Season 2 Episode 8
Christina Tosi, founder and chefWhy entrepreneurs should tune out the noise and trust their intuition
Christina Tosi is a chef and the founder and CEO of Milk Bar, a singular bakery concept that merges her love for down-to-earth, comforting baked treats, her culinary expertise and unexpected, creative combinations. But how did Christina go from studying Italian and math to debuting her first location in NYC during the Great Recession?
Tune in to hear her awe-inspiring story of tuning out the noise, embracing what makes her different and trusting her intuition to make major leaps ahead.
Christina Tosi is a chef and the founder and CEO of Milk Bar. After studying Italian and mathematics, she soon shifted gears to head to culinary school, recognizing her life-long passion for baked goods and desserts. Then she took a leap into the unknown, moving to NYC with little money, no job and no connections.
Christina’s story is an inspiring tale of using self-awareness, self-reflection and intuition to tune out the noise, move past fear and achieve incredible success.
This is part one of our conversation with Christina Tosi. Want to be alerted when we drop the conclusion of this conversation? Visit theentrepreneurs.studio and subscribe for notifications and other exclusive content from The Entrepreneur’s Studio.
In this episode, you’ll hear Christina Tosi discuss:
Growing up with strong female role models
Chris Allen: What is your first sweets memory?
Christina Tosi: My first sweets memory is a funny one. I was in preschool and I only know that I was in preschool based on the location of the memory.
Chris: This is way back. This is great.
Christina: I don’t remember anything else about that time, but I remember this memory. My mom had come to pick up my older sister and me from the kindergarten preschool we were going to. We were in the family car – this dusty, blue Ford Taurus. I know exactly where I sat because I sat in the same seat. I always sat in the back seat behind the driver and my sister always sat in—
Chris: Assigned seats.
Christina: Always assigned seats. My mom definitely had a system for things. She had a system for everything, which is what makes this story so interesting. She’s pulling out and going halfway down the driveway of the school and then out of nowhere she pulls the car to the side and she reaches back for her purse that’s in that compartment, when you used to have sedans and there was the armrest that you would rest things on. And we didn’t do anything wrong. Why is she pulling over the car? She goes and grabs her purse and out of her purse she pulls a bag of Sugar Babies. And I remember what time of year it was because the Sugar Babies were warm. They had been sitting in her bag in a warm car. So they were Sugar Babies in this weird, brilliant, gooey warm state. And she ripped open the bag and she poured a little into my sister’s hand and poured a little into my hand, poured a little into her hand.
Mom had rules. These were not normal. This is not a normal mom thing. And I was like, “Did we do something great?” It’s not report card day. I don’t know what brought it upon her, but that’s my first moment, my first memory of sweets. But also the feeling that it imprinted in my memory, but also in my belly and my soul. That heartbeat that connects all those things, that moment of surprise, what the heck are we celebrating in this moment? And the power of it. My mantra in every part of my life — business or otherwise, is this, you’ve been training for this moment your entire life. You just have to look around and put the pieces together to know it and to acknowledge it. And that’s probably my earliest example of it.
Chris: Where are you guys from though?
Chris: So strong female influences. It sounds like your mom definitely has got a plan. What are some of the other sort of strong female influences that maybe shaped some of your points of view?
Christina: Both of my grandmothers were incredibly fierce women. My mom was a working mom and an accountant. So I would say between January and April 15th, my grandmas played a really big part in my upbringing, because they were sort of the de facto caregivers because my mom was busy crushing it at work. Fierce grandmas, they each loved to bake. But they had a different style of baking. But baking, spending time in the kitchen, making something, pulling it out of the oven, was just a part of the daily routine and daily life. One was a little softer, one was a little harder, one was a little more quiet. They both were quiet. But one was a little bit more country grandma, tough love. And they shaped a lot of my female influence, as did my mom. I think my grandmothers gave me this incredible sense of warmth and nostalgia.
But more than anything, I have been obsessed with being excited about becoming an old lady since I was, I don’t know, 5, 6, 7 years old.
Chris: Can’t wait for that.
Christina: I can’t wait to wear cardigans. I can’t wait to wear polyester pants and have curls in my hair. And kind of do what I want and say what I want. And there was a confidence in each of them in different ways that I very much picked up on and that resonated with me. I have an older sister, she’s also very fierce. She played more of the role of the older sister who would tell you exactly what she thought and how it was. I am the youngest Scorpio in a family lineage of female Scorpios. If you know anything, I’m basically last. I know where my place is in the pecking order. I’m at the bottom end of everything. People want to know what I have to think about in my family after everyone else.
Chris: So you’re saying there was a caste system, an hierarchy of Scorpios.
Christina: Those strong, female influences played a really big role. Beyond that, I had a lot of strong, male influences. And I think the biggest thing about my mom was that she was an accountant her whole career. And I would watch her get dressed for work and she’d be in really big, you’d almost think she put her football pads on before she put on her—
Chris: So the 1980s?
Christina: Yeah. Before she put on her tweed coat. And she very much dressed the way that the men dressed in her firm. I mean, she climbed her way up to becoming managing partner for the firm. And she did it on her terms, but watching in different ways and how she tore down the system to build it back up or I call it the ‘sweat down’. She sweated down in her way. I didn’t realize what an influence that would make until I moved to New York City to become a pastry chef and realized, oh, I’m putting myself smack dab in the middle of a very male-dominated industry (at the time). And I had all of the answers, and the tools already sort of built in me by examples that I would reference often. And that just seemed normal to be quite honest.
Chris: Yeah, that’s amazing. It seems like one of those stories that you have a lot of vivid memories of — but at the same time, it’s one of those pieces that really respond to how things feel. Right?
Christina: Super emotional.
Using self-awareness to shape your career
Chris: Yeah, super emotional. So there’s emotion attached to this. Does that sort of permeate everything that you do?
Christina: I wouldn’t describe myself as an overly emotional person, which is very funny to say because the truth of the matter is that I use my gut to guide almost everything that I do from my personal relationships to how I think about building and running Milk Bar. It’s all very guttural and instinctual. I love the intellectual side of it. I’m not wildly emotional about things. I suppose I wear my heart on my sleeve. But my emotions—
Chris: You have ups and downs.
Christina: Yeah, exactly. I mean, I suppose it depends on how one hears the word “emotional”, but it’s very true to what’s in me. Just the way that I know how to be. That’s really the way that I am.
Chris: That’s really powerful. So you have a lot of intuition. You operate from your gut, and you had some learning observations growing up of people who were able to guard their intuition and not have people question it. Because that’s always the tough one when people are like, “Really? Is that really what you should be doing?” And you’re like, “No, this is what we’re doing.”
Christina: It is. It’s true. Though I will say there’s something about being the youngest member of a family of really confident, sure people where I had those same things built in. But I’m quiet. I am a resting introvert. If it makes no sense what I do, on many levels it does. Because to work in a kitchen, it’s a very solitary pursuit. You’re doing it late at night or early in the morning when no one else is awake. And at least I got into the profession because you did it behind closed doors. You could sort of be the person that was baking the things that then showed up on this plate to make someone’s moment. But because I’m an introvert, I had all of these things and ideas and thoughts. I just never shared them. Probably because I’m also stubborn, I didn’t share them. I had to be stubborn to survive a little bit. I’m not going to tell you what I think, you’re just going to shoot me down. And I know what I know. I don’t need to know what you think about what I know.
Chris: No, that’s so good.
Christina: That’s definitely a secret to survival. And then I think the other piece is I was more of a listener than a talker, based on my upbringing. So I had this confidence that was in me, but I never really had to think about saying it out loud because I knew it instinctually. I knew it deep inside. And so after going to college, I majored in mathematics and Italian language, I decided I’m either going to be an actuary or a translator. And I was like, “You might want to go back and rethink that, Christina.” And I thought, “Well, I also really like to bake. And so I know what I’ll do. I’ll move to New York City, I’ll go to culinary school. I want to become the best possible pastry chef in the place that would be the hardest to succeed.”
And so I just told my mom a few days before I was going to move to New York City, “Hey mom, I’m going to move to New York City.” She’s like, “You don’t know anyone. You don’t have a place to live. Where are you going to work?”, sort of thing. And it was a quick conversation because it was like, “I’m going to figure it out, don’t worry about it.” That was my idea of Milk Bar and all of these things in my life. It makes sense to me. But that’s been a big growth opportunity as a leader as well.
Chris: Yeah. I mean that’s kind of a hard right turn to go from math major to starting culinary school baking.
Christina: Yeah. So I originally went to college to be a mechanical engineer and I was like, “Science, I’m not sure that this is for me.” Which is hilarious because obviously baking is quite scientific.
Chris: It is, yeah.
Christina: But what I did, what those two subjects represent were things that I had an undying passion for. I still have a book of math problems that I keep in my bag for when I travel in case I get bored because doing math problems brings me joy. And I speak Italian to my daughter Frankie, because speaking Italian, speaking a different language – especially this language, brings me joy. So my guideposts have always been, do the things that you’re the most passionate about. And for me, passion is the things that you opt into, the things that you do regardless of what everyone else is doing and whether someone’s looking or not.
They’re just the things that bring you the pure, unadulterated joy that make you feel most like you. Those were the two things. They seem a little wacky. It’s definitely right brain, left brain. But I knew enough by my sweet, amazing, regimented mom to be like, “When college is up, babe, you’re getting a full-time job and you’re out in the workforce. Find something you’re passionate about and do it with all your might.” And I just took score of what I had and was like, “I don’t think either one of these things is the thing for me forever, for the rest of my life, with the utmost passion.” But somehow baking was.
Chris: You finished and majored and then went to culinary school, so was it sort of a check-the-box thing?
Christina: My parents were both first-generation college goers and they worked really hard to set us up for success with our education. The agreement was always, you can do whatever you choose to do professionally in life, but you have to get a college education first. You’ve got to go to college, then you can do whatever you want to do. I think they were like, “She’s going to be a passionate lawyer. It’s going to be great, Chris.” Yeah, so I would like to start fresh and go to a really tricky city to figure out how to make it and then start from the bottom and figure out how to work my way up in an industry that – by the way, at least back then, was certainly not glamorized the way it is today. You had old Parisian chefs or old Spanish chefs or you know what I mean?
Tuning out the noise
Chris: That’s what everybody thought. Yeah. What I think is amazing about that is you were like, “Hey, you know what? I’m going to honor my parents and then I’m going to take my life by the reins.” And I loved how you said passion is what brings you the most joy. I think passion is also what’s the most life-giving to you, and I think having the intuition to chase that and having the gusto and the guts to chase that I think is really powerful. I mean, what are some of the things you’ve seen with other people that have gotten in the way of that? Because there’s a moment where you’re like, “I’m either going to be somebody else or be what somebody else wants me to be or I’m going to be myself.” What are some of the things you’ve seen with other people, where they sort of face a similar thing and struggle with that? And what advice would you give to them?
Christina: It’s such a great question. I think being practiced at turning off either all the other voices in your head or all the other voices that are external, it’s easy enough for me to say, “It’s great. Just don’t share your vision with anyone. Just go out and do it.” Then you don’t have to be worried about judgment or feedback or what have you. But I’ve seen so many people struggle with the, “I think this is what I’m passionate about, but I’m not sure.” Or the life realities that we think we have to measure up to, whether that’s financial or other sort of measures of one’s steady, responsible state. For me, all I can say is passion is the thing that feeds you regardless of who you are, where you live or how you spend your time or literally what you can put on the table. And I appreciate that that’s easy for a 20-something-year-old version of me to say, because my only responsibility was myself.
And so it was the perfect time for me to have that conversation with myself about, what is your passion? I’m also an optimist, but I’d like to think that when you figure out what that thing is, the way that passion works is you do it with all your might and it figures itself out. It figures a way to and through to make it work. So it’s really the conundrum of if there are other voices, whether they’re in your head or they’re voices that other people are bringing to the conversation, how do you have the conversation with yourself in privacy in a vacuum where you can quiet all of the other things where you can answer that one question. No “buts” are allowed into the conversation. No, “what ifs”. That for me, I think is how you really know, find, discover, state what your passion is.
Chris: It’s good.
Christina: And if you’re passionate about it, again, you’ve been training for this moment all your life, the breadcrumbs of it are living out loud. Maybe you just can’t see them. So as much as I would say, don’t have the conversation with anyone, maybe someone in your life is actually the one that can help point to, “Well, wait a second, I always see you. You’re always the first one to show up to do this. You’re always the one to take a photo. You’re always the one that’s creatively brainstorming or whatever the passion is.” Maybe it’s about opening up the conversation to other people, because chances are, if you’re really passionate about it, it’s showing itself somewhere in your life very often.
Chris: You’ve got to have people you can trust who can call that stuff out and bring that life-giving thing out that maybe you don’t see. Because here’s the deal, entrepreneurs face that moment. It’s like there’s a decision and maybe it doesn’t necessarily feel like a moment. A lot of people that we talked to, it’s like, “I remember when I signed the first check, I remember when I got the first idea.” There’s this catalytic moment that people come to, and the thing is that a lot of entrepreneurs are people who maybe don’t start businesses. Maybe the strongest pursuits are when your thoughts and your feelings are the same, so that you’re like, “I’m ready to go after it and my thoughts and my feelings match, and it doesn’t matter what anybody else says.” And that’s when it works itself out. And I wonder how many people get lost in that moment of, “I don’t know what my passion is”. I don’t feel that serendipitous moment. I don’t think that that is something that everybody has to have, but when you look back, most people remember there was one, but you don’t feel it. And in the moment it really is in hindsight.
Christina: I 100% agree. The passion thing is: I’m passionate about math and Italian, let’s just use that as an example, right? Use your passion as your guidepost more than anything. You aren’t going to know what your moment is, to your point, you aren’t going to be able to actually pin what that is… most people don’t or can’t. We can in hindsight, but if you’re always dotting your path, which I believe is never straight and narrow, it is meant to be a winding road. There’s some loop-the-loops, maybe it feels like a rollercoaster. But as long as you’re using your passion, your gut, whatever that instinct is, as your guideposts along the way, you’ll look back and go, “Oh, man, this, that, the other,” and be able to connect them all or be able to pinpoint a moment that was pivotal to you, but I think this very conversation is the best piece of advice, which is also don’t go searching for that moment. Just take one step forward every single day. I didn’t think moving to New York City was like, “I made it”. Because I arrived on a Chinatown bus in New York City. It was just what I needed to do to feed this next step in my guideposts of passionate pursuit in life.
Chris: It’s what you set your sights on.
Christina: It wasn’t, if it’s not this it’s not all or nothing. It’s to be courageous to let that lead you, pushing it with all your might, and knowing that at some point you’ll look back in the rear mirror and think, “Wow, that was a pretty big day. I didn’t even really...” It was just one step forward. It was just one day in a series of really great days. But everything leads up to moments, and I really do believe you have been training for whatever your moments are in life, your whole life, your destiny, and by virtue of it being your destiny, it’s impossible to miss. So going around going, “Oh, the sliding doors moment or this or that.” It’s like you’re not going to miss your destiny. You just won’t, otherwise, it’s not your destiny, so don’t “shoulda, woulda, coulda” in it, and don’t go looking for that big break or big moment. Just look at everything as one step forward, the opportunity to take one step forward.
Chris: I think that’s one of my favorite parts of being an entrepreneur. It’s the moment where I think this is the threshold. You either cross over or you don’t. Lots of people have ideas, and it’s one of those moments where you are going to decide to take action. Everybody wants a sign that success is imminent and that failure is not going to happen, and there’s a lot of people who stay and they wait on that point. I think the best part about any artist or entrepreneur or anyone who’s taking a risk decides is when they say, “You know what? Success isn’t a guarantee, but I’m doing it anyway.”
Christina: Because I have to. Because I have to, because it’s not about failure or success. I have to because it’s what is in me that has to come out.
Taking time to reflect
Chris: You’re checking in with yourself a lot. You’re talking about your intuition and you’re revisiting these things. It seems like you do some check-ins with where you’re at and why you’re doing what you’re doing. It’s almost like you have a daily, “What’s my intuition today?” reflection.
Christina: Yeah. I think that’s probably a temperature take. I’d say I have a pretty healthy internal dialogue, and I’m pretty hard on myself in that internal dialogue, and so I’m constantly trying to find homeostasis in my own head to sort of say, “Did you leave this place better than you found it today? Are you happy with what you’re doing? Are you driven? Did you do well today? Are you proud of the work that you did today? What could you do better?” I’m constantly searching for what that homeostasis is, but it’s not a practiced routine or ritual. It’s just my reality, whether I’m walking to the subway — or I’m usually a long-distance runner, because that’s where I can really go to be with my thoughts and then quiet them. Because at some point you’ve got to tell them to hush up. We’re taking a step forward today whether you like it or not, but I think allowing for that is important. Again, I’m not practiced at anything prescriptive. It’s just—
Chris: Not like you journal those answers every day.
Christina: No, and I’m so impressed by people who do that sort of stuff. I just know it to be true in my head. If you’re knocking on my door up here and we’re going to have a chat, let’s have a chat. But I use that as part of my guidepost as well.
Embracing what makes you different
Chris: Man. That’s so good. Well, we talked about getting to culinary school. Talk about maybe the birth of Milk Bar.
Christina: Oh, so culinary school, I made it through. I’m quite competitive with myself. I thought that if you love to bake for a living and you were going to professionalize that, you went to culinary school, you became a pastry chef. The way that translated in the workforce was you became the pastry chef of the most celebrated, high-end restaurant. It’s high end for a reason. We’re taught to think about the hierarchical, pyramidal thing. OK. It’s the tippy top. I want to be the best at what I can be with my passion. And so I worked my way up fine-dining restaurants in New York City, which in and of itself was an incredible education on many different levels of grit, of will, of is this really your passion if you’re getting stripped down? It’s an education of not being good at it at first, and then having to come to terms with what it takes to really learn and hone a craft aloud, because a kitchen is full of people who are staring at your successes and mistakes. It’s hustle, it’s bustle. It’s intense. Right?
I learned so much there, but what I learned most importantly in my journey was I would get to the top of these fine-dining restaurants and sort of go, “Oh, where’s the plate of brownies?” I loved so much about the profession of being a restaurant pastry chef, but I could never find the part of myself and my passion that was the Greta showing up with the plate of cookies. The underdog nature of that, the accessibility of being able to show up on someone’s doorstep, the power of a little square or a little round of something, and the joy that it brought in a democratized, really accessible way. And so I got out of the restaurant industry because I couldn’t see myself in it fully.
I tried a bunch of different things for size. I tried being a food stylist. I tried being a caterer. I tried being a food writer. I tried being a food photographer. I tried so many different things, but I really missed being in the kitchen. Again, not a straight and narrow path. And I was like, “What would be great is if I could take everything I knew about being a pastry chef and the parts of it that I loved from a technique and in an innovation standpoint, but weave it through the lens of something that my mom would walk into or show up at your doorstep with.” I looked around, and it didn’t exist. There were high-end restaurants and there were these sort of cool, retro bakeries where you could get an oatmeal raisin cookie or a red velvet layer cake, all great things. But I had this idea that I could democratize dessert in a way that reached beyond what the matriarchs of my family did, and meet me where I was in my pastry chef journey. And my sort of self-dialogue is when you look around and you think something should exist that doesn’t in the world, what do you do? You build it. And so I figured out how to find a space, sign a lease, and I opened the doors at Milk Bar November 15th, 2008.
Chris: That’s unbelievable.
Christina: Crazy time to open a business.
Chris: That is a crazy time.
Christina: You’re a serial entrepreneur, right? How would you describe that moment? When something makes sense in your head and you look around and it doesn’t exist, what do you do? Were those your moments every time you started a business?
Chris: Yeah. So the thing that’s awesome is when you were starting a business, I was closing one for different reasons. That recession was wild, and I was in the real estate market. So I like really complex problems. I like to solve really complex problems. And it’s one of those things... I look at it as if something doesn’t exist, you’re going to build it. I’m so down with that. And if something is really complex and you feel like you can help, I’m down for that too. I mean, that’s the reason we do this thing. Running a small business or just entrepreneurship in general is hard as crap. I mean, the stuff that you face every day, and who’s going to sit down and always listen to a podcast? I don’t know, but there are people who need to hear, “Hey, it’s hard. It hurts. And there’s a different future if you don’t stop.”
Christina: Because if you don’t have someone modeling it for you, how do you know? How do you know? How do you know? But I will say as a small business owner-entrepreneur, babe, you put the podcast on while you’re working, whether you’re baking or you’re commuting or whatever it is that you’re doing, you find whatever your quiet, calm, “this is my space to feed my brain, to feed my heart”. That’s when I go to the podcast.
Moving past fear in challenging times
Chris: I’d say, entrepreneurship is one of the loneliest places sometimes, especially if you’re building something that doesn’t exist. Of course, bakeries exist, but the way you see the world doesn’t exist and it feels a little lonely. And there’s criticism in a lot of different places and there’s a lot of places to yield to that criticism. So the resilience factor for a successful entrepreneur is ridiculous.
Christina: Yeah, I mean, you really have to find your own space where you can just have your own dialogue, where you have earmuffs and blinders. Where it’s just you and your thoughts, and the things that your body is telling you are true. Take a step forward. It doesn’t matter what they say. Take a step forward. There has to be an unstoppable part of who you are, which is why I go back to passion because I think if it’s really your passion, all of those things are true.
Christina: Of course, it’s hard. It’s lonely. It’s scary. There are so many more adjectives I could use. But somehow if it’s the thing that you’re very, very, very, very passionate about — if not the most passionate about, somehow all of that is true, and yet it doesn’t stop you. There’s something that still keeps you going. There’s something that still lifts your foot up and puts it a little bit further out than it was the day before.
Chris: It’s chasing the spark. That’s what I call it. It’s the thing that keeps me going, it’s what’s life-giving, and it isn’t about just doing what feels good. I’ve got a purpose, it’s anchored in something, and I’m chasing that spark every day to make sure I’m lighting a fire that’s going to help, that’s going to do something meaningful for somebody else.
Christina: I think of it as a Sisyphean thing too. I can’t remember what grade I was in when I was doing a report. My mom was like, “That’s the one. Go after that one, and then blow it out.” But this idea of someone who is rolling a ball up a hill every single day, knowing good and well, the ball [in Greek mythology, it’s a boulder that rolls right back down the hill]... You have to love routine. You have to love just that cold, hard march into and forward when you can’t see the future, when you don’t know if this is a day that’s going to define me for good or for bad. If it’s going to be a day I remember at all, etcetera. You have to love the beauty of the daily routine of waking up every day with the commitment to build, not knowing what else it holds other than it needs you and you’ve got to show up and do it no matter what.