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Cooking the Books

Q&A
Acclaimed chef Missy Robbins standing outside of her Brooklyn restaurant, Lilia.

When you’re a chef, it’s impossible to please everyone. Unless, of course, you’re Missy Robbins, executive chef and owner of Lilia, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Because, Lilia—with its three stars from The New York Times, and endless fans of the unfussy and food snob variety—is perfect. And so perfectly “Missy Robbins.”

In the melodramatic soap opera that is the food scene, it’s especially rare to find someone who’s equally respected and liked. When I first started to write for Bon Appetit about six years ago, I remember both restaurant critics and celebrity chefs singing her praises. I assumed she would be intimidating and ego-driven— professional hazards in most kitchens, if I'm being honest. When I met her at a food festival, however, deeply focused on her pasta (it can easily be argued that no one does pasta better), Robbins looked up with kind eyes and a warm smile and I thought: Ah, she’s worshipped because she’s talented and nice. What a novelty!

Before Lilia, Robbins did everything right at A Voce restaurants in New York City, earning Michelin stars and a Food & Wine Best New Chef award. Her first cookbook, “Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner…Life!: Recipes and Adventures from My Home Kitchen,” was released in September. We asked her a few questions about her first taste in cookbook writing.

Tell us about the conception of “Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner...Life!”
I came up with this book before Lilia. I wasn’t working and I was cooking a lot at home, and traveling. I felt like I wanted to write a cookbook based on all of this, but also tell my story of this very finite period of time in my life.

What was the cookbook-writing process like for you?
The hardest part was definitely finding the time and head space to concentrate on it. I am a very visual person, so that part of the book’s development was the most exciting.

Is there a recipe (or two) in there that’s especially meaningful to you?
They are all meaningful in one way or another. I think the ones that relate back to my family—like cooking the short ribs for my dad on his birthday—and all of the vegetable dishes represent a new way of eating for me, which really changed my life.

How does publishing a book and opening a restaurant compare?
They are actually really different and, in the best way, are two amazing creative outlets. Writing was new to me and I really enjoyed using that part of my brain.

Where do you turn for inspiration in the kitchen?
Travel definitely inspires me the most. But, even just walking through local farmers markets can fuel so much cooking in me. Many of the recipes from this book simply came from strolling through the market and picking up great ingredients.

What do you like to make yourself for dinner?
I cook very very simple stuff for myself. Often quick pasta dishes of spaghetti, garlic, chilies and olive oil, cacio e pepe, or spicy tomato sauce. In the summer it’s all about vegetables. Zucchini is a go-to with anchovies, garlic, mint and red wine vinegar. I finally have a dining room table, so that’s nice.

What's your absolute favorite kitchen tool?
Spoons, good kitchen knives and a few good All-Clad pots and pans. It’s all about the basics.

 

Photo Credits: Evan Sung.

 

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