by Kendall Vanderslice
Student Kendall Vanderslice recounts her experience shadowing Pastry Chef Christina Tosi at Momofuku Milk Bar’s Williamsburg kitchen.
When I was in elementary school, every trip to my grandmother’s house included preparing a boxed cake mix. At home, my family maintained a diet free of sugar, dairy, meat, and anything flavorful, but at Gramma’s we indulged on all of the treats typically withheld. We ate Pop-Tarts for breakfast, ice cream after dinner, and we learned to bake with boxed mixes by Betty Crocker. Pastry Chef Christina Tosi, the creative force behind Momofuku Milk Bar, shares in this nostalgic love for cereals, candies, and cakes, using their flavors as inspiration for all of her bakery’s treats. Over winter break, I visited Milk Bar’s Brooklyn kitchen to spend two days working with the pastry team, gaining a behind-the-scenes look at the operation.
I was first introduced to the desserts of Christina Tosi last Christmas when my chef gave me a copy of her cookbook, Milk. That evening, I devoured the book like a novel, entranced by Tosi’s humor and her whimsical approach to pastry. A few months later, I visited Milk Bar’s Midtown Manhattan store, excited to find that her treats lived up to my expectations. This past October, Ms. Tosi spoke at one of Harvard University’s Science and Cooking seminars. After the lecture, I introduced myself and asked if I might be able to spend a few days in January shadowing her pastry team, to which she eagerly obliged.
My first day began at 8:30 am. When I arrived, the team of sous chefs had already prepared a list of tasks for me to accomplish. I began by assisting the head baker in preparing sheet trays to bake off cookies.
“Today is a light day,” she told me. “Only 22 sheets.”
After showing me the pan spray, parchment, and stacks of sheet trays, she left to fetch the cookies while I prepped the trays. I neatly sprayed, papered, and stacked 22 trays just in time for her return.
“22 sheets, right?” I asked for confirmation.
Giggling, she turned her rack of pre-portioned cookie dough for me to see. “22 sheets of portioned dough,” she responded. “That’s 220 sheet trays; about 3,000 cookies.”
Amused at my novice mistake, I returned to spraying sheet trays for another hour. When all of the trays were prepped, I assisted in laying the cookies onto the sheets and organizing the racks to go into the oven.
Once that task was complete, I moved on to some side projects. I processed peanut brittle into a powder, sorted birthday cake crumbs into containers of fine crumbs, medium-sized crumbs, and too-big-for-a-single-bite crumbs. I molded piecrusts, portioned cake batter, cooked family meal, and blowtorched marshmallows. As a guest in the kitchen, I was not allowed to operate the mixers or ovens; nonetheless there was no shortage of ways for my hands to stay busy in the kitchen.
The volume of production at Milk Bar was magnificently greater than any kitchen I have worked in before. Milk Bar products are sold at seven different storefronts, as well as on the dessert menus at Momofuku’s fine dining restaurants, and all are made in the kitchen in Williamsburg. Originally a warehouse, the kitchen space houses five floor-to-ceiling ovens, three 140-quart mixers, two 80-quart mixers, and one or two work tables for each of the ten pastry cooks. In addition to bakers, the pastry department consists of an extensive management team. Most cooks who stay with Milk Bar beyond one year have the opportunity to work their way into a management position, receiving training not only on the production side of the operation but on the logistical side as well.
The days at Milk Bar were long and tiring, but the team bonded as a family and aimed to keep the work fun. Music blasted all day long, warming the atmosphere of the warehouse space. Every cook commented on his love for his job or her respect for management. By the end of two days, I felt as if they’d already adopted me as a member of the team. Exhausted, I traveled home to Boston, already awaiting my next trip to Milk Bar to sample whatever creative treats a popular cereal or candy might yet inspire.
Make sure to check out Kendall’s other endeavors and musings on the intersections of food, faith, and culture by checking out her blog: www.avandersliceofthesweetlife.com.