Pastry chef and founder of Milk Bar, Christina Tosi, joins Zibby to talk about her debut picture book, Every Cake Has a Story, and how her career influenced it. Rather than asking what inspired a cake’s flavor, Christina always asks what is its story. She then thought that in this way, humans are just like cakes and we should celebrate the things that make us unique. Christina also shares what made her different growing up and why she wants to show kids how being different is good through the magic of desserts.


Zibby Owens: I was going to say “Welcome, Christina,” but I know that everybody calls you Tosi, so I’ll just say, I don’t know, welcome, whoever. Whatever. I’m so glad you’re here.

Christina Tosi: I’m so excited to be with you today.

Zibby: Your children’s book is one thing that we have to discuss, Every Cake Has a Story, which is amazing and adorable and awesome and inspiring. No surprise. I also have to talk to you about your cookbooks and your life in general. You’ve done so many amazing things. It’s hard to know where to start. Let’s start with the book.

Christina: Okay, deal.

Zibby: What made you write this children’s book?

Christina: I am a new mom of a six-month-old, though I wrote the book before she was born. I wrote it because when I hit pause for a moment, I thought about what I do and what’s important to me. One of the things that is always a secret that I have with myself is that I do my best work when I remember the kid in me. That’s whether I’m doing my best work at Milk Bar or doing my best work for myself as a human in the world. I’m my most happiest when I can protect and let that part of me out, to remember that kid is a state of mind. As you get one year older and one year older, remembering that a lot of the secrets to life you actually already know, you learned long ago, I’m always trying to protect that in myself and then to bring it out of myself. A lot of the work that we do at Milk Bar, we do it through the lens of dessert, but it’s really about championing the kid in all of us, reminding us of that, and inviting us into a place that makes us feel that way again. I heard myself — I like to use this sort of phrase with my team over and over again. What’s our flavor story? What’s the flavor story? Rather than, what’s our point of inspiration? It’s another way of saying, what’s our point of inspiration? What is this dessert about? What are we looking to create? What is the story we’re trying to tell through these layers of flavors and texture and deliciousness? Whenever we are dreaming up a layer cake, I always say, what is the story behind this cake? Said in a different way, every one of our cakes has a story. The story is where we were when we were dreaming it up and why it is what it is. We just added a cake to the menu at Milk Bar for the fall called the Apple Cider Doughnut Layer Cake. Probably pretty easy to figure out what that point of inspiration was.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. I’m going to order that right now.

Christina: Phew, girl. We need that grounding in it. It reminds us who we are and where we came from and why we think the world needs this cake and what this cake should do. I just think it’s a way of life. It’s an approach to life. If you can dream it, you can do it. Through the lens of this children’s book, Every Cake Has a Story, it brings you on a little journey. It’s a kids’ book, so it’s four kids. Let’s be real, most kids that are reading this book don’t know how to read yet or are learning how to read. They’re doing it with someone that’s perhaps older than them that also needs to be reminded of these things. It’s about a little girl named Sammi who lives in a town called Samesville. Everything is black and white and kind of ordinary. Everyone looks the same and does the same things and eats the same thing, especially when it comes to cake. Sammi dreams of a world that’s more than that, that is looking at life in color, and that is dreaming of cakes through the lens of what can be, not what is. You can see it as you flip through the pages.

Zibby: Yeah, it’s amazing. I love how the pages literally go from black and white — actually, when I showed this to my kids — I have four kids. I showed it to my littlest guy. He’s like, “Oh, no, black and white.” I was like, “No, no, no, but you’ve got to see why.”

Christina: He’s like, boring. It’s like, exactly.

Zibby: That’s the point.

Christina: We need to be reminded what it feels like to live life in color and to celebrate individuality and creativity and personality. That’s what the book’s all about.

Zibby: I love that so much. Not to mention that it makes me hungry just even looking at these pictures and the pretzels and the Hershey’s Kisses and all the different types of people calling out all the ways to make cakes amazing.

Christina: I know, cereals, strawberries, pretzels. Then of course, at the back, there’s a little bonus recipe because sometimes people need just a little invitation into the kitchen to do the work themselves.

Zibby: Yes, I saw that. I was hiding that from my son. Otherwise, we’d have to go straight down. I’ll show him when we have time. We’ll do that together. Amazing. Did you write all the words? What was the process like?

Christina: I did. The funny part about it is the proposal you write to convince the book publisher to want to publish the book is actually longer than the book words itself. In a beautiful way, I think that also hearkens back to the beauty of simplicity when you’re telling a story. More is not more when it comes to words. The book is a picture book. The illustrations by Emily Balsley are just so incredible as well. She does so much of the work of talking to one’s imagination through visuals so that it’s less about the words on the page and it’s more about the universe that you create in your head as you flip the pages yourself or with a young one or what have you. It was a really fun process. I’ve already started writing another. I’ve lost count now of how many different layer cakes we’ve made at Milk Bar that have their own stories.

I think that this approach — now that I’m a parent, probably, I have to come to reckoning with all of the amazing parts of being a parent, but then, of course, all the challenges or all the fears that you have and what your kid will go through in life. I think back to when I was a kid. What were my things? What stopped me from living out loud in full? Inevitably, it was like, I have braces. I feel awkward. My parents got divorced. Sometimes as a kid, all you want is to feel normal and same so that you don’t stick out. I think that there’s a wonderful opportunity of books through the lens of a layer cake to tell kids different stories and different realities in a way that I hope makes every kid feel like, oh, different is good. Same is not bad, but different can also be good. That’s a little bit of my secret mission through Every Cake Has a Story and through a lot of the other stories that kids need to hear and need to be reminded of. I have glasses. What does that mean for me? It’s like, it doesn’t mean anything for you. It just means that’s a little bit more you. Celebrate that. Embrace it. It’s easiest to do when you tell kids that they’re going to learn about it through layer cake. Who doesn’t like dessert?

Zibby: I don’t know. They can just get off this podcast right now. Go listen to something else. Does the next book have a name? Do you already know what it is?

Christina: We’re working on the title. I know what it’s about. My editor and I are working through whether it’s called Every Cake Has a Story, and then if there’s a subtitle to it or how we’ll name it. For now, Sammi in Sameville as the epic champion of the bigger, broader Every Cake Has a Story is what’s out in the world for everyone to enjoy, to tuck into.

Zibby: Actually, I have a children’s book coming out in April from Penguin Random House.

Christina: Oh, my gosh, what’s is called?

Zibby: It’s called Princess Charming. It’s about a girl who doesn’t think she has a thing. Then she realizes that not giving up is her thing. Then there’s a twist at the end. It takes place in a castle. There’s a movie star.

Christina: I’m definitely getting that book. That’s going on the bookshelf. When does it come out?

Zibby: It comes out April 19th.

Christina: Spring. I’m ready.

Zibby: Having recently gone through this process myself and having a different sort of conception of what it would be to write a children’s book before actually writing a real one, it’s been quite an interesting process, especially with what you said about the words. You can’t have that many words. There aren’t that many pages. You have to tell a lot in visuals. It’s tough. It’s harder than it looks.

Christina: It is. It’s a magnificently challenging thing because it also forces you to remember things that, as adults, maybe we forget to. Again, you can say a lot without having to say a lot. A story can be told in ways that are more simple. We think everything has to be so complex and so explained. It doesn’t have to be.

Zibby: Kids are way smarter than we give them credit for.

Christina: There you go.

Zibby: They pick up on everything. They’ll get it in two seconds. Let’s talk about Milk Bar and all the many cookbooks, all of which I have downstairs. I’m going to make myself sound embarrassing, but we have actually gone to the Milk Bar place to make cakes in Brooklyn. What do you call that?

Christina: You have? You’ve taken Cake Class.

Zibby: We’ve taken Cake Class. We get Milk Bar cakes for every birthday. We’re huge super fans. I think you can tell in all the things that you make, this whole joie de vivre thing that you have going on. It’s apparent. It’s not just a cake. You’re selling an experience and a state of mind. It comes through. It’s just so fun. Not that cake is ever super serious. All these things that you make, the whole brand stands for so much more than just the cake, kind of like what you’re saying. I’m interested in how you built this brand. That’s really what it is, the whole Milk Bar brand. You referenced earlier that people on your team when you ran track and everything called you Tosi and that everybody on your team calls you that. You’ve also built up this whole team aspect. How did you combine it all? That’s a big question.

Christina: It’s such a good question. I think about it and I start laughing because I’m like, I’m not a marketing person. I didn’t study marketing. I studied math. That’s the least brand-forward approach to anything. I only know what I know. What I do know is that it’s surrounding yourself with truths. It’s surrounding yourself with truths and championing those truths. From a team standpoint, it’s very simple. No one does it alone. I don’t open up the shop and close up the shop. I don’t bake every single cookie. I used to bake a lot of the cookies. I don’t do that every day. We do it, and we do it together, so making sure that that is something that’s shared in and celebrated is really important. I think dessert is important because it makes us feel something. The truth of that is very simple. Anything that goes on the Milk Bar menu, it’s got to pass through the, does this make you feel something? Not, does it make you feel something, like, yeah, it makes me feel like I ate a bite of sugar. Yeah, it makes me feel a little bit this. It has to make you feel something, capital F feel something.

Why do we do what we do? Working in a kitchen is not the easiest way to earn a paycheck. No one that works in a kitchen does it because it’s maximizing our potential in a paycheck. We do it because we love what we do. It is a job where you can have fun and put on music and be a little silly and jump around. If that’s a truth, then we have to make sure to not only protect it, but to celebrate it in everything we do. When people come and visit us at one of the bakeries in New York or DC or Boston or LA or what have you, it’s an invitation into our universe. Even when you get a cookie at the grocery store, a Milk Bar cookie, we want it to be a little moment where you can shake it a little bit and you can get excited. Really, the brand part of it, as much as I can tell you, is really about knowing what the truths are and doing everything you can to protect them, celebrate them, and grow them. It’s that simple. Of course, it’s challenging as you go to grow because you want to build them and protect them even more, but it’s also simple. What are your truths? What do you do with them?

Zibby: You should’ve seen how excited I got at the end of a Jet Blue flight when they handed out a Milk Bar cookie. I literally grabbed my husband next to me. I was like, “Look!” That was awesome. Are you still doing that?

Christina: We aren’t currently doing it, but we’re working on something else. I would literally look at my husband and be like, “You pick up that cookie right now.” He’s like, “You have enough cookies.” “Don’t you judge me. You pick up that cookie.” He’s like, “But you can have these cookies whenever.” “You pick up that cookie right now.” It’s those moments. It’s finding people in their moments where they least expect this life-in-color moment, this gasp of, oh, my gosh, I’m feeling something incredible right now. I wasn’t expecting to feel this way. Those are my favorite moments in life. That’s what it’s all about. It’s the same thing. It’s the reason I bake at home. It’s the reason you would come to bake club, bake something, and then drop it off at your neighbor’s doorstep. You become obsessed with creating these moments for people in their life. You get a little dose of it in your life too.

Zibby: Were you like this growing up? Did you always want to make people happy like this?

Christina: Oh, my gosh, I’m a total pedigree of my mom and my grandma from a joyful person, joy-giving end of things. They loved to bake not for the art of baking, but for the connectivity that a baked good can bring you for other people in the world, the joy that, I got you. I see you. I care about you. I’m here for you. As a kid, my mom would drop me off summers at my grandma’s house. She’d be like, “We’re baking. Then we’re going to the nursing home. We’re baking. Put them in plastic baggies. We’re doing a round of the neighborhood.” It’s just what I know. It’s what I know.

Zibby: Amazing. How has it been doing all the TV stuff also?

Christina: You know, TV is such an interesting thing. It is a brilliant way to meet people in pretty intimate moments. When we’re watching TV, we think we’re keeping the world out, and TV is a really beautiful way to get to be a part of people’s lives in some of their most intimate, barrier-lowering moments. That part’s interesting. It’s a challenge, though, too because there’s a lot of, hurry up and wait. There are so many different steps into the process. I think in everything, learning what to say no to is oftentimes the most important thing to make sure that what you’re saying yes to are the things that are the most meaningful and magical. We just launched a show on Netflix called Bake Squad that is about showing up for people through the brilliant, marvelous lens of dessert when they need help celebrating something in life. That, for me, was such a fun show to make and be a part of because that’s what I’m here for. I think that’s what my life work is meant to be. It’s really fun to get to do that and to get to share it with people all across the country. We ship nationwide. You can get an Apple Cider Doughnut Cake to your doorstep. We have cookies and ice cream and truffle crumb cakes in the grocery stories. The easiest way, the quickest way into someone’s life sometimes is through their TV screen. Not everyone eats dessert or has the ability to for one reason or another. It’s a really fun way to bring joy and lightness and sweetness in irregardless of someone’s state. It’s really fun.

Zibby: That’s amazing. How do you stay fit? You just had a baby, all of this stuff. It’s amazing.

Christina: It’s such a good question. I don’t know. I’m a pretty active person in general. One of the reasons that I chose to become a pastry chef was because I knew that kitchen work was physical. I like to be on the move. I have a hard time if I’m sitting all day. I like to be doing and going. Outright, one of my happy places is being out and around and doing things. Being active is my sanity in general. I just try and find a balance. I say this, but it’s always a blissful imbalance. I’m either behaving myself or I’m not. I live a lot of ying and yang. I’m going to drink a green smoothie, but it’s also because I know I’m going to go to the commissary and taste versions twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five, and twenty-six of the cake that we’re going to put on the menu for the December holiday. You just figure out what you got to do to game life to make it happen. I’m a really big long-distance runner. Why does everyone call you Tosi? I don’t know. They just have called me that as long as I’ve run cross-country as a teenager. I like to be active, but I also like to be out in these beautiful, solitary, thinking, creative moments. I do my best work oftentimes when I’m on a run. I suppose I get a fair amount of exercise in.

Zibby: I don’t think I’ve stood up in three days.

Christina: For me, I can’t. My husband will look at me at the end of the day and be like, “I think you need to go outside.” He can see the look on my eyes that’s like, you haven’t found your sanity yet today. You need fresh air and movement, and you do not need me to come with you. You need your personal space.

Zibby: You know yourself so well. It’s really awesome. I think that’s one of your superpowers. You’re so self-aware. You have such a clear mission. You know what you want to do in the world. You’re just putting it all out there.

Christina: Thank you. That’s also the risk in and of itself. You just have to quiet the other voices in your head that tell you why you can’t or what you should be worried about or what have you. Joy begets joy. If you figure out what joy looks like for you, life worth living is a about taking risks. You just go for it. You can’t fail if you’re doing things that are inherently true for you. Who’s measuring you anyway? You should be the only one measuring yourself. That’s literally Every Cake Has a Story full circle. It’s the U in you. That’s the only thing that matters to figure out and to unleash in this world.

Zibby: Thank you for bringing it back to the book. Advice to aspiring authors?

Christina: That’s a great question. It’s a lot of the same themes. It’s figuring out what your voice is, what you think the world needs to hear, and then being honest about it. When I opened Milk Bar, I said to myself very specifically, the world doesn’t need more of the same awesome bakery. The world needs a bakery that lives in my brain or in my team’s brain that is true and unique to us. From an aspiring author standpoint, you got to have grit. You’re going to have plenty of challenges before you find successes, so keep going at it wherever you are in your young author space. Then find your voice. Make sure it’s your voice and it’s unique to you. If that’s true, the world needs to hear it. Just keep pushing. You’ll find your way.

Zibby: Let’s say there’s a listener who’s totally motivated by what you’re saying and wants to be a part of the Milk Bar universe and get more involved or whatever and is just drinking this Kool-Aid and wants to follow you everywhere. What should they do? How can they get more invested in your success and empire and all the rest?

Christina: I think doing your homework, doing your research is really important. Milk Bar lives in so many different lenses of the world now. Understanding what you like about what we do and what’s meaningful to you — if you want to get in touch, get in touch with us at We’re always looking for big, brilliant, individual personalities that have a point of view that want to be a part of our team and call me Tosi and call everyone else teammate. Also, if it’s about creating your own Milk Bar, then create your own Milk Bar. Make sure that it’s yours and it’s brilliant and individualistic to you. There is no right way to do it. Every way is a right way as long as it’s true to you. I think the wrong way is, it’s not true to you and you’re trying to create something that somebody else already has or is doing or making something right because you think that’s what right looks like. I think that’s the difference between the two.

Zibby: Last question. In honor of Every Cake Has a Story, what is your go-to flavor of cake? What’s your favorite cake? You have to pick. You can’t say you love them all.

Christina: I can’t even touch the cakes in the Milk Bar universe with that question because they each have a story, so they each tug on a heartstring. Brass tax, if we’re just talking about, it’s my birthday, cake is showing up, what’s that cake? hilariously enough, Zibby, it is the funfetti box cake mix from the grocery store aisle with a tub of vanilla funfetti frosting, which is the flavor story of the classic Milk Bar Birthday Cake. That’s the cake that I want once a year on my birthday. It makes me feel like Sammi, like that kid that I’m always trying to show up for and protect and pull out in my day. I want it once a year. It’s super special. Then all the other days, 364 days of the year, I’m trying to figure out what the next layer cake story is at Milk Bar with the team and create it and bring it into your lives.

Zibby: Love it. Amazing. Christina, Tosi, whoever, thank you so much. Thank you for coming on. Good luck with your baby. Enjoy. I’m very excited about your book, Every Cake Has a Story. Thank you.

Christina: Bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.


EVERY CAKE HAS A STORY by Christina Tosi

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