When Missy Robbins left her well-respected position as executive chef of Manhattan restaurant A Voce in 2013, she had no idea if she would continue to cook. The previous two decades had been spent grinding away in various kitchens, both in New York and Chicago — the Obamas were regulars at Spiaggia, where Robbins served as executive chef between 2003 and 2008 — and she was feeling both the physical and emotional strain.
There was success, certainly: Michelin stars, Food & Wine’s Best New Chef Award, a featured role on “Top Chef Masters.” But was all the hard work worth it if it couldn’t be enjoyed?
The process of stepping away is chronicled in Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner… Life: Recipes and Adventures From My Home Kitchen, a memoir and cookbook published by Rizzoli. With a candid eye and a sense of humor, Robbins details her first days out of the kitchen and drops culinary wisdom culled from years in the business and extensive travel.
In 2016, Robbins opened her first restaurant, the Italian Lilia, in Williamsburg, to acclaim for its supple pastas and zesty fish. Now she is planning a second eatery, also in Williamsburg, at the Domino complex.
When you opened Lilia in Williamsburg in 2016, what attracted you to Brooklyn? Has Brooklyn changed since you opened?
The space itself, a former auto body shape, was what initially drew me to Williamsburg. It had such character and I saw an opportunity to be part of a growing residential community. I don’t know if it has necessarily changed, but it continues to develop daily with more and more businesses being attracted to the neighborhood.
You studied art history at Georgetown and worked in a few galleries. Why did you decide to become a chef?
I always had an interest in food and restaurants but didn’t know until the end of college that this would be a career path for me. I tried it in my second semester senior year and never looked back. I loved the energy of the kitchen and the ability to be creative and develop that side of me within a craft.
In your book, you describe your mother as the “Jewish Martha Stewart” because of her expertise in entertaining. What did you inherit from her?
Hopefully I gained her hospitality and love of being around people and entertaining. Also, I’m pretty sure my sense of humor comes from her.
When you’re entertaining at home during the colder months, what’s your favorite thing to cook? How do you entertain in the winter?
I love doing hearty braises like osso bucco and rich soups like ribollita.
There is a lot in your book about the difficulty of a work-life balance. How are you able to cook at home, exercise, and find time for yourself even though you always have to be at the restaurant?
I set aside time that is devoted to personal time. Those times are sort of off limits for meetings and work. It’s basically just a commitment you must make to yourself and stay dedicated to it.
You’ve talked in the past about the small kitchen in your apartment. What advice do you have for other people with small kitchens?
Keep your cooking very simple and stay organized and clean as you go.
What do you like to do when you are not working?
I like to check out other restaurants and discover neighborhoods other than my own in New York. And travel is very important to me. It recharges and inspires me in so many ways.
What keeps you awake at night?
Editor’s note: A version of this story appeared in the Fall/Holiday 2017/18 issue of Brownstoner magazine.
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