How I Get It Done: Chef Missy Robbins

Illustration: Lauren Tamaki

At a time when it’s tough for even the most beloved restaurants in New York City to stay open Missy Robbins is on a roll. In September, she opened her second pasta-centric restaurant in Williamsburg, Misi, and like her first restaurant Lilia, it’s still very difficult to snag a table less than 30 days in advance. Robbins spent five years as the executive chef at Spiaggia in Chicago (also known as the Obamas’ favorite date spot), then returned to New York to run the kitchens at A Voce Madison and A Voce Columbus (and oversaw their Michelin stars) before opening Lilia in 2016. Following the debut of Misi in September, after dueling reviews of the new space, Robbins told the Cut how she gets it done.

On her morning routine:
These days I get up around 7:30. I go get a cappuccino. I make eggs every morning, in all different forms. I’m on a real frittata kick. I wouldn’t consider myself a morning person, but I would say I’m most productive in the hours between 8 a.m. and noon. Those have become really, really important hours for me.

On her daytime hours:
My schedule’s become so weird. Like today, I’m going in and I’m working on a new dish, but I’m not standing behind the line chopping onions anymore. I am there for the meeting, then have a calm moment before service gets very busy at both restaurants. The doors open at 5:30 at both spots. So I just have a moment of calm, and make sure everyone’s good, and then start expediting.

On winding down at night:
When I was younger, I would come home and watch TV until like 3 in the morning. I’m not 25 anymore. I’ve been working much later since we opened Misi, so I’m re-getting used to being at work until 11:30 at night. I can’t tell you the last time I turned on the TV. Billions is like very entertaining to me, and doesn’t take a lot of brainpower. I don’t mean that insultingly, I mean that in the best possible way.

On creating her dream restaurant:
Lilia’s a perfect example of what I wanted — I wanted the restaurant that I would want to go to every night. I think that guests come back over and over because they feel welcomed. That was as important as the food. When I left A Voce and took all this time off, I started cooking more at home and realized I wanted to make food that was really crave-able and familiar to people, but maybe they couldn’t replicate it the same way at home. If I’m overthinking a dish, it doesn’t usually make it to the menu.

On finding endless inspiration in pasta:
Pasta is a blank canvas. It’s comforting. Eating a bowl of pasta just feels really good.

On what kind of manager she is, and used to be: Oh, it’s changed a lot. At this point in my career, all I want to do is nurture my staff and watch them get from point A to point B. I’ve mellowed out a lot in the last couple of years. After I left A Voce, I took almost two years off and did a lot of self-improvement, physically and mentally. I thought a lot about what kind of chef and owner and manager I wanted to be. I knew that something had to change. I don’t think I was a great listener. I had the mentality of, I’m a chef and this is how I want it done. My standards are really high and I don’t settle for less. But I definitely think there’s a better way to approach it. I see a lot of chefs changing their ways, too. That’s not to say I never get mad or that I don’t have my moments, but those moments are really far and few between. They’re more about being frustrated and wanting people to do the best they can.

On the stereotype of the tempestuous, angry chef:
I was never like that, but I was definitely angrier before. I felt myself becoming someone that I didn’t love. It was important to me to figure out how to just be better. That’s not to say I never get mad or that I don’t have my moments, but those moments are far and few between. There’s a way to communicate with people that gets them to be more productive. It took me many years to learn that. I’m 47 years old. A lot of that is insecurity, I think, at the end of the day. I’m just more secure in what I do than I was ten years ago.

On restaurant reviews and her feelings toward food critics:
I don’t hate food critics, that’s for sure. I certainly have an affinity for Pete Wells! Look, the review process for me takes a little bit away from the overall opening of a restaurant and what the purpose of a restaurant is. The purpose of a restaurant is to make people happy. With a good, impactful New York Times review, it can put you on the map in a different way. With a review like the Eater review, I don’t think it’s going to change my life one way or the other. It’s certainly not fun to read a bad review of your work. I worked for two years on opening Misi. It’s a big process, and it’s personal. Does your ego get a little bit bruised? Of course. Of course it does. It’s important to look at the great reviews and see what’s great about them, and look at the bad reviews and see if there are any common themes and look deep into yourself and say, Okay, well, do I agree with this, do I not agree with this? At the end of the day, the review, it’s one person’s opinion. What’s more important to me is, are the guests happy? Just last night, we had three parties in that had been there two to three times in the last week. To me, that says a lot more than a review.

On what comes next:
I’m always pushing. I’ll always want to make Lilia better, and I’ll always want to make Misi better. I have a huge interest in design. I’m working on another book. I don’t know what the future 100 percent holds in terms of how many restaurants. I think it evolves. If you had asked me five years ago, I would have told you I wanted 20 restaurants. That’s changed. For me, right now, I want to continue to be successful but it’s really important for me to have balance in my life. At the end of the day, there’s no point in having all these businesses if all you do is work.

How I Get It Done: Chef Missy Robbins