When Missy Robbins suggested I meet her at Okonomi in Brooklyn for breakfast I was quite surprised. When I think of Robbins and her acclaimed restaurant Lilia, I think of pasta, truffles, cheese, or a great drink. Not early morning fish and green tea. Of course it was perfect and in so many ways exemplified what makes her such an esteemed chef. The just so space, the ritual, the service, the intimacy and, of course, the delicious creative food – exactly what you didn’t know you were craving. That magical element of surprise, the one you can’t put your finger on… that is what pins a great meal in my memory. And hers always seem to do just that. So we ate a delicious meal and spoke about food, traveling, Lilia and what might be next for this fascinating and inspiring chef.
What led you to become a chef?
I had an obsession with restaurants and food from a very young age, but thought I would do something else and open a restaurant in retirement. I started cooking towards the end of college and became hooked very quickly. There is an energy in a kitchen like nowhere else. It is physical and creative.
How did you acquire the skills to do so?
I started cooking my second semester senior year in college. I had literally no skill and worked with great chefs who taught me the basics. From there I continued to educate myself by picking the best kitchens and chefs in New York, reading, eating out, and moving to Italy for 6 months to learn about food and culture. Cooking is a never-ending education process. There is something new to learn every day even after 24 years.
Who is your biggest role model?
In life, my parents. They taught me amazing work ethic and values. In the kitchen, my biggest mentor is Tony Mantuano, my former boss from Spiaggia in Chicago. He not only guided me through the nuances of Italian cuisine, but also on how to be a kind, caring mentoring chef.
As a woman, what has your experience been like in a predominately male world?
I hate this question. It has not been a factor for me. I always chose kitchens where men and women were balanced and if you worked hard it didn’t matter what sex you were.
After being awarded Best New American Chef and 2 Michelin stars at A Voce, you took time off. What did you do during that time? And what do these honors mean to you?
It is always amazing to be recognized for your work. To me the Best New Chef award was extremely flattering and something that only 10 people get a year. But I have never done this to get awards. Taking time off allowed me to prioritize my life and seek the balance I was looking for. I became healthier physically and mentally and it has made me a better leader. I am mellower. I also really was able to focus on my cooking and develop a new perspective about how and what I want to cook.
What do you most love about being a chef and restaurant owner?
I love the creativity and developing new dishes, but equally love mentoring young chefs and cooks and seeing them grow. It’s my favorite part of the job at this stage in my career. In terms of being a restaurant owner, it is amazing to welcome 200 plus people a night into my “home” for a dinner party every night. It’s also been amazing to have a hand in not just the kitchen, but also in creating every aspect of the restaurant from design to branding to beverage.
How did you name Lilia and why Brooklyn?
With a lot of difficulty. Naming a restaurant is extremely difficult. We wanted something feminine, somewhat Italian sounding. After looking at spaces for a long time this one spoke to us. It’s on an incredible corner. You just can’t get affordable space like this in Manhattan. We also felt like we had an opportunity to really impact the community with something that didn’t exist.
What directs your cooking at Lilia?
We wanted to offer craveable food. What would people want to eat three times a week? We were surprised when the pink peppercorn pasta became a best seller. I think it’s the simplicity of it, the texture of the mafaldini pasta with that particular sauce. A new idea was to add a grill, which I’m loving. I like to make people happy through food. I enjoy taking a concept and elevating it. And of course I am inspired by the seasons and my environment.
What do you love about restaurant work?
The action and energy. There is never time to be bored. As a chef you are never looking at the clock.
Most useful kitchen tool?
A good chef’s knife and a good spoon for stirring and for tasting.
Favorite cookbooks for the home cook?
The Splendid Table is my all time favorite book. It explores the Emilia Romagna.
What is your go-to drink?
Rosé in summer, negronis, and bubbles!
Lilia’s design is super – warm, welcoming and yet sophisticated in an earthy way. This is not easy, especially when the space started as a garage – how did you pull this off?
Well, I did not do all of the design but definitely had a vision for the space. I love light airy spaces and simple Scandinavian design. I think our designers and architect were able to capture all of that. The bones of the building gave us a lot to work with – original casement windows and wood beamed ceilings. Lighting design has played a big role in the feel of the space.
What inspires you?
Travel, books, surprise flavors. I ate incredible food in Vietnam and Thailand last year. I love travelling anywhere in Italy. I would like to see more of the South. I would like to get to Japan also.
For any aspiring chefs, any advice?
Take your time and learn the basics of cooking and the craftsmanship.
What would you do if you weren’t a chef?
Designer or therapist.
Smartest and more questionable business decisions you have made?
Every decision I have made in my career has led me to the next. Good or bad, it’s all led to better. It’s all been a path. But deciding to be in Brooklyn has proven to be a great decision.
Speaking of, what are some of your favorite Brooklyn spots?
In Williamsburg, Maison Premiere for cocktails and Oysters.
Bedford Cheese Shop
Marlow and Sons for coffee and incredible morning pastries. They serve dinner and lunch too.
Devocion – coffee roaster and café.
Okonomi for traditional Japanese breakfast.
Café Mogador for Middle Eastern.
Lucali in Carroll Gardens for pizza.
Hometown BBQ in Red Hook.
What’s next for you?
My cookbook comes out this year. As for anything else, we shall see. I have been very focused on getting Lilia up and running and we are now a year in.
While Missy Robbins’ hard work, skill and great instincts have earned her and Lilia accolades, I think what sets Robbins apart is her humanity. Robbins told me she likes to make people happy through food. Well, she definitely succeeds. With Lilia she has created a beautiful community space where curiosity is encouraged, kindness and hard work are valued, and of course much delicious pasta will be eaten by some very happy people. Be sure to go to Lilia and experience some of her magic.
Mafaldine with Pink Peppercorns and Parmigiana-Reggiano
1 pound of mafaldine pasta (spaghetti will work great if you cant find mafaldine)
6 tbs butter
3 teaspoons crushed pink peppercorns (Not too fine – they should still have some crunchy texture)
3/4 cup parmigiano reggiano
Salt to taste
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Salt the water heavily. It should taste salty.
Place the pasta in the water and cook until al dente, about 7-9 minutes. Pasta should still have bite to it and not be soft.
While the pasta is cooking place start the sauce in another pan. Place the butter in a large sauce pot on low heat and add about 4 ounces of the cooking water from the pasta.
Remove the pasta from the pot and place in the pan with the butter and water. Cook for another minute in the sauce until the sauce is absorbed.
Remove the pan from the heat and add in ½ cup parmigiano and toss until well mixed. Add the 2 tsp of the pink peppercorns and mix well.
Place in a large serving bowl and sprinkle with remaining cheese and peppercorns.