milk and memories

There is something about New York that lures the unsuspecting heart into believing its shimmering skyscrapers and busy streets could serve as a home. Though the transit system proves confusing (I received a $100 fine for failing to realize the Metrocard must be swiped at a stall on the sidewalk before entering the bus) and most everyone is absorbed in his own work (dear snarky sir who served me coffee, it would not hurt you to at least feign gratitude for a cheerful, inquisitive customer), the bustle of people and the concentration of talent invigorate the extrovert in me. Every time I visit, I leave in a state of confusion and discontent, simultaneously anxious for my own bed but already prepared to return again soon.

I returned to the city that so intrigues me last week to spend two days staging at Momofuku Milk Bar. At their Brooklyn kitchen, home to pastry chef Christina Tosi’s cereal and candy inspired creations, I spent 21 hours blowtorching marshmallows, scooping cookie dough, prepping sheet trays, and vacuum sealing cake crumbs. Over the past two years, my piece-meal approach to a culinary education has pushed me to find stages in multiple kitchens both in Boston and Chicago, but this was my first foray into the New York food scene.

I wrote a couple of months ago about Tosi’s lecture at Harvard, at which time I asked her if I could come to Brooklyn and shadow her pastry cooks for a couple of days. She eagerly obliged and arranged for me to come this past week. During my time, I was able to work with cooks on every station, from scooping cookie doughs, portioning cake batter, and preparing cookies for the bake-off, to packaging crumbs and marshmallows and cooking family meal.

Though I have experience in a wide variety of pastry kitchens, I’ve never worked in a kitchen of such high volume – Milk Bar’s Brooklyn kitchen bakes for all seven store fronts, extensive special orders, and two restaurants in the Momofuku group.

“We need to bake off 22 sheets of cookies,” Hilary, the head baker, told me when I first arrived on Tuesday morning. I swiftly sprayed 22 sheet pans and lined them with parchment as she went off to the freezer to fetch the pre-scooped dough.

“22?” I asked when she returned.

Laughing, she showed me the rolling rack of cookies she’d brought to bake off. “22 trays of scooped cookies – that’s 220 trays to bake off.”

Embarrassed that I’d so underestimated their needs, I hauled ten more stacks of trays to my table and returned to spraying.

While the volume of work was magnificently more than I am used to, foundationally the tasks were the same. Some bakers operated the mixers, others decorated cakes and molded pie crusts, some shaped dough and mixed ice cream bases, and a few tended the ovens. The days were long and the work was exhausting, but the team bonded as a family and aimed to keep the work fun. Music blasted all day long, warming the atmosphere of the warehouse space. Every cook commented on his love for his job or her respect for management.

After two full days in the Milk Bar kitchen, I caught a bus back to Boston. Exhausted and inspired, I eagerly await my next trip to New York to buy another round of treats from one of Milk Bar's storefront locations.

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