Missy Robbins was named 2018 Best Chef: New York City at the James Beard Foundation Awards in Chicago earlier this year. Her Brooklyn restaurant Lilia has emerged as one of the nation’s most talked about eateries.
After graduating from Georgetown University, Missy Robbins took a job in DC, where her passion for food led her to launch what has become a legendary career. In 1994, she moved to Manhattan, studying at the Peter Kump’s New York School of Cooking (now ICE). An externship under Wayne Nish at March was followed by a job at Arcadia under the guidance of Anne Rosenzweig.
Missy Robbins spent the next few years between the two restaurants, ultimately taking a position as sous chef at The Lobster Club. But a trip to Northern Italy was the real pivotal step for Robbins, who worked her way through the restaurants, from family run, rustic trattorias to Michelin-rated Agli Amici.
Robbins returned to the US at the acclaimed Spiaggia in Chicago. She worked as executive chef under Tony Mantuano. Robbins finally brought her Italian expertise—and accolades—to New York, accepting a position at A Voce in 2008.
After departing A Voce in 2013, she took a year off to rediscover her groove and then opened Lilia. Success in Brooklyn has now led to the impending opening of a second as-yet-unnamed restaurant in Williamsburg which is expected to open later this summer.
Total Food Service chatted with Missy Robbins about her views on the industry and what lies ahead.
What did it feel like to win the James Beard Award as New York City’s Best Chef?
It felt great. It was really nice. I think it’s really a special award and you know New York is obviously a really saturated market so it makes it ever more special. The other nominees are all my peers and people I’m friends with. Just to be nominated I think is amazing. To win it just feels like a really nice achievement. The energy of winning is something that even motivates you more. What matters to me most is doing what I love to do and cooking at a level I’m excited about. What we strive for at Lilia is to create a restaurant and food that excites people and makes people happy.
It’s sort of interesting to see the difference between earlier places in my career where it was a goal of many to have accolades and Michelin stars. It wasn’t a goal of mine at first. I think that they’re amazing and they’re really nice when they come. If you just do what you do and do it well, it’s better than getting any award and having a restaurant where people leave happy every night to me is more important than getting the award.
For those who may not know you talk a little bit about what sparked your interest in cooking?
I grew up in a family that was really food centric as mom entertained a lot at home. We lived about an hour and a half from New York in North Haven, CT and every special occasion was spent at a fancy restaurant in Manhattan. I was really fortunate as a young person to travel a lot with my family. They would take us to Michelin star restaurants and I was fascinated by it. I think honestly what sparked the cooking was the fascination by the actual whole experience and cooking. I just loved it and to this day I love cooking and looking at the dishes.
I went to Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago during my college years and had this incredible meal and said OK this is it this is what I want to do. That was 25 years ago.
What led you from a degree from Georgetown to a career in cooking?
I was in Georgetown going to graduate and all of a sudden I ended up in the restaurant business. I actually started cooking in my last semester senior year. I said I would do it for a year and see how it went. I got really into it and I loved it. I worked at a restaurant for about a year and a half. I graduated in ‘93 and I took the summer off then came back and worked there and eventually I went up to the Berkshires and worked at this beautiful hotel called the Wheatley, then I went to Peter Kump’s school, which became ICE and then stayed in New York for nine years.
How about mentors that had an impact on your industry.
I worked with the Rosenzweig’s for a really long time and Wayne Nish. Tony Mantuano in Chicago became my biggest mentor and friend and we’re still friends and I’ve been gone from Chicago for over 10 years and I still talk to Tony. I already had the passion for cooking when I went to work for him. I was already in my 30s. I hadn’t cooked Italian food in the States when I worked for him and that gave me a huge opportunity to gain an understanding of the foundation of Italian cooking and fine dining and how those two things intersect. He also had a really calm demeanor about him and how he ran the restaurant. I always looked up to him and wanted to aspire to be like that. It took me a long time to get there and it was not easy to do.
How did A Voce come to pass?
I lived in Chicago and I loved Spiaggia. If they had a NYC restaurant there’s a large chance that I’d still be with them but I really wanted to come back to New York. I’m from Connecticut and New York was sort of home to me. I always hoped that Chicago would sort of become the place that I would stay but it never felt like home to me. I loved Tony and my brother lives in Chicago with my niece and nephew and my sister in law. I had been trying to open my own restaurant for a while. Tony was trying to help me and it just wasn’t working. Someone said you should apply to A Voce in NYC. I thought they were crazy but I applied at A Voce and got the job. That’s what brought me back to NYC.
What’s your take from that experience at A Voce?
I was there for five years and it was really the first time that I was the chef in New York and it was the first time that I was a chef without a chef owner/chef partner above me.
So all of a sudden I had no Tony and I had no crutch and I kind of had to figure it out on my own. Even though for a long time when I worked for Tony I was cooking my own food. I was looking through his lens. This was the opportunity for me to start developing my own style. I’ve really developed my own style more in the last couple of years. At the same time I had the responsibility for two teams, two chefs. My goal was to help the chefs turn into what they wanted to be – a virtue that was really significant for me.
Talk a little bit about that style.
You know it’s funny the style I always talk about is Spiaggia. The dining room I loved and I wanted to cook on that level. It was always challenging for me and it wasn’t my natural sort of state of being. And I think when I got to A Voce I landed somewhere in the middle of the cafe and the dining room that still had an elegance to it. But it wasn’t so precise and so fancy and so garnished. And I just was cooking at home a lot and thinking about how I wanted to open a restaurant and what that would be and what that looked like. And I just sort of landed in a place where I’m cooking food that I would want to eat. I sort of took a lot of what formed my home cooking and just sort of took that up a level without losing some of that casualness to it. I never lied by calling my food rustic. To me it makes the most sense as I kind of stripped away a lot of the bullshit. It’s not about what it’s garnished with anymore and having things to finish. It’s really about taking a few ingredients and making them shine.
Does that mean what used to be a 35 or 40 dollar entree is now a 25 dollar entree?
It has nothing to do with price. That’s not my style, it has nothing to do with prices. This has to do with cooking food that I would serve every night giving people a reason to come to Lilia where they’re going to be excited to come night after night. I always wanted people to crave the food. People come here expecting to get excited about the food rather than changing an entire menu every four weeks. I mean it’s more exciting to have a place that has the stability to it and you know that on any given night you can come here and have rigatoni with the tomato sauce. And it’s always going to be there, not a special that comes and goes.
Could you operate the same way in Manhattan?
I don’t look at Lilia as a Brooklyn restaurant. I look at it as a restaurant that I happened to build in Brooklyn. But there’s no difference between what I would do if I lived in Manhattan and what I do here.
But there are times I really want to run something that’s a little more expensive and we kind of do it off menu. We run a ribeye we sell six or seven a night that’s it. And you know it’s definitely obviously more expensive than anything on our menu but we really enjoy having it. Our guests love having it and I’m not restricted in any way, there’s no one telling me what I can and cannot put on the menu based on finances. We do what works for our business.
Popeye used to say, “I am what I am.” Can we really change?
At my core I was always a good person. I had two really challenging restaurants and it was my first time really being in charge of them. My fuse was probably shorter than I could have been at times. And I also had a staff that stayed with me for a really long time because there was a lot of nurturing going on but I wanted to create an environment in a restaurant for the front of house and back of the house that was just different than that and where it was calmer.
But I’m also just a calmer person and my role is very different. So you know if I was still expediting six days a week I think things would be different. I’ve created a situation for myself that really works for me and for our team. I get to do all the things that I want to do and still create and still be in the kitchen when I need to be in the kitchen without being there for 14 hours a day. That’s a big part of me being able to perform at the level that I can perform because I found a way to create balance both in my career and outside.
So did you do it internally by delegating?
I’ve always been a delegator. I know I just kind of have a calmer demeanor. I’m just a healthier person in mind and body.
Anything from an exercise standpoint that you can share. Have you gotten into meditation?
Not really just pilates. Doing pilates for five years now on a fairly regular schedule and I go through spurts of trying to do cardio and I eat very differently than I used to. And I lost a lot of weight and I’ve kept most of it off.
Are those changes you made in your own diet also reflected in the restaurant?
When I started Lilia I had cut so much of the fat from my cooking that I sort of readjusted that in the restaurant too and obviously we still use butter and we still use olive oil but I definitely use less of it and it doesn’t change how the interesting the food is.
As you look at opening a new restaurant what are the priorities?
Well we are building a staff and building a menu. Building a beautiful space and making sure it functions like it has been a long time. I started this process well over a year ago.
How did this part of this opportunity come about?
We were looking at the old Domino Sugar factory from a rooftop and my business partner said: Well that would be cool to open a restaurant. He’s a very ambitious young man and he found the developers Two Trees. He got in touch with them the next week. The redevelopment of the waterfront down here was available and we started talking to them and it was a no brainer for us. We live in South Williamsburg and it’s three blocks from where we both live and we’re really excited about just kind of being part of the growth of a neighborhood.
Can you give us a preview of the menu at the new restaurant?
There will be no overlapping items. But the style of cooking will be the same. I’m not looking to go fancy or going to be the same style cooking in Italian but just different dishes.
So as you look at opening this new restaurant what are some of the things that you’re battling with? Is this tip credit issue concern you?
I haven’t really thought about it. It’s not like I don’t want to think about it. It’s just not on top of my mind at the moment.
What’s your approach to your vendor relationships? Do you reward loyalty or just go out to bid?
I’ve been using the same vendors for a really long time and I know sometimes it’s fun to take on new vendors. But for the most part I have found across the board that having those relationships and trust goes a really long way. I try and stick with a lot of the same people and that’s worked for me. We’ve worked with folks like I Halper for 10 years. One of the newer ones we’ve taken on that’s been really great for us is Greenpoint Fish. They’re a smaller company and they have a lot of local fish and they’re just good guys. So it’s sometimes nice to take on the supplementary companies who you work in conjunction with the companies that you already have relationships with.
Seems like a TV show and restaurants in Las Vegas and Dubai have become mandatory to building a brand? Where does that fit with your schedule?
I don’t do a lot of TV and I think there are many ways to build a brand besides TV. The way I’m trying to build a brand is by building really solid places that have consistency and feel like home to our guests and our staff. I think that goes a long way. There’s nothing wrong with TV and I’m not going to say never because that would be silly. But it’s not my biggest ambition. It’s not even close to my big ambition. My ambition is to just be good at what I do and what I do best.
To learn more about Missy Robbins and Lilia, visit the website.
All photos by Evan Sung