There’s no bones about it: the American snack game is perpetually on point, and the endlessly growing repertoire within the Cheetos galaxy with its perfectly cheesy, crunchy options and Chester the Cheetah at the helm, is proof of that. Cheetos of Frito-Lay turns 75 this year and they are celebrating in a very big way. And, the only way to adequately wish an iconic American food brand a proper celebration is with an over-the-top party and with the Queen of Birthday Confections, Christina Tosi, in charge of bringing a one-of-a-kind cake to the table.
On September 6, at the PHD Rooftop Lounge of Chelsea’s Dream Downtown hotel, there was not a nook in sight unmarked by orange. The request was to “bring the orange” or wear your “fiercest Chester-inspired fit.” There were numerous snack creations led by Chef Jody Denton of Frito-Lay, like Flaming Hot Mac & Cheese Balls, Sweet & Spicy Cheetle Chicken Skewers, Skirt Steak Cheetle-Topped Tacos, Cheetos Roasted Corn, Cheetos Ceviche Verde, and Cheetos Cheese Puff Meatballs, all washed down with a Mango, Flaming Hot Cheetos-Rimmed Margarita. The vibe of the party ramped up another notch when the music pumped and the crowd gathered for a Cheetos-inspired fashion show, orchestrated by New York stylist and food historian Gabriel Held.
Queen of Birthday Confections
But the real “Mark of Mischief” came when Tosi and Denton rolled out the sensational birthday cake creation: A three-layered sweet sight with Milk Bar’s signature naked exterior and rainbow sprinkled sponge interior, separated by birthday cake frosting, Cheetos “cheddar” frosting, birthday crumb, and Cheetos “Cheetle” crumb. Tosi and her team at Milk Bar managed to make what many would think is oh so wrong, actually be oh so right.
#IYKYK. Christina Tosi has built a sweet empire of pushing the envelope on where snacks and treats can go. And she has been unapologetic about her love of good ol’ American favorites that so many of us have grown up loving as well. Take cereal milk. Tosi took that bowl of sweet, cereal-infused milk we slurped with delight on mornings before school as kids and turned it into a “thing.” Then she played with textures amidst the dessert diaspora and from it came the gooey-dense, addictive, sweet and salty treat we all once, albeit affectionately, called “Crack” pie (now Milk Bar Pie). She has demonstrated a genius ability-in the kitchen and in business– to mastermind concoctions that make many cock their heads, then gobble up in a delicious stupor.
From her start in 2008 managing the dessert program at Momofuko with David Chang to watching her as a judge on MasterChef, or hanging on her every word (and tune) in Bake Club on Instagram, to now on Bake Squad, a Netflix series, it is plain to see Tosi is incredibly serious about our snack-uation. To hear her speak about the process of her creations, in particular about the months of effort behind developing the special Cheetos birthday cake, is truly like listening to a passionate dissertation or maybe to someone in love.
When discussing the Cheetos project, Tosi admits, “This was a dream come true for me.” She hesitates to say, then succumbs: “Cheetos…it’s my favorite snack.” Understandably something that is difficult to say when your livelihood is built on snacks, so, choosing may feel like choosing a favorite book or child. That said, when she was promoting her 2022 book Dessert Can Save the World on Jimmy Fallon, she shared her “dirty dessert secret” of dipping Cheetos into vanilla frosting, and, as Tosi puts it herself, “This began the formal flirtation process.” Conversations between the two snack powerhouses began.
When they are in work-mode at Milk Bar, she says, “we keep our heads down while in the weeds of the business, but we love showing up for brands we just love.” When the team was invited to participate in the Cheetos 75th Birthday project, they definitely had a moment where they all shrieked with delight, then they got down to business. “This is going to be real,” she said. “This is a thing.”
They dove deep into the R&D process all while trying not to get ahead of themselves. When you get too hasty, you can curb the creative process. “We tried not to fast forward to the end,” she says. “We wanted to really let our creative imaginations run wild. What could this be? What does this want to be? What is 75th birthday worthy?” Then, when they got close with the flavor, they played with texture, then played with varying combinations of Tosi’s salty/sweet signature format. Finally, came the aha moment. “Can we get our hands on cheetle?” she thought. “The good stuff.”
And reader, so they did.
But the exploration didn’t end there. “Rarely do you get something right on the first or second try,” Tosi explains. “As pastry chefs, we love that pursuit. Finding the balance. You have to love the mischievous nature about not knowing when something is going to happen. You have to be playful about failure. You have to have a lot of not quite rights before you get the one…that is the one. Then you know it when you know it.”
Well, on September 6, we all knew it. And now, everyone can try it for themselves as the Cheetos Birthday cake is available by the slice at the NYC and LA Milk Bar flagship stores, and by the 6” cake size online with all proceeds going to The Birthday Party Project, an organization that provides birthday celebrations and treats to underprivileged children who may not be in the position to celebrate their special day.
“Lightning strikes when you have two tensions that come together,” says Tosi. “And that friction creates the spark. So, whether that’s high/low, aspirational/accessible, salty/sweet, casual/formal, or a little mischief with some rules.”
And perhaps now, that is also Tosi’s dessert empire, with America’s favorite cheesy snack.