The Queen of Williamsburg
James Beard Award winner Missy Robbins is making pasta and taking namesGabriella Gershenson
September 13, 2018
At the end of September, 20 women chefs and food business owners from across the country will head to Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts, for this year’s James Beard Foundation Women’s Entreprenurial Leadership program (WEL) presented by Audi, which is a five-day deep dive into leadership training and management. As part of the Foundation’s commitment to advancing women in the industry, we’re sharing stories from female James Beard Award winners, women’s leadership program alumni, and thought leaders pushing for change. Below, Gabriella Gershenson highlights the impressive journey of Missy Robbins, who nabbed the 2018 award for Best Chef: New York City.
Chef Missy Robbins is busy. In fact, she hardly has a moment to talk. She’s running her packed Brooklyn restaurant, Lilia, for which she won the James Beard Award for Best Chef: New York City this year. On most nights, you can find her in the kitchen or in the dining room (or both), cooking or schmoozing (or both). These days, she’s putting the finishing touches on her second restaurant, Misi, a pasta and vegetable–focused venture nearby. When I recently caught up with Robbins on the phone, I congratulated her. That’s exciting, I said.
“That I named my restaurant after myself? I'm not sure [if] it is or it's not,” says Robbins. “I have a lot of thoughts on it these days, especially now that no one knows how to spell my name. I'm getting emails that are M-I-S-S-I, I'm getting M-I-S-I, and that's not my name. But yeah, it's spelled Misi. It's too late now to change it.”
Missy Robbins is a charismatic chef who is serious about cooking, even if she doesn’t take herself all that seriously. She has spent decades honing her skills, focusing on her love: Italian cuisine. The confident, pared down dishes on display at Lilia are the culmination of years in the kitchen, from her early career working at 1789 in Georgetown, and for Wayne Nish and Anne Rosenzweig in New York City, to more recent roles at the helm of Spiaggia in Chicago (where she cooked for a couple of regulars named Michelle and Barack), and as the executive chef at A Voce in Manhattan.
Robbins grew up outside of New Haven in a loving, upper middle class family, without any intention of becoming a chef. But some of her fondest memories involve grocery shopping with her mother, Carol. “She has every detail of the table set, and always had strangers in the house for the holidays,” says Robbins. “She's an okay cook, but it was really hospitality that I learned from her.” Robbins also credits her parents with exposing her to fine dining, recalling formative experiences in New York City, London, and Chicago, including a visit to Charlie Trotter in 1992 that changed her life.
In her cookbook, Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner…Life, Robbins writes of that fateful meal: “I was entranced by every detail of every dish’s artistic presentation and composition; even the beautiful, pristine nature of each vegetable excited me.” At the time, she was a student at Georgetown, focusing on art history and psychology. Soon after, she began to work in restaurants and never looked back.
Robbins can’t pinpoint exactly when her love affair with Italian food started, but it was always sort of…there. Her childhood near New Haven, with its rich Italian-American community, had something to do with it, as did early travels to Italy with her family, and her later exposure to Italian ingredients and techniques in professional kitchens. Robbins may be of Ashkenazi Jewish descent, but she is certain that she has an Italian soul.
Early in her career, she took a break from work to cook abroad. “I had zero Italian language skill. I [knew] that there were 20 different regions and 20 cuisines, but I don't think I really understood it,” says Robbins. She lived in Italy for five months, worked in three different regions, and returned to the U.S. with an appreciation for the nuances that varied from place to place, and household to household.
Robbins then took a job with chef John Delucie at the Soho Grand Hotel in New York City. “John's an incredible Italian chef,” says Robbins. “But the hotel didn't want Italian food.” A few years in, a call came from a headhunter in Chicago. “He said, ‘Have you ever heard of Spiaggia?’ And I said, ‘Yeah my parents actually just ate there.’" Soon, Robbins was interviewing with the chef-owner, James Beard Award winner Tony Mantuano. and not long after, was in charge of the four-star Italian kitchen, working under the great mentor of her career.
The uniqueness of Spiaggia—the restaurant has a rustic cafe as well as a formal dining room, and Robbins oversaw both—allowed her to simultaneously practice casual and upscale Italian cooking. “Tony was a real traditionalist,” says Robbins. “He was able to instill a knowledge of classical regional cooking, and also [a sense of] elegance and refinement, that I had learned early on in my career, but really honed at Spiaggia.”
Eventually, Robbins left Chicago for the critically-acclaimed A Voce in Manhattan. “It was a pinnacle moment in my career,” says Robbins. “It was the first time that I was going to have my own menu without ‘a Tony’ helping me or watching me.” Under her leadership, A Voce won a Michelin star at its two locations. But after several years, Robbins was fatigued and needed a change. Following much soul-searching and a lengthy sabbatical, it became clear that it was time to open her own restaurant. Enter Lilia.
“I wanted to cook food that I wanted to eat,” she says. The focus on regionality and fine-dining was replaced by an intention to cook food people would crave. “Just a couple of steps above what you could make at home,” she says. “You wouldn't quite know why you liked the rigatoni so much, and you couldn't necessarily replicate it.” Her malfadini, crimped ribbons of pasta in butter sauce with cracked pink peppercorns, are a prime example. Months after eating it, I can still feel the crunch of the peppercorns between my teeth. It’s the deceptively simple, self-assured cooking of a chef who has come into her own.
“There's a maturity to it that you can't have when you're younger in your career, because you don't understand yourself as well,” says Robbins. “I am comfortable with myself. It took a really long time to really get there, but I also think that part of why this all happened is because I stopped worrying.”
Gabriella Gershenson is a freelance writer who lives in New York City.
The JBF Women’s Leadership Programs are presented by Audi.