Although she didn't make Austin's acquaintance until just under two years ago, pastry chef Christina Tosi, owner of New York City's Momofuku Milk Bar, soon found her heart captured by the capital city and all its culinary treasures—specifically, barbecue-related culinary treasures.
This weekend, Tosi will be rocking some tacos and sharing the secrets of Momofuku's chocolate chip cake at the Austin Food & Wine Festival. In advance of the weekend-long party, Tosi talked to Eater Austin about growing up in an "armpit" city (with Paul Qui!), her favorite places to eat in town (Amaya's Taco Village is a regular stop) and keeping things lighthearted in the seriously stressful world of professional pastry.
What are your plans for Austin Food & Wine Fest this year?
I did the Rock Your Taco competition last year and had a blast. I'm doing it again this year, and then I'm doing a demo on Saturday morning called "Take on Cake," where I am going to be making the elements of our chocolate chip cake, which is chocolate chip, passion fruit and coffee, with lots of different textures and layers. We'll be handing out samples and stuff like that.
We hear you're buddies with Paul Qui?
We actually went to the same high school in northern Virginia. He was a year before me—it wasn't that large of a high school, and we weren't friends or anything. We're both from Springfield, Virginia, which is something that nobody wants to admit to. [Laughs]. I literally live in New York City, and I feel like everyone I know here has high school connections or college connections. I literally had no connections when I moved to the city.
So did your high school have a secretly awesome culinary program or something?
No, it absolutely did not. It was like the armpit of northern Virginia. It's like the one town in northern Virginia nobody ever wants to show their friends.
When did Austin land on your radar as a food destination?
The hilarious part is that I had never been to Austin until about a year and a half ago. I went down to promote Milk Bar at the very beginning of SXSW. I went with Peter Meehan, and even though we knew we'd have to go promote this or that at this or that digital conference, we were just like, you know, we're gonna go to SXSW and be anti-social and just eat the whole time. Funnily enough, a lot of the cooks in our kitchen are from Texas: they're from Dallas or they're from Houston, and a lot are from Austin. They made this ridiculous list of recommendations for places we had to go, and I had done a bunch of research, too. I just fell in love with the place. I ended up going back a couple of months later for the Food and Wine Festival last year. This will be the second year of our new family tradition, but now my family all meets up in Austin and spends an entire week there, just like eating around and hanging out. It's so many portions in such a small amount of time!
I've really had my heart stolen [by Austin] in the past year and a half. I've gotten to come down and teach classes at Central Market, as well as some other events. In the past year and a half, I've been to Austin more times than I have to that armpit of Springfield, Virginia. It's really near and dear to my heart.
What do you like to do when you're here?
I always make sure that I'm there on a Saturday morning, and I drive to Lexington to eat at Snow's. I don't understand why more people don't talk about it, but when Peter and I were at SXSW, we had barbeque almost for five meals a day. It was just so good; it really blew me away. I love that you have to be committed to it – you have to get there at 8:30 in the morning, only on Saturdays. They have this amazing pecan pie that they sell at a bakery nearby. Everything about that entire meal was just ? I don't know. I talk about it, and it's the one thing that I really hype up.
When I go with the family, we always spend one morning tailgating outside of Franklin's, because it's just fun, and you're on family vacation, so what else are you going to do? We usually go to Lockhart just to get some more barbeque. I really like going to the pawn shops and the thrift stores in and around Austin. The pawn shops especially can be a really hilarious way to spend your time. I really love the baked goods at Elizabeth Street Cafe. I always try to make it out to Royer's Round Top. I really love Amaya's Taco Village; I saw a post about it that said "best place in Austin that you don't know about," and I was like, "No! Why did you tell everyone?!" [Laughs]
We always go to Barton Springs and spend like a day or two [there]. Last year we went water skiing on the big lake to the west of Austin, Lake Travis, which is pretty cool. There's nothing quite like that outside of New York, similarly. I love to get margaritas at Polvos. We always have a funny migas thing, where we go around and try to find who has the best migas, which Polvos also makes a pretty good version of. My older brother is trying to convince everyone to come down a few days early to participate in the Tough Mudder, that crazy race. I really love that [being in Austin] is like a random mix of eating, doing nothing, and having a really great time. Austin just has this amazing way of bringing that out of people, and I'm usually just like stressed out and always working, but Austin is just sort of like the room to breathe. I've got my strategy down! A whole lot of eating and a whole lot of nothing.
We feel like we see you all over the place—on television, promoting Momofuku Milk Bar, talking about your cookbook, on the radio—how do you decide what kinds of events and programs to participate in?
For me, Baltz & Company usually reaches out to me, and I will do anything for them. They always put on great events, and for me, they're a trusted company. If they're putting on an event or coordinating an event, it's going to be a great time. I'm also attracted to the idea of a great cause or destination that I've never been to, or am really interested in or inspired by. Otherwise, a lot of the events are made to promote what you're doing, and I always just feel like it doesn't necessarily come from the heart. I want something to speak to me, and I try to use that same mentality when I'm deciding on events. But with Austin, it's a town that just excites me, and I could rattle off 50 more events that I'd want to attend here. With most other events, though, there has to be a connection, or a level of intrigue, or it has to be for a really great cause or a really great event.
We just watched this hilarious work-out themed video you did with Lucky Peach; Momofuku Milk Bar also generally seems to be about fun and not taking things too seriously. Is that something you've intentionally cultivated?
For me, I work really hard. I have to be responsible about a lot of things, and it's very stressful. It can really wear on you, and I think it only makes sense to work that hard and to be stressed out about so many things if you can balance it with the exact opposite. It only makes sense to kill yourself for these things if you really enjoy it, and there has to be equal take to equal give. In my free time, I'm always going to propose something silly or goofy, because otherwise I don't get to take myself not so seriously. Then I just end up being the angry, grumpy person who has to make all the decisions, and that's the reality, unfortunately, of most of my day sometimes. So if I'm going to take time out of that to do something, I want it to be fun and lighthearted, because one, the food we make is as such, and is the inspiration behind that, and it's the only thing that really makes it all worth it for me. The rest of my day is going to be me drowning in big girl decisions and real world things, and stressful, business owner problems.
It's not fun to go on camera and be too serious about a cookie. It's a cookie. [Laughs]. Let's do something silly with it! Nobody wants to think that the person who makes the cookie is too serious, and for me I have to remind myself not to be too serious. When someone gives me the opportunity, I want to have fun with it, because it's the only way to shake off the stress and the seriousness of the other side of the job. These are the reasons why we don't have a reality TV show. [Laughs]
—Emma Kat Richardson
· Austin Food & Wine Festival [Official]
· All Christina Tosi Coverage on Eater Austin [-EATX-]
· All Austin Food & Wine Festival Coverage on Eater Austin [-EATX-]
Christina Tosi. [Photo: Austin Food & Wine Festival/Official]