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Didn’t We Almost Have It All:
Momofuku Milk Bar & Milk Thistle

First published in the March-April 2012 edition of Edible Manhattan

2 comments so far | March 5, 2012 | By | Photographs by Vicky Wasik

Christina Tosi is still reeling. The normally high-spirited chef and co-owner of Momofuku Milk Bar, the sugary offshoot of David Chang’s mini-empire, has just gotten some very bad news: Farmer Dante Hesse, who owned a tiny organic dairy called Milk Thistle Farm in Columbia County, and whose milk Tosi regards as the single most important ingredient in her kitchen, is going out of business, the result of a quiet but crippling six-year battle with a seven-figure debt.

“We have such a close relationship with Dante and his family, we believed so much in them and just had so much love for their product,” Tosi said a few days after hearing the news. “I’m heartbroken.”

Milk Thistle’s sudden closure in late January came as a surprise to all—the dairy’s diehard shoppers at the Greenmarkets were stunned—but the news was particularly devastating for Tosi, who views Milk Thistle and Milk Bar as spiritual counterparts, two small, scrappy businesses that grew together and shared a fierce determination to write their own rules and build something without compromising. Tosi takes her milk very, very seriously. Yes, her desserts are playful, ridiculously over-the-top creations like the cheekily named Crack pie, filled with a cavity-inducing sugar goo; and her (even more famous) Cereal Milk is designed to evoke Cap’n Crunch dregs. But behind the scenes, Tosi’s a perfectionist who won’t settle for anything less than the dairy demigod.

Up until Hesse turned off the spigot in late January, Tosi was going through 100 gallons a week of perhaps the most expensive milk on the East Coast—and says it was worth every penny. And maybe she was being modest, but Tosi really seemed sincere when she said the milk—an ingredient most cooks regard as a blank slate, an interchangeable commodity— was the reason her desserts taste so good.

Before Milk Bar was born, the preternaturally sweet-toothed Tosi started doing office work (or, as she calls it, “tit shit”) for Chang back before Momofuku made any desserts. A dedicated home cook, she often brought in sweets so adored that one night, in 2007, Chang challenged her to come up with something for Ssam Bar. She thought he was joking, but he wasn’t. “Just make something,” he told her. “And make sure it’s fucking delicious.”

That night, Tosi made an impromptu strawberry shortcake. The customers loved it. Chang loved it. And that’s how Tosi became the first pastry chef of the Momofuku restaurants (Noodle Bar, Ssam Bar and Ko, all in the East Village), scrambling around to mix pie dough under the stairs near Ssam Bar’s basement walk-in freezer, desperately trying to find space in the pork belly–crammed refrigerators. Even in her earliest, experimental dessert days, Tosi knew she wanted a top-notch dairy supplier. So she rounded up local milk from across the tri-state area for a taste test and was instantly smitten with the taste of Milk Thistle Farm, who had recently started selling at the Greenmarket.

“It was just awesome,” Tosi says, with a voice that means it. And it wasn’t grief talking. In early January, before any news of the impending end, Tosi cheerfully gushed, “Dante’s milk has such an incredible richness and creaminess—it adds a real depth of flavor to everything it touches.” “It tastes,” she added, in a compliment that strangely foreshadowed fate, “the way milk used to taste.” Tosi would know. Her father spent 26 years working for the USDA’s dairy division in Virginia, fighting for the rights of small farms. He instilled in her the importance of supporting family businesses, especially in an industry where conglomerates rule the market.

Tosi was delighted that the “banging” winner of her taste test came from a small startup. So she invited Hesse into Ssam Bar to strike a deal. But convincing Hesse to sell to her was no cakewalk. He had a tiny herd, barely 35 cows, which meant Greenmarket customers typically bought all his prized pints, leaving nothing for wholesale customers. And then there was the cost: $7 a quart. “We’d been contacted by a lot of cafés who wanted our milk, but once we sent them our price list, we never heard from them again,” Hesse says. “I just assumed she was one of those. I ignored her. But she was so persistent! Finally, my wife was, like, ‘I think we need to call this one back.’”

So he “begrudgingly” met Tosi at lunch in 2007, and found her combination of gee-shucks friendliness and kitchen-tested determination too hard to resist. Hesse agreed to deliver several dozen gallons a week. At this point, Tosi had picked up a French Culinary Institute extern, and the two set up a makeshift “pastry kitchen” on a prep table at Ko. In 2008, after months of making desserts like PB &J panna cotta and guava sorbet with liquid cheesecake —for all the restaurants in her tiny borrowed corner, Chang gave Tosi the chance to have her own space. The laundromat next to Ssam Bar was closing, and he bought the lease, providing Tosi her with her very own retail storefront. She called it, appropriately, Momofuku Milk Bar. Milk Thistle appeared in dozens of dishes across the Milk Bar menu, sometimes in a starring role, other times as behind-the-scenes support. The milk went into any baked good or cake involving a creamy filling (like carrot layer cake), coffees from the espresso bar and soft-serve ice creams. (“We don’t put eggs or heavy cream into the ice cream,” said Tosi in January. “We don’t even heat the milk. The reason the soft-serves taste so rich is all because of Dante.”) And, of course, the Cereal Milks.

Out of all the Milk Bar creations, the one that most relies on great milk says so right in its name. Tosi was struck with the idea for Cereal Milk in 2008, while she scrambled to come up with a plated dessert for Momofuku Ko, the empire’s most upscale restaurant. It was one of her first opportunities to unleash her madcap desserts on diners, but she was stuck. “I was trying to trace back the root of what makes a good dessert. I didn’t want to do comfort food per se, but I wanted to do something very personal and very relatable,” she says. She settled on panna cotta, a relatively fail-safe choice. “But I knew I wanted an exceptional flavor for the milk. I was looking to make my own idealized version of what dairy could taste like. That’s where I wanted to infuse my personality,” she explains.

A late-night trip to her local bodega to grab every dry good that could possibly be steeped into milk eventually lead to the simplest of solutions: cornflakes. “It just made sense. The flavor hit on a certain coziness and familiarity without being too traditional. The proof was literally in the pudding,” Tosi laughs. And while the end result was undoubtedly sweet, Tosi swears Hesse’s milk gave it a depth of flavor that lesser milks simply could not. People loved it so much that Tosi began experimenting with other cereals, and Chang convinced her to start selling the steeped milk on its own: by the bottle, and in soft-serve form so every-one could enjoy it, Ko reservation or not.

It’s a genius mash-up of high-low sensibilities—super-premium organic milk mixed with fun, if decidedly déclassé, processed cereals—that’s indicative of Tosi’s philosophy toward dessert as a whole. “They’re desserts with a point of view,” Tosi told me when I asked her to describe her style. “And personality.”Cereal Milk has since become Milk Bar’s best-known and most popular creation.

Tosi’s tiny storefront was an instant success. Customers lined up, the press went wild, and a year and a half later the band of merry bakers set to work opening a second Milk Bar, in Midtown. But all this whisking and whipping meant that Tosi and her crew needed a dedicated pastry kitchen of their own, not a shared space within Ssam Bar’s basement. So they began to build out a spacious kitchen in a warehouse in Williamsburg where they could make everything and send it out to the satellite stores. But in the months that commissary was being built, Tosi and her team spent hour upon sticky hour baking in an unair-conditioned rented kitchen in Spanish Harlem, schlepping 50-pound bags of flour up four flights of stairs and cabbing downtown to Noodle Bar with dozens of tubs of soft-serve ice cream.

The highest compliment you can receive as a Milk Bar employee is to be anointed a “hardbody”: someone who goes beyond the call of duty, who doesn’t complain, who finds a solution—even in the most extreme circumstances (like the time an industrial-size mixer broke and a staffer mixed 100 pounds of cookie dough by hand, or when the heat broke and they all cooked in coats and hats). It’s an attitude found only in certain settings, restaurant kitchens and farms chief among them. It’s a major part of the reason that Tosi and Hesse got along so well, and why Tosi wanted to use Milk Thistle exclusively, becoming the farm’s single biggest wholesale customer.

To understand the magnitude of that statement, you should know some things about Hesse and his farm. Hesse grew up upstate, with decidedly non-agrarian parents (dad was a physician, mom’s now a priest). Even so, at a very young age he took an interest in farming, persuading his mother to let him raise a handful of milking goats when he was in fifth grade. “I got up before school to milk them,” he says. “I just loved it.”

As a student, he was inspired by the Austrian writer-philosopher Rudolf Steiner, widely regarded as the founder of the organic movement. After stints farming vegetables in South Africa and driving trucks in Idaho, Hesse ended up back in Columbia County, working as a farmhand for Hawthorne Valley, a biodynamic, biodiverse farm that includes grass-fed dairy cows.

Hesse longed for land of his own, and in 2007, at age 26, caught wind of a farm for sale in nearby Ghent. “I had no money and no real experience, but I decided to start a dairy,” he says plainly, undaunted by the physical, mental and financial brutalities of running perhaps the most expensive kind of farm in our region. Some would call his plan crazy, impossible, even, but Hesse was determined. He borrowed money from his parents and took out a small loan, allowing himself three months to turn the vacant barn into a milking parlor. Ninety days later, Hesse was milking. In almost every aspect of the dairy, Hesse spurned convention. While just about every other dairy farm in America raises Holsteins, the iconic black and white breed, Hesse chose Jerseys, a smaller animal that gives high-fat, high-quality milk but in smaller quantities. He started with fewer than three dozen cows—laughably small compared to neighboring operations—and was deeply committed to “management intensive grazing”—which means rotating the cows to fresh grass. (“The only time they’re not out on pasture is when they’re being milked,” said Hesse proudly.) Eventually, he was overseeing a small herd of about 35 mixed Jersey and Jersey cross-herd cows on 75 grazing acres.

He insisted upon bottling his milk himself, in glass bottles, which in the day of large-scale dairy cooperatives (in which scores of farmers sell their milk to one large retailer) is practically unheard of (Ronnybrook’s the anomaly). And rather than sell his milk wholesale to processors, as over 99 percent of upstate dairies do, he sold it himself, directly to customers, under his own label, each and every week. “If it wasn’t for Greenmarket, we would never gotten as far as we have,” says Hesse.

Hesse’s milk was pasteurized (by law) but not homogenized, so the first thing most people noticed was the chunk of buttery milkfat bobbing atop each batch. The liquid beneath the fat tasted grassy and sweet, with legs that ran down the sides of the bottle after a sip. One small glass would coat your mouth in a thick dairy duvet, calling to mind a partially melted milkshake.

Tosi, totally taken, arranged for annual staff trips to Ghent, shutting down the kitchen so both teams could get to know each other better. The visit was a highlight every summer, complete with a cookout, buckets of beer and some unlikely bonding between the tattooed pastry chefs and the wide-eyed, inquisitive bovines. Milk Bar’s success hugely impacted Milk Thistle. The combination of Tosi’s wholesale business, a deal with Whole Foods and the unwavering devotion of many Greenmarket shoppers meant that Hesse had to expand, and fast. Milk Thistle was getting great press, winning taste-tests in bold-name food magazines and being featured, by name, on the Milk Bar menu.

Hesse was selling out every week at the markets, and hated turning customers away. So in 2009 he set out to double his herd and build a bottling plant on his property, which is virtually unheard of for New York dairies. But in the midst of a recession, no bank would give Hesse the million-dollar loan he would need to build the plant. So in another unprecedented move, Hesse turned to his own customers, asking them to invest in the farm, starting with increments of $1,000 each. The DIY banking landed him on NPR ’s “Planet Money” and worked so well that in two years, Hesse raised the million dollars he needed to build a brand-new processing and bottling facility, which opened in June 2011.

Hesse then began the laborious process of relocating and growing his herd and trying to move beyond milk and into ice cream and butter. He was confident that customers would jump for his new products, and indeed, the early batches were hits at the markets. But the consequences of running a small, unique dairy off loans alone eventually became clear. After much soul-searching, Hesse faced the financial music and made the call to close operations in late January, telling us only that “we just aren’t able to keep going,” adding that “access to capital is almost impossible, and we’ve really been struggling financially for quite some time.” Praising his investors as being “very supportive,” he described the decision as a relief, in a way: “This is a reality I’ve been fighting.” The outpouring of well-wishes has been huge: a quick glance at Milk Thistle’s Facebook page reveals hundreds of comments like these: “Your milk was by far the best milk I’ve ever tasted, and perhaps will ever taste.” Another wrote: “I’m truly in tears! What am I going to replace it with??” The Greenmarket director, Michael Hurwtiz, called the closing “tragic,” and the organization’s blog explained, “this is one of the unfortunate and harsh realities of being a small-scale grower competing against industrial agriculture.”

Hesse, for his part, is putting on a brave face. “It’s a shame to have to give it up,” he says, “especially since so many people relied on it.” He doesn’t know what’s next, but plans to take a break from farming. Tosi, who keeps pictures of Hesse, his herd and his three young children pinned to her kitchen wall, is trying to keep a positive attitude. “Whatever Dante does after this, I’m sure it will be amazing and full of integrity and quality, and I can’t wait to see how we can support it, whatever it may be.”

About Jamie Feldmar

Jamie Feldmar is a Brooklyn-based writer and the Managing Editor of Serious Eats. She has worked as an archivist for the late Gourmet, a blogger for Gothamist, and a farmer’s market manager, among other things.

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  • guest

    To call Christina Tosi a “dedicated home cook” makes it sound as though she went from baking brownies at her house to being the Momofuku pastry chef. Prior to working at Momofuku, she was the pastry sous chef to Sam Mason at wd~50. Pastry was not just a hobby, and it was at wd that she first came up with her signature crack pie.

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  • David

    It’s  a pity when artisanal food producers remain content with glaring inefficiencies and survive, if at all, by passing those unnecessary costs onto consumers, thereby rendering good, honest food a niche product for the rich.  If a dairy farm can charge $28 a gallon in direct to consumer sales, which is three to four times what other farms with grass-fed Jerseys get and twenty to thirty times what many local dairy farmers get from their distributors, and also, somehow, manages to quickly develop a loyal clientele, to the point where it could not even keep up with demand, then it is not so much a tragedy when it goes out of business as it is a study in mismanagement.  Milk Thistle provided good milk at exorbitant prices.  Not as good, in my opinion, as the $7 a gallon raw milk I got from Amish farmers through the Traditional Nutrition Guild (while I lived in NYC) or the $9 a gallon raw Jersey milk I splurge on from Goranson Farm here in Maine (perhaps their price will come down when they start milking their second cow).  So Hesse is to be commended for having treated his animals well and, on some level, for his sheer chutzpah in charging a price point more commensurate to wine or olive oil than milk, but one must really wonder how he managed to successfully direct market what was probably the most expensive milk in America and still go broke.  If Tosi looks around, I’m sure she’ll find many other local farmers raising Jerseys on grass and producing rich, sweet, delicious milk (sometimes available raw) without paying the crazy prices of Milk Thistle.  

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