[Editor’s note: In this week’s cover story, five NYC icons look back on their first year in New York City. Here’s celeb chef Christina Tosi on her early gigs in the kitchen.]
I was raised in the kitchen. I went to college, and I didn’t want to be in a sorority, so I started working in restaurants. In my mind, that was my social outlet. When I was about to graduate I asked myself, What could you do every day and never get sick of? My answer was really simple: Make cookies.
I took a Chinatown bus to New York to enroll in the International Culinary Center’s pastry program. I found my apartment in the Village Voice. It was on the eighth floor of an eight-story walk-up on Elizabeth between Broome and Grand. One block south was Chinatown, so I could get a big veggie steamed bun for 49 cents, and if I wanted to get a pork bun, it was 69 cents. I spent nothing. I ate at school, and I lived off chocolate and hazelnuts.
We’d study a different curriculum every week. First was French dough, then into tarts and sweet and savory, then into chocolate work and plated desserts. The uniform was very French: You had your very-pressed white fitted chef’s coat, checked pants, white kerchief, white paper toque. It was almost like being in ROTC. I would always be early to class and try to be the last one to leave, trying to make every single moment of it work for me. I didn’t miss a single day.
The only restaurant that would hire me was Aquagrill on Spring Street and Sixth Avenue. I’d leave at 7am, go to school, go to work and come home at midnight. I can’t imagine what I looked like, fresh off the boat from Virginia. I got promoted to host and maître d’, but I really wanted to be in the kitchen, so I started staging at Bouley, which was a four-star restaurant. On my days off, I volunteered and was an editorial assistant at Saveur and worked as a food stylist and in catering. I never saw the light of day at Bouley. I remember I would bring home a roll of toilet paper a week because we got paid so little, if at all.
I just enjoyed the pursuit of loving what I do and not knowing where it would take me. I do miss how simple the pursuit was.
As told to Jillian Anthony
Christina Tosi is the founder and CEO of Milk Bar (various locations; milkbarstore.com) and is a judge on MasterChef and MasterChef Junior.