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Q & A with Missy Robbins

Missy Robbins - Evan Sung.jpgAndrew Carmellini’s sudden departure from A Voce was front page news in the food world.  In March, news broke that A Voce would be taking over Cafe Gray in the Time Warner Center, followed by Carmellini’s controversial exit in June.  The million dollar question: who would replace him?  I wouldn’t want to try to fill those shoes. 

Missy Robbins, on the other hand, isn’t too concerned.  She jumped at the opportunity to move to New York and oversee not one, but two A Voce kitchens.  Ironically,  Robbins jump started her career with no formal training whatsoever.  In fact, she didn’t even know how to hold a knife.   But she was determined, so determined that she stormed into the restaurant 1789 in Washington D.C., and pleaded for a job.   Later, Robbins honed her skills at Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School (currently ICE.)  But it was in Italy where she discovered her passion for Italian food and ingredients.  After five years at the four-star rated Spiaggia in Chiccago, she decided to tackle a new challenge – A Voce. 

In just seven weeks, Robbins has changed 99% of the menu.   A Voce’s new menu takes its cues from various regions throughout Italy with dishes like grilled baby sole with clams, Sardinian cous cous and saffron, tagliatelle with oxtail ragu, as well as pecorino & ricotta filled pasta with bacon, black pepper and savoy cabbage.

Single/Married/Divorced?
Single

What did you want to be when you grew up?
A photographer, a divorce attorney – that was the funniest one – and I wanted to be a psychologist for a long time.

What was your first job in food? What did you learn?
This restaurant called 1789 in Washington D.C. I pretty much learned everything there. I hadn’t been to culinary school and I begged them to give me a job – and they did. They taught me how to hold a knife, saute, speed, cutting, and general kitchen etiquette. 

What were the challenges of taking over A Voce’s kitchen, post-Andrew Carmellini?
Ah the favorite question. Taking over any kitchen is challenging, and this kitchen is no different; it’s not like a new restaurant where you can start from scratch. You’re expected to maintain a certain level of cuisine right away. So it’s a matter of getting to know the staff, teaching them my style of cooking and making them understand and get behind my vision and direction. Lucky for me, I inherited a very talented staff.

How do you think Italian cuisine has evolved over the past few years in the states?
I lived there eight years ago so things have definitely changed. Nowadays the cooking is getting more authentic, more regionally driven. It’s also so much more popular than it used to be. I’ve got no Italian heritage but I grew up in New Haven, Connecticut, in a very Italian-American area. I’ve always had an interest in Italian cuisine. I’d say I have an Italian soul.

What dishes you consider essential to Italian cuisine?
That’s hard to answer because there are literally thousands of dishes. The way I view it, I’m more focused on essential ingredients and what’s essential to certain regions, like nice olive oils, cheeses, porcini, truffles, and cured meats. I do a lot of research on the different regional cuisines and let the ingredients lead the dish. For instance, the cheese in the new Spaghetti alla Chitarra is from Sardinia.

How has your training at ICE shaped the chef you are today?
Wow, that was a really long time ago. I was nervous about moving to New York, and going to ICE afforded me the opportunity to get into the kitchens I wanted to – they helped a lot with career placement. And going there really rounded out my skill set. Everything I have done has shaped the chef I am today, and ICE was only one piece of the puzzle. The program is only six months long, and that includes your externship and everything. It’s amazing how much it’s changed since I’ve been going there, and I continue to support them.

What was it like working for a four-star restaurant like Spiaggia? How have you incorporated that experience into your work here at A Voce?
To date, working at Spiaggia was probably the highlight of my career. Everyone was focused on the same goal,  from the front of the house to the back. When you’re working at a four star restaurant, you’re forced to be extremely detail-oriented and strive for perfection. Because I’ve worked at three star restaurants and Michelin starred restaurants. that attention to detail was instilled in me from the beginning. Working at Spiaggia for five years really made me who I am. Now A Voce isn’t as formal as Spiaggia – I’d say it’s in between Spiaggia and it’s much more casual cafe. But regardless, it’s always about making the best food possible.

What’s the most difficult dish to tackle on the menu right now?
The most difficult pasta we’re making right now is probably the quadrati. It’s a pyramid-shaped ravioli that’s very pretty but tricky to make.

What further changes do you hope to bring to the menu at A Voce?
Well in the seven weeks I’ve been here, 99% has already changed! The
only dishes from the old menu are the beet salad and the ricotta, and
those will change soon as well. The dishes are very reflective of my
style – highlighting specific ingredients and keeping things simple. I
think as I get more comfortable working here it will definitely begin
to evolve even more, so expect some changes. Again, the menu is driven
by the ingredients and what’s available depends on the season, so it
will change frequently.

How will you contribute to the opening of A Voce in the Time Warner Center?

Quite a lot. I’ll be the executive chef at both so my time will be split between the two. I expect to have a very strong team at both locations, so I’ll be the one who oversees the vision, the big picture. I’ll be working in both kitchens, moving between the two all the time.

Do you prefer Chicago or New York for dining out?
I’m a BIG fan of New York, and even though Chicago’s great it’s a much smaller city. It simply doesn’t have the variety that New York has – I could eat at a new place every night and still not have covered everything.

What is your favorite dish on the menu at A Voce?
It depends on the day. The menu is so new that I like everything on it. I can’t pick one but my top three would be the burrata, the sardines, and the funghi al forno.

Which is your least favorite (and yes, you must pick one)?
Again everything is so new that I couldn’t tell you. Get back to me in a month and I’ll probably get sick of something.

What culinary trends do you embrace?
You know I’m not really a trendy girl. I cook what I like to eat. I like to focus on ingredients and make them shine.

What culinary trends do you wish would just die already?
Everyone needs to cook in a style that makes them comfortable. While I am not into cooking with chemicals, for instance, I respect that others are, and there are people who are doing it very well. I just spent the last five years cooking in a wood fired oven and grill, so I’m a little old school.

Do you have a favorite junk food?
Ice cream – I’m a die hard fan. I really like il laboratorio del gelato here in New York, but I also like Haagen Dazs. Chocolate chocolate chip gets me every time.

Who is the current pastry chef at A Voce?
We’re currently in transition.

Any new projects on the horizon? Spill the beans…
The restaurant at the Time Warner Center is opening Spring 2009 and I’m still working on getting settled in here. I’ve been here for such a short time, just seven weeks, so I’m completely occupied with that. I’m sure as I start to reach my comfort level here I’ll have to get to work on the new restaurant. It’s going to be quite a year for me so I don’t have the time to think about anything beyond what I’m doing for the foreseeable future.

Address: 41 Madison Avenue, at 26th Street
Phone: (212) 545-8555

Photo credit: Evan Sung       

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