Milk Bar's Christina Tosi Doesn't Want to Be Bossy
In an ideal world, I don't want to be a boss; I like to lead and be in charge, but I don't want to be “bossy!” But the reality of the situation is that sometimes you have to lay down the law—and the way I do it involves a sense of humor!
Editor's Note: We're so excited about Christina's new cookbook, Milk Bar Life—which officially drops in stores today—that we're giving away five signed copies to lucky readers. All you have to do is enter to win below. The contest ends Friday, April 17th.
If you were coming to work at Milk Bar a long, long, long time ago—almost six and a half years ago, when we first started—I have no clue why you would have wanted to work for us! Not that there was anything wrong with us, but we were just a little bakery in the East Village that was chasing down a simple dream with a bunch of people trying to make it happen!
We had a very clear vision of food, but we weren't really sure how anything and everything else would shape up around it. If you were a Milk Maid or a Milk Man—the term that we use for our employees—you were coming to help be a part of this dream!
Nowadays, since the growth of Milk Bar, there are a variety of different arenas that you can be a part of, whether it's as a pastry cook or part of our packaging and delivery team. You might come to help us make wedding cakes, work in the storefront, or the office—if you really love bookkeeping—or you're incredibly tech savvy but want to be a part of something strange, fun, quirky, and insane! You'd work here because you'd like to be a part of this strange microcosm of a family that has both good days and bad, but you like feeling the heartbeat of something.
There's the opportunity to make a huge difference in anything from the next cookie that goes on our menu and how it gets packaged to how it gets delivered. Things go beyond your job title—that part of it has always been the case. We have drawings on our menu that one of our van drivers—who was an illustrator—created one day! Somehow, we're still this weird hippie community that I always do my best to protect because it's something that has always been so special about Milk Bar.
More than anything, the one requirement for coming to work for us is loving food in its entirety, from the high-brow to low-brow! Being a Milk Maid or Milk Man hasn't changed all that much since we opened, but there's a lot more of us these days. Our staff meals, for example, have to feed 180 people, and we even have an entire refrigerator dedicated to family meal!
Milk Bar terminology is key. We learned early on that—like anything in life—you have to make it what it is; it's not going to happen for you unless you do it yourself! If you want something to feel fun and celebratory, do it yourself because nobody else is going to! We've got a bunch of wild cards and external factors floating around (i.e., donation and event requests, vendor opportunities—the list goes on and on), but it's approaching life with a sense of adventure that makes it worth it! At Milk Bar, you've got to be polite employees and do a good job, but inevitably, you need the outlet that will allow you to be respectful and enable you to have a sense of humor about the different hats that you have to wear at different times. Luckily, a few years ago, we started coming up with our own language and terminology about how we deal with certain things around the bakery and in our daily lives.
Take the "double tap," for example: in an ideal world, I don't want to be a boss; I like to lead and be in charge, but I don't want to be "bossy!" The reality of the situation is that sometimes, you have to lay down the law. The way I do it involves a sense of humor! The "double tap" achieves that. All you have to do is tap someone on the shoulder and let them know that what they're doing is not cool. Sometimes, it's a wake-up call. Our company is full of 20-, 30-, and 40-somethings that inevitably range in different emotional phases, so people don't always have the ability to see the bigger picture. If someone is hanging out at family meal in line and there are 50 people behind them, scooping food onto their plate like they're the last person in line, you've got to go up behind them, pull the "double tap," and be like "Bro, you know there is a family of 50 people behind you that also needs to eat today?!"
You can do it with a sense of humor, but also with a sense of authority!
In our new cookbook, Milk Bar Life, the terminology section in the back of the book is very much about knowing that we need to be grownups in certain areas but also never wanting to let grownup culture really take over who we are. That's very much one of those spiritual things about working at Milk Bar: how to get the job done with a grownup mentality but never let it seep too far into your mind. Otherwise, it's not worth it! You'll go home and lose that zest of life. What's the point then?!
My mom hates when I curse! She always has, but my dad was in the Navy—a classic sailor—so curse words were well-known in our household. As a Milk Maid, you've got to figure out how to be a lady boss but still be authoritative, so we came up with the term "cuss-ton"; rather than using the naughty words themselves. Today, I've got to handle a "cuss-ton" of cracking eggs! A huge prep list or massive amounts of cookies to bake or obscene amounts of tasks that we've got to handle, and the most ladylike way to express it is a "cuss-ton"! That's when you find yourself in situations where you feel like you're so stressed out at life but you can throw that in front of what you're feeling so that there's a humor about it!
We get a lot of great inquiries, but can't always say yes to everything, even though we wish we could! That's why we invented the "polite-no" to handle these scenarios. There's also those times when you have to polite-no the heck out of a situation, like pickup attempts. One of our employees, Martine, came in and recently told me, "I was on the subway the other day and this bro came up to me and started to try to pick me up and I 'polite-no'ed' him." It's also a fun way of making the basic everyday ordinary into something that is hilarious!
In the kitchen, it's super important that you set your teammates up for success! That's why the American pastime of T-Ball has worked its way into our Milk Maid and Milk Men language. You want to put the ball on the stand at the exact right height so that your teammate can come along and knock it out of the park! This also goes for home cooks when you've set up all of your ingredients and read through a recipe before you start. When you think about the analogy, finding better ways to communicate and make sense out of this professional jargon is our way of embracing it all! There is no end to this hilariously human, never tiring, wild ride. We are in charge and while curveballs are inevitable (well, not in T-ball!), we get to choose our bat and then knock them out of the park!
As told to Helen Hollyman