Christina Tosi is joining MasterChef as its first female judge. (Photo: Getty Images)
There’s a new judge in town when MasterChef reopens its kitchen doors.
Christina Tosi, the James Beard Award-winning pastry chef behind Momofuku Milk Bar, joins returning chefs Gordon Ramsay and Graham Elliot when the TV hunt for the best home cook in the country kicks off with its sixth season on May 20.
“I’ve seen every season,” boasts Tosi, who grew up in a kitchen surrounded by strong women who loved to bake. Now a creator of confections by trade, the 33-year-old lets her salty-and-sweet tooth inform the addictive treats she serves — like her best-selling Crack Pie — and sees this opportunity to merge her personal and professional worlds as thrilling. “I see so much of myself in these really passionate, talented home cooks.”
The Brooklyn, N.Y., chef is the first female judge on the series and while she proudly wears the apron and everything it represents, her recipe for success is clear: “It’s not really about being a man or a woman, it’s about being the best person in the room or the hardest worker.”
Yahoo Food spoke with the chef, who will also be joining MasterChef Junior in the fall, to see how she plans to bring her addictive nature to the show: Like her food, she, too, is sweet and salty. “I am more nurturing and soft and caring,” she says. “But that goes away very quickly when you need to drop the hammer. I can be a little bit of a hard ass.”
Yahoo Food: When we first meet you on the show, you talk about dreaming big – is MasterChef a dream come true?
Tosi: MasterChef is one of those really amazing dreams that I would never even have set for myself — it’s a dream come true in a dream-big kind of way, when your dream expands into these amazing other ways.
How did the show come along?
I was driving my two dogs home to Virginia to visit my family when I got a call from a friend who said, “Hey, I don’t know — this might be crazy but, do you watch MasterChef? And also, Joe [Bastianich] is leaving the show and they’re really interested in you being a judge.”
How did you react?
The funniest part is, I love MasterChef and I love MasterChef Junior. I don’t have a lot of downtime, and I don’t watch a lot of television so the TV that I do watch, I’m very intentional about watching it. It sort of bridges my professional being with my home.
Have you watched it from the start?
I’ve seen every season and I know every home cook.
Did you know Gordon Ramsay before going on the show?
I knew Graham [Elliot] through different food events. He’s in Chicago when we’re not filming and I’m in New York, so we’re close by. I didn’t know Gordon beforehand, but we get along in sort of a lovely, very hilarious way.
MasterChef hosts Graham Elliot, Christina Tosi and chef Gordon Ramsay. (Photo: Getty Images)
How did your perception of him match up?
I grew up for 15 years working in kitchens for really tough, strict chefs. That’s the industry norm and that’s what you need often times to really hone your skill, hone your technique, and get your head screwed on straight as you’re trying to multitask and hold each dish to its highest integrity. So when I watch the show, Gordon never strikes me as being overly tough or overly critical — he just reminds me of chefs that I’ve worked for in the past.
So you weren’t scared of him?
I never really realized that other people watched it and said, “He’s so scary,” because for me, he just seemed always very reasonably spot on: You get direct and you get upset when you care. You have to be that way to get these home cooks the real world experience. When you care about someone’s progress and the food they’re putting out and the people that they’re serving, that is a dimension that exists. A very direct, straightforward “Stop the press! This is wrong, and not how we’re gonna do it”-way. It’s what we call real talk, people. That’s a real part of our industry.
It makes you feel right at home.
Exactly! But Graham represents a different type of how a chef behaves and reacts in the kitchen. He’s also strict and direct, but he’s educational in a different, quirky way. So I feel right at home with him as well.
How would you describe yourself as a judge?
I would describe myself as a judge as 100 percent true to who I am as a chef and how I manage and lead and teach in my kitchens at [NYC dessert spot] Milk Bar. When there needs to be toughness, I can be very tough and very direct. But I think I always start from a place of care. I think probably the female part of myself, at least compared to the two guys, I am more nurturing and soft and caring on that level. But that goes away very quickly when you need to drop the hammer or you need to real-talk somebody. I’m not afraid to drop the hammer. I can be a little bit of a hard ass.
Can we expect new and improved dessert challenges?
We give them some really serious dessert challenges. That’s one element of MasterChef that hasn’t been as intense as it is this season — you gotta be able to do it all, there’s no such thing as an excuse in the kitchen. You’re either going to nail this layer cake in 45 minutes, or you’re going home.
You’ll also be judging MasterChef Junior. What were you like as a kid?
I loved to bake. I was kind of a pudgy, curious little redhead. I loved spending time in the kitchen, but I was nowhere near as skilled as some of these young home cooks. I loved to sneak pinches of cookie dough and to be around my grandmothers, but at that age, I didn’t know that I wanted to be a chef professionally. It was just a hobby.
How important is the home cook aspect of this show to you?
I fell in love with cooking as a home cook. We didn’t really go out to eat very often, so the restaurant setting was not a setting that I was exposed to from a culinary standpoint. I was just raised in a family of strong women who loved to cook and loved to bake and that was the peaceful time that I associated the most with just connecting with life, and that’s inevitably where I found my passion. I see so much of myself in these really passionate, talented home cooks who are discovering their passion through being a home cook and really wanting to do something with it.
Tosi published her second cookbook, Milk Life Bar, this year. (Photo: Milk Life Bar Tumblr)
The dynamics are certainly changing, and more and more women are being recognized — do you think women still have a ways to go in terms of being equal in the kitchen?
I think it really depends on the kitchen. When I think about who I owe a great deal of thanks to, I think about the women who raised me in the home kitchen, and I think about the men who raised me in the professional kitchen. I can never tell if I was just really lucky to have such great male mentors, or if I was just raised by strong women that just have the mentality of: It’s not really about being a man or a woman, it’s about being the best person in the room or the hardest worker. I think on some level there is still a disparity, but I think there’s a lot less now and I think that the headstrong, determined women in the industry will continue to push on up.
I recently read some stories from anonymous female chefs about horrors they’d experienced, like customers assuming they aren’t the head chef.
I have a team of about 190 employees and I would say that I’ve raised them to be the most headstrong but humble people in the world. We’re also young at heart, it happens every day. It’s gonna happen. I look at it and laugh. If you think there is somebody else behind here doing a better job than the job that I do? That’s laughable.
What’s your advice to rising female chefs?
Having a chip on your shoulder deters so much from the task at-hand and the reason you got in, that using that to drive you just seems like a silly thing. You don’t need to fight for stuff like that. The people whose attention you really want and need, you’ll get it without every having to worry about that sort of stuff.
One of Tosi’s creations: a birthday cake made in honor of Jacques Pepin’s 80th birthday. (Photo: Deb Lindsey for the Washington Post/Getty Images.)
Do you feel like you are now a role model for female chefs, and is that a title that you want?
It’s such a tough industry, it’s a very demanding industry. Whatever I can do to help contribute and to make this industry more welcoming and for other people to take out of it, the more that I’ll continue to give. And I like that role. It’s very much the nurturing, spirited role that I was raised with amongst my mother and my grandmother, something that the women in my family have always made a part of who we are in our identity as women in the world. I continue to be excited about what that could mean for me professionally.
How do you balance your personal life with your success — or are you still trying to find that balance?
I love what I do so much and I built everything that I have, so in order to be a part of my personal life that kind of comes as a requirement! I’ve also learned that it’s a marathon, not a sprint, so balance is important. Even when it feels like you have too much work to take the day off, it’s an important part of your sanity and actually gives you more drive when you get back in the saddle at work.
This year, you filmed the show, you released a new cookbook, you’re opening another Milk Bar in Washington, D.C. — and you won a James Beard Award. Is 2015 the year of Christina?
Maybe. I think this year has been a really great year. I don’t feel any different because I still feel like the same person that’s going after the same things with the same drive and with the same values. But it’s always nice to have the palpable sensation of all the hard work that you put it when it starts to catch up. That’s always a nice feeling.
What’s your favorite midnight snack?
Cookie dough that’s warmed slightly in the microwave, so it’s basically a slightly, under-baked cookie. Crispy on outside, and fudgy in the center is my favorite. If I don’t have that, I always go for ice cream, and I really like potato chips. Everything at Milk Bar has a sweet and salty personality to it and that’s very much because the apple does not fall far from the tree.
MasterChef premieres with a two-hour episode at 8 p.m., May 20 on Fox.
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