All seemed relatively quiet on the Missy Robbins front, ever since she left A Voce back in 2013. But it turns out that the extended break was a boon not just for the Michelin-honored chef, but for New York diners in general, when she returned with a bang with the Southern Italian-inspired Lilia this past January (which FYI, has already been awarded three stars from The New York Times!).
We spoke with Robbins about her decision to remain a free agent, her advice to young, up-and-coming cooks, and her response to the outpouring of critical acclaim for fantastic, new Brooklyn dining destination.
When was your “aha” moment, when you first realized you wanted to be a chef?
I had always had an interest in restaurants. The real moment when I said I would give it try was my senior year of college while dining at Charlie Trotters in Chicago.
What do you think you would have become if not a chef?
I started as a cook fairly young and never looked back, but I always had an interest in becoming a therapist.
What’s the best piece of advice that you’ve ever received from a chef friend or mentor?
Tony Mantuano, my chef, friend, and mentor at Spiaggia always told me never to believe my own press. It has always helped to stay focused and driven no matter what kinds of accolades are thrown my way.
What advice would you give to chefs just starting out?
I always advise young cooks to take the time to be cooks. Everyone is always in such a rush to become a sous chef or chef and they don’t understand that the greater foundation they have as a cook, the better chef they will be in the future.
If you were to eat at Lilia as a guest, what would you order and why?
That is so tough. I designed the menu all around food that I want to eat and that hopefully people will crave. If I had to pick I would do the little gem salad, the clams, the rigatoni, and the bass with salsa verde.
Did you expect this level of critical acclaim so early in the game?
While it’s early in the game for Lilia, its not early in the game for me. I’ve been doing this a long time and am just happy that people are responding to Lilia in such a positive way. We didn’t build this restaurant for acclaim, but to simply make people happy through food and hospitality.
What do you think critics and patrons have responded to the most?
I have come to a point in my career and cooking that I just want to cook good food and sort of strip pretension out of what I am doing. I have spent a lifetime in fancy restaurants and Lilia was born out of a desire to do something different than I ever had before. I want people to feel like they are in our home. I think the best part of Lilia is that it’s not just about the food. People love the space, the music, the cocktails, and our staff. It’s a package deal.
What are you still actively working to improve on?
There’s always room to improve, and we work every day to make each day better than the one before.
Now that you’ve opened a restaurant in Brooklyn, what would you say are the most marked differences between the Brooklyn and Manhattan dining scenes?
I don’t know if I can speak to the difference in Manhattan vs. Brooklyn. I can say that I have never truly been part of a neighborhood restaurant. I have always worked in more corporate environments. At Lilia, we are seeing our neighbors over and over again and we are becoming part of the community. That has been the most gratifying part of this so far.
What made you decide to stay a free agent for so long, between leaving A Voce and opening Lilia?
It wasn’t necessarily a conscious decision. I knew when I left A Voce that I needed some time to figure out exactly what I wanted to do. I had cooked for 20 years without a real break. It really just took a bit longer than I anticipated. It was important to me to find the right partner and not just open something for the sake of opening something, but make sure I found something unique and special. Once I found both the right partner and space it just took a long time, as it usually does, to get open. While in many ways it was a tremendously difficult process to go through, it was probably the best thing I’ve ever done for myself. It allowed me to grow into a really healthy place both physically and mentally, which has made me a better leader, chef and owner.
What do you like to do (and most importantly, eat!) in the city on a rare day off?
I love walking around and exploring the city. Its amazes me the discoveries of new things and places you can make daily here. I’ve really enjoyed cooking at home over the last few years of not having a restaurant, but still love going to check out new places. With the opening of Lilia, I haven’t been going out too much, but stick to my go to’s in the neighborhood like I Sodi. I always feel like I am out of New York there, and in a little town in Italy.
What current culinary trends can you really get behind, and which do you wish would just die already?
I think the return to simplicity is right up my ally and something I am so excited about. I am hoping that puffed grains go away soon.
What do you consider to be your single greatest achievement in your career thus far? What brass ring are you still reaching for?
Every part of my career has been truly significant, from my first line cook job to opening Lilia. I don’t know that I can pick a single one. They have all led to the opening of Lilia and I can only hope that Lilia has great longevity. My goal now is to build a successful company with my partner that allows us to mentor younger chefs and managers.
What’s next for you? Another restaurant? A cookbook? Some food TV, perhaps?
There’s definitely a book in the works. I’m in the midst of writing it and it will come out in 2017. And for sure, there will be more projects. Right now though, building Lilia and maintaining its consistency is top priority.
567 Union Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11222