When A Voce Columbus opens tomorrow night, it will make Missy Robbins technically twice as busy as she’s been for the past year. Robbins will be traversing the great uptown-downtown divide as the executive chef of both A Voce Columbus and A Voce Madison, overseeing two kitchens and two different but stylistically similar menus. But if any chef is up to that challenge, it’s Robbins, who a year ago stepped into the void created in the wake of Andrew Carmellini’s sudden departure from AVM. Robbins, who had earned raves for her cooking at Chicago’s Spiaggia, made the AVM kitchen and menu her own, winning over diners with food defined by, in Frank Bruni’s words, “grace and gusto.” The chef found a bit of time to talk with Fork in the Road about her new menu, her thoughts on brunch, and how she’ll be spending her very busy days and nights,
How will you divide your time between the two restaurants?
Excellent question. I’m still trying to figure that out. I’m going to be where I’m needed, when I’m needed — there’s no big plan for me. It’s not like I have to be in one place on Monday and Thursday and another on Tuesday and Friday; I don’t think it’ll work that way. I’ll go back and forth on a daily basis. We’re not open yet for lunch here [at Columbus], so I’ll be trying to spend time downtown when it’s not as crazy here. It’s just going to be a balancing act. But I’ve got really great chefs de cuisine who I really trust, and know they can handle things.
How do you distinguish the two A Voce menus while maintaining the same style?
Obviously, the philosophies behind the cuisine are the same: taking a seasonal approach and having respect for the regional influences of Italy. We’re using the same products and ideas while not having the exact same dishes. Like, I have lamb at both places. The lamb chops downtown are extremely popular, and I’ll probably never take them off the menu, so I have them up here but it’s a completely different dish. There’s a pork chop on both menus, but they’re completely different dishes. We want people to know they’re at A Voce but don’t want them to get bored having the same food. There are some dishes that will probably never come to Columbus or go down to Madison. A lot of people have asked me [if I’m] designing around different clienteles, but that’s not a factor at all. The clienteles will be different, but the food is accessible enough as is.
So it’s not as if there’s a difference between uptown and downtown palates.
When I worked on the Upper East Side, I thought there was. (laughs) When I was younger, there was definitely a difference between working on the Upper East Side and at the Soho Grand. But that was 15 years ago, and cuisine has evolved quite a bit. But it was certainly a little more conservative.
Is the menu at Columbus giving you a chance to work with ingredients or foods you weren’t able to use as much downtown?
No, not really. Obviously, we’re doing brunch here and that’s opened things up a little bit. We’ve got a big salumi program here; we’re sourcing all of that stuff and doing a lot of tastings, which is fun. We’ve got a big selection of marinated vegetables, but most of the
things we’re using are things we’re pretty familiar with and things I like to use.
Are there any regions of Italy you want to explore more through the menu?
I really love them all. We started last year doing weekly $29 prix fixe menus based on different regions, which gave me the opportunity to explore regions I wasn’t as familiar with. It also depends on the seasons: We did the southern regions this summer, and we’re sort of moving into Tuscany, and then Umbria. Emilia Romagna will be the first menu at Columbus. But it depends on the seasons what I’m interested in doing. I don’t want to do Piedmontese in the summer. (laughs)
Most chefs hate doing brunch. What made you want to do it?
I didn’t say I wanted to do it. (laughs) It was in the plan at the beginning. When you’re given the task of doing brunch, it’s not any chef’s most exciting career highlight, but
once I knew the owners wanted to do brunch, I [had] to get excited about it. In Italy, there’s not really brunch, except maybe in more cosmopolitan cities. So I had to take Italian ingredients and combine what Americans think of brunch and what Italians might eat and combine the two concepts. For example, we have a dish that’s sort of like
oatmeal but made with farro instead. I tried to do pretty cool egg dishes because I don’t want to end up being a short-order cook. I’m trying to keep the dishes very focused; there’s baked eggs with fontina and prosciutto and fried eggs with lamb sausage and an Italian hot sauce called pilacca.
Speaking of sausage, where’d you source your salumi?
I have local stuff, like Faicco and Salumeria Biellese. There’s a lot coming from Italy and La Quercia in Iowa, and also things from San Francisco.
Our perception of Italian food has really changed in the past few years; it seems that it’s attained a sort of cachet that would have been unthinkable, say, a decade ago.
Definitely. I think Italian’s become so popular. There’s an interest in it that wasn’t necessarily there 10 years ago. I didn’t cook Italian this intensely until I went to Spiaggia; I’d always had a strong interest in it and went to live there, but didn’t train in Italian
food. There’s definitely an interest there that wasn’t there before, but it’s still not as great as [the interest in] some cuisines. A lot of young kids are turned on by molecular stuff and more intricate cooking. The first thing I tell them is that you’re not going to see foams here or chemicals; it’s simple food based in ingredients. There aren’t a lot of bells and whistles to my food. People want more comforting stuff and familiarity, and Italian food provides that. I think people understand what I’m trying to do; my food bridges the gap between comfort and elegance.
When you got your first restaurant job, you had no professional cooking experience. Do you get approached by a lot of would-be cooks in the same position you were in back then?
Absolutely. In the position I’m in now, I think I must have been so annoying — I didn’t know how to hold a knife. But I’ll take people coming out of school even if they’ve never worked in a restaurant. It can be very challenging. I teach my sous chefs that they have to be patient, because I always keep that in the back of my mind. I love to take on people who didn’t have experience; I have some young guys in the kitchen who are just starting out. They’re very hungry and want to learn; it just takes more education and more attention. I don’t think there were a lot of people like myself when I started out — “Hey, I want to do this” — but now tons and tons of people are career changers. This business can be shocking for people, too. They don’t know what it’s all about, and you have to teach them. The Food Network has changed people’s perception of what the business is about. It’s taken me a very long time to get where I am. I have to try to make young cooks understand that they’re not going to be Emeril.