What “breaking away” means to Pendomonium keynote speaker, Christina Tosi

Published Aug 11, 2023
Christina Tosi is the rule-breaking, award-winning chef and founder of Milk Bar. We asked her a few questions about how she and her team invent and innovate—and what we can expect from her keynote at Pendomonium 2023.

1. What does “breaking away” mean to you?

Christina: Breaking away means doing things on your terms. Forging your own path. Putting blinders on to what others around you are doing and running boldly towards your happiness.

2. What do you love most about baking?

Christina: Baking is one of the purest ways of connecting with those around us, heart to heart. It’s an altruistic pursuit, you bake for someone. Or you bake for your own self expression but you share it with others. A plate of cookies to welcome new neighbors, a cake for your mom’s birthday, a pie to share with your work team—baking drives connection the way little else does.

3. In the world of product, sometimes even the smallest adjustments are the ones that end up having the biggest impact. Have you found this to be true in the culinary space, too? Could you share an example of a time you made a small tweak that ended up taking whatever you were working on to the next level?

Christina: Baking, running a dessert business, developing new recipes—these are all battles that are won in the inches not the miles. A few tablespoons of baking soda, 25 degrees lower on the oven, 2 minutes less in the oven, these adjustments can take a dessert from good to undeniable. At Milk Bar we spend much of our time in these seemingly small adjustments. 

Take our classic birthday cake. We spent years developing this recipe, testing and retesting until we were close to that nostalgic funfetti inspiration. When it came to the frosting, we were close but it wasn’t quite right, it was missing its bright pluck. After rounds and rounds of testing we added the smallest pinch of baking powder—and boom, we had it. That small, seemingly insignificant amount of powder made the world of difference in getting the frosting to that dreamy nostalgic birthday flavor.

4. How have Milk Bar’s digital experiences helped move the needle for the Milk Bar brand as a whole?

Christina: From our website to my social media-hosted Bake Club, the digital experience has been so key to our success. We want to invite everyone into the Milk Bar experience, no matter where they live. Interestingly enough, most of our community live hundreds of miles from a bakery, and that’s largely because of the work we’ve done to create these spaces. 

5. People all over the country are now able to enjoy Milk Bar treats at home, thanks to the ability to order products through your website. What role do these kinds of digital touchpoints play in the overall Milk Bar experience—no matter where your customers are?

Christina: Our e-commerce platform had very humble beginnings. In the early days of running the bakery, we were lucky to have some large press shout-outs, which led to our phone (aka my Blackberry) ringing off the hook. 

One day, a sweet older woman called asking if she could order one of our signature Milk Bar Pies for delivery to her home in Kansas. She said she really wanted to try it, but was not able to make it to New York. I just didn’t have it in me to say no to her, so I channeled my care-package-loving mother and bought all the ice packs at my local Duane Reade. And BOOM, an e-commerce business was born. Being able to show up on people’s doorsteps, to be the cake that you send a loved one for their birthday, is a real honor—and we take the responsibility seriously. 

6. How do you balance honing a spirit of invention (and the courage to try something new) with the need to do what’s reliable, and what you know will work?

Christina: We like to think of it as a 70/20/10% breakdown. 

70% is nurturing the core. We know people show up for our menu classics—the cookies they’ve been enjoying for years, the pie their dad asks for every year for Thanksgiving. Maintaining quality here, having inventory so folks can count on them, this is the foundation of the business. 

20% is innovation and seasonal items. Some items don’t make sense to have on the menu all year round, so we put them on seasonally—think Strawberry Shortcake Cake for Spring and Summer. We innovate because we are creative bakers with curiosity, and a need to create to push ourselves to find the next brand classics. 

10% is wild, throw-things-at-the-wall swings. Wacky ideas that are itching at the corners of our brains, what-ifs that need to be answered.

These all flow into each other, the tensions allow each other category to exist. Without the foundation, we can’t have innovation. It’s an ecosystem.

7. What qualities are most important for people who want to “break away” to practice and nurture?

Christina: Stubbornness?! Or maybe said differently, conviction. You need to have the strength to see your vision all the way through, to lead others through clarity of vision. The only way you won’t succeed is if you give up: So don’t give up. Show up every day, give it your all, shake it off when it doesn’t go to plan, and show up again. 

“Throughout the whole company, we have a ‘question everything’ mentality.”

8. How does the Milk Bar team keep innovating and inventing? What tips do you have for fostering a spirit of experimentation in large, cross-functional teams?

Christina: At Milk Bar, we have an expectation that everyone on the team has an opinion, and that they share that opinion. Everyone. Team members from all departments come to our R&D sessions to try what’s on the bench and give their reactions.

We ask: Where does this land to you? Do you want anything different from it? What does a holiday dessert mean to you? This all drives ideas and innovation. But this goes beyond menu innovation. Throughout the whole company, we have a “question everything” mentality. Innovation applies to every department and there are always better ways of working. Our teams offer opinions and ideas on everything from finance, to packaging, to design. 

9. Just for fun: Have you tried using AI to create an idea or recipe for a Milk Bar-worthy dessert? How did it turn out?

Christina: Last year, we worked with a delivery partner on an AI-based recipe, they wanted to see what ideas AI would come up with for a nostalgic holiday dessert. It came up with some parameters for us to consider, and the team dreamed up a Popcorn Tin Cookie—equally parts buttery, cheesy, caramel-y popcorn cookie, combined into a three-part extra large cookie.

10. What are you hoping our Pendomonium attendees will take away or learn from your story?

Christina: That there are infinite amounts of ways of creating, of looking at an issue, of chasing down an idea. Your creativity, your YOUness, is your biggest secret weapon!


Want even more inspiration from Christina Tosi, live and in-person? Register and save your seat at Pendomonium today.