Why do you think your desserts are so successful?
I don’t know! Before I opened Milk Bar, I worked at Momofuku for many years, and Dave [Chang] knew that I loved to bake because I baked at home all the time. He was like, "This is enough -- clearly you need to be in the kitchen." So I started making desserts for the restaurant. There were no desserts on the menu previously, so I was tasked with creating the identity of what dessert is. At a restaurant that does fusion on every single level, that has all these rules and no rules, you can make anything -- so what do you make?
I polled people, asking them, "If you’re going out to a tasting menu restaurant, what do you want to eat for dessert? What are your favorite desserts? Most memorable desserts?" What I wanted were the things that they remembered, took with them, and talked about. Every single person, [even] people who had the fanciest dining budgets, would say "apple pie," "banana cream pie," "a brownie," "a brownie sundae."
At first I was like, Come on! Then I realized those are things that I love too, and that my path was to create flavors that are super-accessible and super-nostalgic. I knew I needed to be clever about creating within those flavors, boundaries, and perimeters. No one likes food that feels like you are being talked over and outsmarted. "This dish is good, but I don’t get it." The dishes that we love are those we have some sort of relationship with.
You’ve talked about how you live on sugar -- your diet sounded like a nutritionist's nightmare. Do you still survive on dessert and not much sleep?
Funny enough, I’m about to splash out some old-lady comments. I always had a sweet tooth growing up, and I still do now. I’m going to be 33 in November and the body just does not bounce back the way it used to. I used to exist on just two or three hours of sleep no problem, like sleep wasn’t even a thought. Sleep was just like a chore that you had to do late at night.
And in that sort of way, I could get away with literally just eating candy and cookies and pie all day. Now if I do that too many days in a row or if I don’t balance that out, it hurts. I want to feel good. I feel good about what I do and I think it’s still rather off-balance compared with the average person.
Plenty of other people have vices. My vice is the sugar, but it's definitely far more in balance now than it ever has been. I think I also just learned that when you are a grown-up, you can’t be the girl who goes out to dinner and says, "I’ll have a brownie sundae for my entree." I have to assimilate. The requirement to assimilate has actually been really good for me.
You’re all about baked goods, so what’s your stand on gluten and the gluten-free baked goods that are everywhere now?
From a personal standpoint, I live in a world of gluten and eat it every day. Baking without gluten is an awesome challenge in terms of the opportunity to learn so much more about what you can create. I love that mission-impossible challenge. When we opened Milk Bar, it was a mission-impossible challenge. Some days it [still] feels like a mission-impossible challenge, and that is a lot of the spirit of community and the culture.
You can either rise to the occasion or you can’t. I don’t want to follow in some other pastry chef's footsteps. I want to [say]: "That is what the challenge is? Great." That's a great opportunity to fail and then learn. So for me, gluten-free means I might learn something really cool along the way and I might create something great.
Your second cookbook comes out next spring. What is its focus, and what lessons do you have for home bakers?
We’re calling the book "Milk Bar Life" because so much of how we create and how we innovate is just an overall approach to life. It’s not just how you behave when you are in the kitchen, it’s about how you approach life in general. I think a lot of people think being in the kitchen is being really serious, and especially that baking is very serious, very straitlaced. For me it's about figuring out your voice, finding your personality, and getting in the kitchen to explore. I think if you like cooking, you like the adventure and the exploration of flavors and techniques, and you can learn plenty from others, be inspired by others. Have a sense of curiosity and do not be afraid to go into your pantry and be like, "I might learn something new today. I might learn something new by reading a book or watching a show or doing something online." And I think that you learn as much from your successes as you do from your failures -- in the kitchen and in life. "I burned it, it’s garbage! I mis-mixed it, it’s garbage!" But we learn.
Why is baking so important? What’s your theory?
For me it always has been about feeding people. People in the culinary industry love to nurture by feeding. And we think those who work in the front-of-house aspect nurture by the human interaction, and the relationship, and the experience of caring for someone in that way. For me, it’s both. Also, we deal in cookies, and cakes and pies -- and man, you’re going to be hard-pressed to give someone a cookie and not get a smile back in return. These things make people happy; they’re an indulgence, a surprise, a treat. And so, on many levels, from just the basic feeding of someone to giving them something that really is a treat and a gift is incredible. No matter how bad your day is, when you start talking about cookies or cakes or pies, or you bring someone cookies, there’s just not bad news. The worst news is, hey, there’s sugar in that.
Watch Christina's fun interview with MSW special projects editor Anthony Luscia.