It isn’t every day a celebrity chef offers to make you a friendship bracelet. But if you’re hanging out with Milk Bar CEO and chef Christina Tosi, the odds are certainly higher.
“When you’re sitting in a car, you can’t bake cookies,” she says matter-of-factly as she pulls out a rainbow-colored gob of thread. “Pick two colors.” I choose baby blue and yellow, and she clips the strands to her jeans, braiding the strings as we drive away from the sprawling auburn desert, heading east.
One of the most recognizable chefs and bakers in the industry, Tosi is the mastermind behind the acclaimed Milk Bar, a bakery and dessert shop and a sister brand to famed chef David Chang’s Momofuku. In under a decade, she has climbed the ranks of the world’s most famous grub gurus, starring as a judge on Fox’s MasterChef while building her cake, ice cream and cookie empire. She has already conquered New York City, Toronto and Las Vegas, and plans to set up in LA in 2018.
“The spirit of Milk Bar is hilarious and casual,” she says glancing up from the colorful mass in her lap. That same spirit is also evident in Tosi’s own spunky character. She’s as real as can be for someone of such foodie fame—so real, in fact, that she’s game to spend a day with me exploring her favorite Vegas spots, beginning with a short, scenic hike at Red Rock earlier this morning.
The weather gods granted us a balmy, 80-degree day, perfect for a jaunt through the canyon. “We crushed that!” Tosi cheered as we trekked back through the rocky wilderness. With her peppy affirmations and positive attitude, it’s no wonder she and her Milk Bar team get so much done.
Our 8 a.m. hike actually started late for Tosi. Her typical daily routine begins at 6 with a run down the Las Vegas Strip (or at Red Rock if time permits). “I love it because there’s so much to look at. What’s that person’s story? It just makes me feel really good,” she says, sipping a Starbucks grande coffee. “Sitting all day drives me crazy.”
Tosi’s assistant Karla rips open a plastic baggie and shares its contents with the crew. The Milk Bar team is always armed with tasty goodies, and Tosi’s latest line is geared toward healthier living, to match busy, active lifestyles.
I bite into a BFC—Best Freaking Cookie—one of the shop’s newest creations. The chewy disc exudes rich, fudgy brownie batter, and it’s exactly what we need after our jog through Red Rock. I don’t feel bad about devouring a cookie for breakfast—not even a little bit.
Speaking of snacks, Tosi explains that she tries to switch hers up week to week. “If I’m not careful, I’ll only eat cornflake chocolate chip marshmallow cookies,” she says. That’s one of the reasons she created Milk Bar’s Life line, for moments when folks want to treat themselves but stay health-conscious, too. “I want it to be fun,” Tosi says. “I don’t want to go to a boring healthy bakery.”
Milk Bar couldn’t be boring even if it tried. Tosi’s Las Vegas location—inside the Cosmopolitan next to Chang’s Momofuku—mirrors Tosi’s bubbly personality, from the colorful pink-and-white storefront to the kitschy chalkboard menu.
“David and I are very much like siblings,” she says, speaking of the Momofuku chef. “He was like, ‘I know you, I love you, I trust you, you’ll figure it out.’” Nine years and 12 stores later, she clearly has.
“We’re building out a store in Los Angeles, that’ll be the newest one, so I have even more excuse to come to Vegas, because it’s so close by,” she says. “I love Las Vegas. There’s so much to do.”
Tosi’s fondness for vintage Vegas determines our next destination, the Neon Museum. “It’s so fun,” she says as she wanders through the outdoor neon boneyard, home to historic treasures from properties like Binion’s and Golden Nugget. “We took a lot of inspiration [from Las Vegas] for the big neon milk sign [over Milk Bar’s entrance],” she adds, eyeing the similarities in the light bulbs and cursive print of an old Flamingo sign. That sort of creativity and curiosity help explain—along with Tosi’s signature Crack Pie—Milk Bar’s success.
“The thing that inspires me the most in my kitchen is taking old recipes and finding a way to take them and use them as a jumping-off point,” Tosi says. “We don’t make a chocolate chip cookie or apple pie, but we make a chocolate chip cornflake cookie and an apple pie layer cake. There’s something about the spirit of something that’s been around for so long that I love.”
Soon we’re back in the car, headed to the Little White Wedding Chapel south of Charleston on Las Vegas Boulevard, where Tosi will donate one of Milk Bar’s birthday-flavored wedding cakes to an unsuspecting couple. “Whenever I’m having a bad day I should just go down to City Hall with a cake,” she says. (She’s done it in New York City, too.) “It’s impossible to feel down when you’re surrounded by that many people celebrating something special.”
We wait in the wings of the outdoor chapel until Jessica, one of Milk Bar’s Vegas bakers, arrives with the tiered cake, topped with large, cakey crumbles. It’s time to surprise the lucky newlyweds.
“Elvis is here, Karla—stay cool,” Tosi laughs as she approaches the bride and groom. “I have crumbs and sprinkles in the car,” Jessica says in response. “You just never know.” A baker is always prepared.
Tosi introduces herself and congratulates the couple—Jeanette Pizarro and Peter Savoie from Louisiana—before unveiling the gorgeous confetti-colored cake. Jeanette wipes tears from her cheeks and embraces Tosi. “I want a hug,” Jeanette says. “I’m a hugger.”
Next up: Patina Décor, one of the best places for vintage furniture and clothing in Las Vegas. The Main Street store is a regular must-stop on both of our shopping lists.
“Growing up, I always thought my grandmas were my best friends, and I always wanted to be just like them. They always rocked sh*t like this,” she says, pointing to a light-blue linen dress with polka dots. “I started shopping at thrift stores when I was a teenager. I knew that my spirit was just different than everyone else’s.”
You can sense that Tosi marches to a different beat the second you step into Milk Bar and have your first lick of cereal milk ice cream. Whether she’s hiking or digging for killer threads, Tosi always finds a way to bring her experiences back to her true pride and joy.
“I’m always looking at kitchenware for Milk Bar for storefronts,” she says. “I like to just find a home for something that reminds me of someone or something.”
The Midwestern ex-pat—born in Ohio and bred in New York City—also just seems to get Las Vegas. It’s evident after just one day spent with her, witnessing her anything-goes attitude up close. Even more importantly, the cake and cookie whiz understands people. Whether it’s her love of baking or the way she treats her employees and customers, spreading happiness is Tosi’s top priority.
Before ending the day’s jaunt at Cosmopolitan’s Secret Pizza, we stop by Milk Bar and the crew perks up excitedly at the sight of Tosi. “When I started Milk Bar, my only goal was to open this quirky bakery that was a cool place where people wanted to hang out,” she says, finishing my friendship bracelet between bites of mushroom pizza. “I realized quickly that people were really excited about what we were doing.”
Almost a decade later, people are more obsessed with her bakery than ever. And while Tosi might not bake cookies every day like she used to, her business savvy is taking Milk Bar to new heights.
“Every day is different, which I love,” she says. “Work is life and life is work, but I love to work. I live my passion.”