandwich is what you'd be looking for.

EISENBERG: Sandwich, exactly. OK, so it's very exciting, but wait till I go through the entire clue before you ring in. Are you ready?

TOSI: Yes.


EISENBERG: OK. Take lemon and lime soda or ginger ale, add a splash of grenadine and a cherry and name it after a 1930s child film star. Christina?

TOSI: Shirley Temple.

EISENBERG: Shirley Temple is correct.


EISENBERG: Did everyone drink those as children, pretending that you were drinking cocktails?

TOSI: Absolutely.

EISENBERG: I know. I know and you're like, one day I'll be an alcoholic.

COULTON: Is there a...


COULTON: Is there a way to add alcohol to a Shirley Temple and make it something? Because that sounds good, but I would also to get drunk of that.


HINES: That makes it a Shelley Winters.


EISENBERG: I feel like that's what we're having after the show.


EISENBERG: Bread and deep-fried bite-sized poultry pieces, cover them with a sweet and spicy sauce. Name it after a military leader from the Qing dynasty. Jesse.

FRIEDMAN: What is - Oh, what is - This isn't "Jeopardy!"


HINES: Nice self-punishment.

FRIEDMAN: General Zhou's chicken.

EISENBERG: General Zhou's chicken is right.


EISENBERG: Combine butter, sugar and liquor in a pan. Add bananas, brown them. Add rum and flambe. When the flames subside, serve with ice cream and name it after the Chairman of the New Orleans Crime Commission. Christina.

TOSI: Bananas Foster.

EISENBERG: Bananas Foster.


EISENBERG: Delicious. Does that not sound delicious?

HINES: It's a great thing.

EISENBERG: Take some mollusks on the half shell, top them with a sauce of chopped herbs and breadcrumbs. Bake them and name them after a rich American industrialist. Jesse.

FRIEDMAN: Oysters Rockefeller.

EISENBERG: Oysters Rockefeller is right.


EISENBERG: Oysters Rockefeller sounds really good too.

HINES: Sounds great, yeah.

EISENBERG: Now, do you think the Rockefellers ate those?

HINES: I guess ironically, the hipsters Rockefellers would.


EISENBERG: The hipster Rockefellers.

FRIEDMAN: Well supposedly it was called that because it looked like money.


FRIEDMAN: The green would look like money. So the Rockefellers had a lot of money, so they called it that.

HINES: All right Jesse, the puzzle expert position's filled.

EISENBERG: Jesse, look at you.


EISENBERG: I love that we're like, we're one with the kids, like excuse me, yes, with your little games.

HINES: Yes, stick to your advertised food thing, all right?


HINES: Muscle you up.

EISENBERG: Take a ground beef patty, don't do what you think you're going to do. You're going to do this with it. You're going to flavor it with minced onions, broil or fry it. Top it with gravy and name it after a 19th Century physician and health food faddist. Jesse.

FRIEDMAN: Is it Salisbury?

TOSI: Oh man.

EISENBERG: It is Salisbury.


EISENBERG: Salisbury steak.

So let's see what, what happened there. What have we got? What did we end with?

HINES: Well, our winner of this round was Jesse.

TOSI: Whoa.

EISENBERG: Jesse Friedman.


EISENBERG: Congratulations. We have a prize for you. You are in luck. Christina Tosi has brought with her an amazing gift bag of delectable delights for our winner Jesse Friedman.


EISENBERG: You lucky guy and you also get an NPR music tote, just in case that wasn't enough. Congratulations. One more hand for our amazing mystery guest. The woman keeping us all salty and sweet, Christina Tosi.


COULTON: (Singing) Last week I left a note on Laura's desk. It said I love you, signed anonymous friend. Turns out she's smarter than I thought she was. She knows I wrote it, now the whole class does too. And I, all alone during couples skate. Then she skates by with some guy on her arm. But I know that I'll forget the pity in her face, when I'm living in my solo dorm on a platform in space.

(Singing) Because it's got to be the future soon and I won't always be this way. When the things that make me weak and strange, get engineered away. It's going to be the future soon, but never seen it quite so clear. But when my heart is breaking, I can close my eyes and it's already here.


EISENBERG: Jonathan Coulton.

COULTON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.