Chef Missy Robbins worked in celebrated New York restaurants like March and Arcadia before heading to Italy, and then Chicago’s Spiaggia, where she was the executive chef. Now she heads up A Voce’s two locations: Flatiron’s Madison and uptown’s Columbus (Circle). Robbins was one of Food & Wine‘s Best New Chefs, named this spring.
We caught up with Robbins on how she manages two kitchens at once and why she doesn’t think of herself as a female chef. Tune in tomorrow for the second half of the interview.
Rebecca spoke with you last September, when A Voce Columbus opened, and asked you about how you’ll divide your time between the uptown and downtown [Madison] restaurants. At the time, you said you were still figuring out that balancing act. Now that it’s been nearly a year, how is it working?
I’m actually 50-50, for real. It changes daily. There are days that I’m uptown in the morning, downtown in the evening, and there are days that I spend at one place or the other …
It was very weird for me at first, to feel detached from one place or the other. But I spend a tremendous amount of time on the phone with wherever I’m not. I do a lot of texting too. In this day and age it’s easy to do this; both of my chefs de cuisine have gotten used to it. … Jeremy [McMillan, chef de cuisine of A Voce Columbus] will send me pictures on his phone of specific tickets as they come in. It works because of the technology. It would be very different if we were doing this 10 years ago. Like he’ll send me the ticket of a VIP, and ask, “What do you want to send?” Or sometimes there’s a name on a ticket and I’d forgotten to tell him who it is — I can say, “It’s OK, it’s just a friend,” or sometimes he’ll ask, “OK, you told me about this VIP, this is what they ordered, what do you want me to do?” When we’re working on new dishes, he’ll send me pictures of the dishes he’s working on. It’s actually one dimension that makes it easier. He realized it’s faster than texting me.
That’s so interesting. I’ve actually never heard of chefs communicating via cellphone photo before.
They don’t want to admit it!
But if a chef has more than one restaurant, it’s expected, and inevitable, that they won’t be able to be there every second of the day.
And my chefs de cuisine are really incredible. They’ve both been with me for over a year. [McMillan and Hillary Sterling at A Voce Madison]. Their names are on the menu now, because they deserve to be, but also because it lets people know that someone is taking ownership of the restaurant when I’m not there. That was important to me — besides paying tribute to the hard work they do. The menus are a collaboration between the three of us, and I think people want to know that.
In September you also mentioned that you’re really not cooking for an uptown palate and a downtown palate. Is that still true? Are there dishes that work downtown that don’t work uptown and vice versa?
I think it varies from night to night. To be very honest, there are times when I’m so surprised that something sells in one restaurant or the other. It’s crowd-dependent. There are nights when we have a lot of tourists and nights when we have a lot of regulars. But the food is accessible. I don’t do crazy food. We keep it new, interesting, and innovative, but it’s not crazy. The menus are different — different, but you still know it’s my food. And my chefs de cuisine have very different approaches.
I’ll give you an example: We do a regional menu, a three-course lunch for $29 that changes every three weeks. The chefs de cuisine participate hugely. We choose a region, we all do research, and I get such different feedback from the two of them. Their approaches are so different. Hillary likes to push more buttons than Jeremy, and Jeremy is a little more elegant. Neither is better or worse. I have to bring them both to the middle where my food is. It’s the first time I’ve had chefs de cuisine under me, and I understand how it is from their point of view. When I was at Spiaggia, I had to be my own chef within Tony’s [Mantuano] style. So I’m very sympathetic to them having to do that also. We all learn from each other and ultimately it makes the food better …
Along the same lines, do you notice differences in tastes between Chicago, where you worked at Spiaggia, and New York?
Not necessarily. First of all, in Chicago, the people who are going out and dining at that level expect something sophisticated. We could do anything and they would want it because they’re coming for something special. Grant Achatz and Graham Elliot are in Chicago; anything we were doing was tame compared to that.
I don’t mean whether or not one place is more sophisticated — just wondering if certain dishes or ingredients sell better in one place or the other, a difference in what’s popular.
One interesting thing — when I first moved to Chicago, I was going over the menu with Tony, and I said, “Wow, you have a lot of meat,” and he said, “Yeah, welcome to the Midwest.” But we definitely added more fish when I was there. … But yes, there’s a desire from New Yorkers to eat a bit lighter.
What was it like to cook for the Obamas at Spiaggia?
It was great. I mean, he wasn’t the president when I cooked for him, so it was different. I didn’t even know who he was, he was a new senator. They were just a really cool couple, great eaters, did tasting menus. They were always relaxed. It was just the two of them doing their thing …
You were recently named a Food & Wine Best New Chef. There was some hubbub about you being the only female chef out of 10 named. I’m sure you’ve been asked about this way too much already, but do you have any thoughts on it?
Not really. I think it’s kind of silly. … There just aren’t as many female chefs doing what I do. … It’s a numbers game. I’ve never thought about being a female chef, I just cook. I think it’s more about being in the right place, rising to a certain level, and perfecting what you do. At Food & Wine a lot of the editors are female. I don’t think they’re purposefully not choosing female chefs.
I don’t think so either. I liked the way editor-in-chief Dana Cowin responded in an interview with Eater. Essentially she said maybe it’s not a problem if women are choosing not to become executive chefs. Obviously, it’s different if they’re discriminated against somehow, but maybe many women just don’t choose the lifestyle that comes with being an executive chef. And is that really a problem?
I don’t think it’s a problem. I’m 39 and single and have chosen this, and it takes up a lot of my life. Women who I know give up certain things to do it. It doesn’t mean they give it up forever, but for now. It’s a hard lifestyle. I don’t think it’s a problem, it’s a choice. In my kitchen downtown, it’s 90 percent women. I have two guys on the line downtown, as they remind me every day. It’s not the same uptown, but I do have a lot of women here. They’re hardcore, and they’ll end up being chefs. But it takes a certain mind-set …
The weird thing is, I think I picked very specific kitchens as I was coming up in my career that were very balanced, a great combination of men and women. … And I try to keep a balance in my kitchens. I don’t want all women in my kitchen, because I do think women and men have different sensibilities and different skill sets. It’s not better or worse, it’s different mentalities. And that’s good. A balance between the two creates a good dynamic in the kitchen.