Missy Robbins took over as executive chef at A Voce last September with her style of cooking that's both neatly composed and rustic Italian. In one appetizer, for example, huge rectangular planks of seared trumpet royal mushrooms are gently set on a cloudlike hazelnut fonduta and simply garnished with greens and truffles. It may look like a salad on the plate, but served with a glass of red wine, it eats like a steak dinner. At her last chef gig—Spiaggia in Chicago—Robbins attracted the attention of Barack and Michelle Obama, who were regulars. And in today's New York Times, Frank Bruni does a little hail-to-the-chef thing: “As we all wonder whether our new president has the requisite judgment to steer us away from economic catastrophe,” he writes, “we can take some comfort from this: he has the requisite judgment to appreciate Missy Robbins.”
The chef is also a devout student of culinary history, and uses lunchtime to cook more hearty, traditional Italian food. A Voce has a new, $29 three-course lunch deal, and each week in February highlights a different regional cuisine—it's the food of Veneto. “If it goes well,” Robbins says, “we'll keep going until we cover all of the regions.” Missy Robbins will turn 38 later this month, and has been cooking for 16 years. We sat down with the chef last week and talked about cooking for the Obamas, the new A Voce at Columbus Circle, and how totally awkward it is when your cab driver asks you out.
How did you get started cooking? How long do you have? How long do you have? [laughs] It was 16 years ago, February, and I had just turned 22. I was in college, finishing up my second semester and I'd always had an interest in food. My family was pretty into food and eating out and traveling, but cooking was not as popular of a career as it is now, obviously. A friend of mine was cooking at a restaurant. She was a year older than me so I thought hey, if she can do it then I can do it. I was going to Georgetown so I started cooking at 1789. I worked every Friday and Saturday my last semester of college, which was weird, and I loved it from the very second I started. My first day I was like, oh my god this is so fun!
So right away you were cooking on the line? I was on garde manger. At the time, 1789 did about 250 covers a night and I didn't even know how to hold a knife—I didn't know anything at all. My partner on my second Saturday didn't show up and they were like hey, you're on your own. And I did it! It was awesome. I left for the summer because I was planning on moving to Chicago but these guys were so great and they were teaching me so much that I traveled a bit and then came back to them—they were very supportive.
Was the travel food related? It was… post-college related. My travel is always somewhat food related. I went to Spain, Italy, France, Switzerland, Belgium for about 6 weeks. I came back and stayed on at the restaurant for a year.
So what about A Voce uptown? Oh yeah? We're just going to skip ahead 16 years? That's fantastic!
OK, I'll ask some Chicago questions. OK. A lot has been made lately about the Obamas liking your food at Spiaggia. I started there in 2003, and they came a lot for their special occasions, like a couple times a year. They're Chicagoans you know, so they'd been going there for a while. But all the press is great for Spiaggia.
If the First Family was going to be in New York, which A Voce location would you tell them to go to? [laughs] They're welcome either place. Are you going to call them? I'll probably just send a text. [laughs]
How much did you change the Spiaggia menu when you became chef there? I didn't. It was very much Tony's vision and together we enhanced the vision, but ultimately it was his. It was a great collaboration. The food was my food—don't get me wrong. It was an incredible working relationship. We could sit down and talk about things, and almost right after I started there we were able to finish each other's food sentences.
How did you get into Italian food? I worked for Anne Rosenzweig at Arcadia, and for Wayne Nish for a couple of years on and off. After 1789 I went to the Berkshires for a summer and worked at a very luxurious hotel and then went to cooking school here. I did my internship at March. I was Anne's sous chef at the Lobster Club, and I took a very educational approach - I was eager to move up, but also not. Spiaggia was my first executive chef job and I was 32, so it took me ten years.
You've said in past interviews that you owe a lot to Wayne Nish. Yeah, he had a lot of great technique. It was all tasting menus there—they actually switched over to all tastings while I was there—and it was a very serious, small, and challenging kitchen. It was a refined, beautiful 50 seat place. But I owe the same to Anne, and the same to Tony. I've chosen who I've worked for very carefully and they've all been very significant. Even at Wheatley, Peter Platt ran a very refined kitchen. I made terrines all day long.
What kind of terrines? He did a really cool lentil one bound with squab gelee, lined with carrots.
So your real shift to Italian food didn’t happen until later. When I got back from Italy I didn't consider myself an Italian chef, I'd just spent 5 months there. People wanted me to head their Italian kitchens and I was thinking, I'm not ready yet. I happened to know John DeLucie, and ran into him at a bookstore. I was like, I'm not going to work at the Soho Grand; it's not going to happen. But I went thinking, there must be something cool about it if he's there. It was a difficult kitchen, and I learned a tremendous amount about the business end. I started as a sous chef and left as a chef de cuisine. They threw a lot of challenges at me, and I started to grow a lot there.
I don't, um, suppose I really have a question about that. [laughs] OK, thank you.
The second A Voce is set to open in the old Café Gray space, and there’s some redesign going on there. I know you don't moonlight as an architect, but everyone's complaint about Cafe Gray was that the kitchen had the best views of the park. Well, they've moved garde manger and the pastry plating areas to the back of the kitchen I think, to open up some of that view. The guests will definitely be able to see more than before.
Will you have a view? Yes! If I can see over the counter. They're kind of high.
And will the new A Voce have a private dining room? There is a private wine room that can hold 14, and a section of the room that's private if we have a party that can hold 60 or can be broken down with beautiful leather partitions to hold two rooms of 30. It'll change the dynamic because we do a lot of wine dinners here. Olivier, the wine director, books wine dinners and there’s tons of interest so I think we'll be able to do more there. I'm really excited about it.
How will it work splitting your time between the two restaurants? I'll have a chef de cuisine in each spot and a bunch of sous chefs. I'm definitely not going to split my schedule precisely and do Mondays and Wednesdays downtown and Fridays and Saturdays uptown, or anything like that. It's going to be more of, where I do need to be? I'm sure a lot of days I'll be both places.
OK. This is vaguely controversial—every year someone writes a story about women chefs; that the top positions are held by men, that there's female talent but no one hears about it, and so on. I don't know if I agree with that. There are definitely less women in these sorts of positions but I happen to know a lot of female chefs. I'm a woman, so obviously I'm a woman chef but I don't think of myself in those terms. I worked my way through the ranks in kitchens for men, and women, whose kitchens were always 50/50. I don't want to work with all women, or all men. I like the balance. At Spiaggia, Tony has had a woman chef forever; before me he had a woman, and now he has one too. It's not necessarily by design, but it's fascinating. I mean, I don't think about it too much. I just do the job.
And when you're hiring you just look for... what? Raw talent? Looks. All looks. That’s off the record. [laughs] I actually look for attitude. Attitude trumps everything. I also want people who are into Italy and simple Italian food. I'm very up front with cooks when I interview them that they're not going to see exciting foams and chemicals. It's about Italian tradition and pasta and all of that here.
If, for some strange reason, say the Astor Center announced an event where a secret prep kitchen of ten different chefs cooked bite-size dishes and the object was for a panel of 5 judges to determine whether or not a woman or a man made the food via a blind tasting, first of all, would you participate and second of all, would you be able to tell if a woman or a man cooked the food? Hmm. I don't like competitions, they're not really my thing.
OK, but it's a science experiment, not a competition. Well, I do often tell my cooks to find their feminine side when they're plating. I think sometimes you can tell. I do think that my food has feminine touches.
So you're saying you'd totally win this competition if you were a judge. Oh yeah.
Really? I have no idea, but I think it's a really interesting idea.
Can you walk me through a dish, the sweet Maine shrimp with tagliolini, that's on your menu? That dish started with another shrimp called Laughing Bird shrimp, but it's way better now with the Maine shrimp. I wanted to do something else, the other pastas are so rich and hearty. I wanted something light and I wanted to use Bottarga. I use a lot of citrus in my cooking, so when these shrimp came in season that was it. They get tossed in raw and are barely warmed through.
Where do you like to eat in the city? I was at Employees Only last night eating bone marrow poppers. Oh my god. Puff pastry, bordelaise, and marrow. I've been to Sorella a couple of times, and they're cool, really nice girls. They're doing very true food. I like Dell'Anima. I live in the West Village, and I've been going to Hundred Acres for brunch. And ‘ino has become my breakfast joint.
What cookbook(s) would you give to a friend as a gift? I have always loved the River Cafe books from London-- simple Italian food in focused on a few ingredients in each recipe. Cooking the Roman Way is also one of my favorite books. I like books that tell a story of a restaurant and/or culture in addition to providing information about food and recipes. For pastry, and more on the advanced side, I love the Pierre Herme book.
Do you have a strange, only in New York story? Not really. Although I got asked out by a cab driver recently.
Did you say yes? No. I did not say yes. And it was very awkward.
Why are people calling the new place A Voce 2.0? Nobody's calling it A Voce 2. Who's calling it A Voce 2?
But then how are you going to know which one to go to if I call you and say, hey, meet you at A Voce? I guess you'll say A Voce uptown, or A Voce Madison, or something like that.
Cool. So when you are opening? May 2009. So soon.
Wait, it is 2009! Yeah, so right around the corner.