How the Owner of Trendy NYC Bakery Milk Bar Won Over Her Future Mentor

June 21, 2016, 3:02 PM UTC
American Express Restaurant Trade Program, June 17
Photo by Steve Mundinger

The first time Momofuku Milk Bar chef and owner Christina Tosi met her mentor Wylie Dufresne, she was a diner at his pioneering molecular gastronomy restaurant WD~50.

At the time she was working as a cook at much-lauded New York French restaurant Bouley and saved up for six months to have dinner at the now-closed WD~50 on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The meal was in part a test to help her decide whether her next career move should be working at a cutting edge enterprise like WD~50, or a more traditional restaurant such as Gramercy Tavern or Craft.

When the palate cleanser portion of the meal came out that night, Dufresne stopped by Tosi’s table to ask what she and her dining companions thought of the dish. It looked like a sunny-side up egg with coconut for the white portion and mango as the yolk, and the mango oozed just like an egg when pierced. “It was the first time someone had asked me what I thought about food,” Tosi said during the American Express Restaurant Trade program at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen last week. Tosi told him that it was “super cool and delicious.” But when she went home and thought about it more, she decided she would have done it differently—maybe some curry flavor in the yolk.

Tosi called the restaurant two or three days later and asked to speak with Dufresne, relaying how she would have tweaked the dish.

“I don’t remember that phone call, because I probably should have hung up on her,” said Dufresne, who had no idea who was on the other end of the line. “But the fact that she thought about it—that’s all I want.”

After that meal, Tosi decided she wanted to work at WD~50. “For me, it’s the spirit of who I am” she said, adding that the restaurant tapped into the “curiosity of what the baked good is.” Tosi started working at WD~50 in her free time for no pay. The restaurant had what she called a “silent waiting list,” and you had to be there the day a job opened up.

WD~50 closed in 2014 after 13 years—“I think in a way it ran its course,” Dufresne said—and the next year he was forced to close his other restaurant, Alder. Unlike a lot of his peers, who were opening up restaurant after restaurant, Alder was only Dufresne’s second. By the time he opened the East Village Bistro, he said he was probably a little bit dated.

“I spent a lot of time wondering where I’d gone wrong,” Dufresne said. “People younger than me have four, five, six restaurants, and I’ve closed two.” He said it was a combination of wrong decisions and luck of the draw. “I’m past feeling like a failure,” he said, joking that he was submitting his resume to Tosi’s bakery.

Tosi went on to found the dessert program at Momofuku before starting the company’s bakery, Milk Bar, in 2008. At Milk Bar, she focuses on making her products, which include cookies, cakes, and ice cream, additive, rather than just checking a single box. That’s a lesson learned at WD~50, where everything had to have purpose and be clever enough to make the cut. “He taught me how to think about food and how to have opinions about food,” she said of Dufresne.

Dufresne said that part of mentoring is helping people understand why they’re there working for you and following this path, and Tosi has applied the same principle to running Milk Bar. “They have to be in love with the pursuit of it,” she said of her employees. “How passionate are you really, and does that translate when it’s 2 a.m., 4 a.m., and everyone is home, or everyone is asleep, and everyone else had a day off?” What it comes down, she said, is, “Do you love it when no one else is looking?”

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