UCLA Food and Science Pie Lecture with Christina Tosi and Zoe Nathan

20 May

I paid $25 to taste 2 oz. of pie from UCLA undergrads.

The draw was that the UCLA Food and Science class invited Christina Tosi of Momofuku Milk Bar and Zoe Nathan of Huckleberry and Milo and Olive to judge the students’ pie experiments and lecture on pie. Yes, that’s right — I paid to hear two great bakers lecture on pie but not eat any of their pie.

Also, guest judging were two UCLA profs and two UCLA alums, Jonathan Gold and Evan Kleiman.

Tosi’s lecture was essentially readings from her cookbook. Her stories about the origins of compost cookies and crack pie were repeated from the book. While the stories were charming, Tosi seemed a little uncomfortable. I’m guessing this is her book tour speech.

Tosi’s Milk Bar has been described as having the flavor profile and sensibility of the corner bodega. Her flavors are taken from candy bars, boxed cereal, and regular cupboard snacks. At the lecture, she talked about her intention to create a unique lineup that evokes childhood tastes without recreating them. She said she would never have just a chocolate chip cookie or just an apple pie because she would be competing with our memories of our grandma’s cookies and pies. Instead, she takes the essence of apple pie and creates a layered cake, or riffs on a chocolate chip cookie by using everything in your pantry (potato chips, pretzels, coffee) in the compost cookies.

Zoe Nathan was the star of the show. She began in a self-deprecating way by emphasizing that she was not a pastry chef, but a traditional baker. Nathan tried not to step loudly on Tosi’s toes. It was tough because both Tosi and Nathan seem like nice people who like each other, but they have fundamentally different approaches.

Nathan makes an apple pie. Nathan makes a plain chocolate chip cookie. Everything she makes is traditional. Even the things she makes that are not common in bakeries around town, like kouign amanns, are just really good versions of traditional baked goods. A few of her comments almost seemed to mock Tosi’s inventive sensibility of adding unusual flavors, saying that the masters of the past have already figured out the best way to make a pie crust.

Nathan was hilarious. She tried to come off as a simple baker — one who didn’t finish college, who just followed traditional techniques. But she kept peppering her talk with very strongly held nuggets, like saying that you should never use shortening “because it’s gross.”. She also told the roomful of people who had just tried students’ pies which experimented with avocado oil and bacon fat as fats in the crust that a pie crust is just five ingredients: flour, butter, water, leavening, and salt.

The one place where Tosi and Nathan agree is the importance of salt. Tosi’s love of salt is apparent, with salty potato chips and pretzels infusing her creations. Nathan repeated at least three times that bakers often err by not including enough salt.

I can’t help but think of David Chang’s fight with Daniel Patterson about West Coast food versus NYC food. Tosi seems to represent the idea that food is something to be worked on and retooled into a new creation. Nathan represents a more farm to table aesthetic of purity of ingredients and the chef’s mission to highlight the produce. Nathan punctuated this by saying a pie should be expensive to make — you should have to save up to buy the berries and good European butter. What was unsaid is that a $44 crack pie that does not even have fresh fruit is something she would never do.

I love both of their bakeries and would be hard pressed to choose if I had to. For now, it’s Momofuku at home (when I can carve out several nights to bake) and Huckleberry on brunch weekends. Hopefully, Tosi will make my choice harder by finally opening a Milk Bar in LA. *sigh*

Almost forgot to mention that we got free* compost cookies!

*”free” in the sense that I paid $25 for a lecture and then got a $2 cookie.

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