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Interview: Chef Missy Robbins Created a Better Restaurant for a Better Quality of Life

On Monday, September 24 Skift Table hosted its first ever Skift Restaurants Forum.

The day-long event featured interviews with restaurateurs, technology leaders, operators, and chefs, as well as an audience of over 300 people from across the restaurant industry.

Early in the day we were joined by chef/partner Missy Robbins, who has run Lilia in Williamsburg, Brooklyn since opening the doors in 2016. In early September of this year she opened Misi a few blocks away. Prior to running her own restaurants, Robbins was Executive Chef of A Voce Madison and A Voce Columbus, which maintained Michelin stars throughout her tenure.

Among many other accolades, she was voted Best Chef New York City in 2018 by the James Beard Foundation, and she published her first book, Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner…Life,  in September 2017.

Robbins was interviewed by Nilou Motamed, who was most recently Editor-in-Chief of Food & Wine, and held past top positions at Epicurious and Travel + Leisure, as well as a guest judge on the Bravo show Top Chef.

Read More Recaps and Interview Transcripts From Skift Restaurants Forum

Motamed: Hi, everyone. This is Missy. I’m Nilou. I don’t think this woman really needs introduction. I’m super excited to be here because I get to not only dine at her amazing restaurants, but also be here friend, and she cooks for me sometimes at home.

But Missy has had kind of a bananas two years I would say. You opened your own first owned restaurant Lilia in Williamsburg. If you guys haven’t been good luck getting a reservation. She also wrote a cookbook. She got three stars from The New York Times. Thank you for coming up. Here you go. Three stars from The New York Times. She won a James Beard award for the best chef in New York City, which is no mean feat, and in the last two weeks opened her second restaurant in the former Domino Refinery in Williamsburg called Missy. So, I can’t even believe you’re here. She basically works from 10:00 in the morning until 2:00 in the morning, and it’s a miracle that we got her here, so thank you.

Robbins: Thank you.

Motamed: I want to first ask you because you made a big shift a few years ago, and you went from working for a big restaurant group — you worked at A Voce — to first of all taking a break, but then also deciding that you were going to be a chef/owner. What are the challenges of making that decision?

Robbins: I think it was a really scary decision. When I left A Voce I really left with no plan, and everyone doesn’t believe me, and everyone thought I had this secret restaurant project. I really needed some time and space to really even figure out if I wanted to be a chef and be in a restaurant.

I was, it turned out quite burned out. Which isn’t really why I left A Voce, but I really needed just time. I think the decision became actually not that challenging. It became easy for me. I realized that I just wanted independence. I liked working for restaurant groups. I had work at Spiaggia, which is part of an $800 million company, and it was a very supportive environment, and I did that for five years. I liked the stability of being in a company, but I think for me the biggest challenge was finding the right partner.

I searched for a really long time, and I had in that time that I was off, which ended between leaving A Voce, and opening Lilia was close to two and a half years by the time it really opened. But I searched for a long time for the right partner. I met with all the big restaurateurs, every name that you could name, and I met with a random of people. I ended up with my next-door neighbor as my partner who had not previously been in the restaurant business.

What happened was we developed a friendship and we had the same values, and he really understood what I wanted to do. He understood my philosophy, and he was passionate. We had a good time together, and it sort of worked. We took a really big risk on each other because when he first asked me and he said, “Hey, I’ve watched you go through all these meetings, and I want to be your partner.” And I said, “No, that’s actually not gonna happen because you’ve never opened a restaurant before.”

And then we kept talking for two weeks, three weeks, four weeks, and finally it just made sense. It made sense not because he was a restaurateur, but because he was a good person, and a person that I could relate to. And so, I think the biggest challenge was for me I didn’t want to do it alone. I think a lot of chefs just want to go do their own thing, and they don’t even want a business partner.

I wanted someone who had complementary skills to mine that weren’t the same. I didn’t need another chef in the kitchen with me. I had always thought I wanted a GM as a partner, that front-of-house person, and he wasn’t that either. He was a business person. I think sometimes you find what you’re not looking for, and that was really great for me.

Motamed: There’s so many things I want to unpack here. So first of all, what were some of those meetings like? We’ve never talked about that. It’s like you were like Goldilocks. You were trying on all the different options out there to see which one was gonna be the right fit.

Robbins: I mean I felt first of all very lucky. I got to sit in an office with Danny Meyer, and that meeting proved to be extremely important for me. Because he said to me in that meeting, and it was sort of more or like “Is there something here for me?” But it was also just getting advice from someone that I really respect and admired. He said to me in that meeting, “What are you happiest doing? Are you happiest when you hold a pan in your hand?”

And I said, “No, not at all. I’m happiest when I’m planning, and mentoring, and developing, and doing menu development, and being in a kitchen, but not chopping onions all day.” I think that a light bulb went off for me because I knew really at that point that I probably couldn’t work for someone else, and that I needed to be in a more entrepreneurial position where I could still hone my chef skills, but also do everything else that surrounds the restaurant.

Missy Robbins, the Chef and Owner of Lilia and Misi, speaking at Skift Restaurants Forum in New York City on September 24, 2018. Skift Table / Dan Loh

What excites me, we were just talking about this a few minutes ago, the design aspect, and designing a restaurant from head to toe, and the graphic design, and everything that goes into a restaurant. The food part for me 25 years later is the easy part. The hard part is everything else that goes along with it, and team building, and marketing, and PR, and all that other stuff is really exciting to me.

Motamed: Then you basically said all the skills. You said the food-

Robbins: I liked all the skills.

Motamed: Now what are the complementary skills?

Robbins: I just don’t like spreadsheets.

Motamed: Spreadsheets, okay. I mean first of all, all of us wish that Danny Meyer would take a couple minutes and give us some his Danny Meyer advice, the way he manages basically …

Robbins: I don’t think he knows that he gave me … it wasn’t advice.

Motamed: I bet you he’ll know by the end of this maybe.

Robbins: I mean I wrote about it in the cookbook, and I’ve said it many times because it was really an impactful thing for me. I met with Steven Starr who is wonderful, and he just didn’t have the right thing for me at the time.

But everyone I met with was really supportive and wonderful. It just was this ongoing feeling that nothing felt right, and probably at the time that I opened Lilia I was 44, and I had wanted to open a restaurant by the time I was 30, so I was 14 years behind my goal.

Motamed: Obama was liking your pasta at Spiaggios, so you weren’t resting on your laurels.

Robbins: Correct. But for me I had this internal thing. Finally part of what happened was I said, okay, well if I’m going to open a restaurant, if I’m really going to do this, if I don’t do this now I’m probably never gonna do this. Because I would have gotten another job and it would have taken me another five years.

Even if I had partnered with someone else the idea of partnership is really broad. I think a lot of times we hear “chef/partner,” and “chef/partner” you’re still working for someone else. You may have a piece of the business, or you may take a percentage, or whatever, but you’re not necessarily an owner.

I think I wanted real ownership, and it wasn’t a financial thing. It was really more a mental thing of really investing everything you have into a space, and into a staff, and into your guests.

Motamed: I think that word “ownership” is such a big deal because it’s great when you’re getting a big paycheck, and we can’t underestimate how great that is, but the reality of wanting to feel like you are actually shaping something from the beginning to the end is very much what you and Sean do. Watching you and Sean [Feeney, partner at Lilia and Misi] at work is pretty amazing because this guy who’s a spreadsheet guy and has never run a restaurant has become quite the front of house dude.

Robbins: He’s amazing.

Motamed: You are also out there doing all the baby kissing, and handshaking, and all the stuff that you need to do, and all the media. You seem to have an amazing collaboration. And since the theme of this day is collaboration how do you guys make sure that this magical relationship exists, and is it magical? How do you make sure that you’re on the same page because it’s a little like mommy and daddy?

Robbins: There’s a little mommy and daddy thing going on. We do have an incredible relationship, and we set a lot of boundaries from the very beginning. Some of those things are very basic communication things like not going to bed angry, cutting out … I mean seriously we’re like basically married, and he does have a wife who’s very lovely.

Motamed: And you’re the godmother of his …

Robbins: I am the godmother of his twin sons as well, so there is a familial aspect to it that I think helps and can also …

Motamed: Hinder?

Robbins: … Be challenging, but there is a familial thing. I think communication is really the key. Texting I think is a wonderful thing in our society now, but it can also be really terrible. We have a rule that when things start to get a little hot in texting we cut it off, and we just say listen let’s talk about this later. And that takes a lot of awareness to be able to do that because sometimes you’re in the heat of it.

We also like to stay in what we call our lanes. When those lanes start to intersect I think we take a moment and say all right, you do your thing. It’s not that we’re not interested in each others’ lanes. I’m very interested in the financial health of our business, and I’m very in tune with it, and I look at the spreadsheets every day, but I don’t want to create them. I appreciate that he has a microscope on them, and can hone on things, and I look at them broader.

But he’s also someone who’s a great networker, and he’s someone who wants to go out and meet with people and learn about technology in our industry, and learn about real estate in our industry. I’m interested in all those things, but not to the extent that he is. I think I’m grateful to have a partner who really wants to do that.

It’s not about the four walls of the restaurants, and what we each do on a nightly basis because that intersects quite a bit. Someone actually thought that he was a chef last night. Someone was talking to me and they were like, “Well who expedites when you’re not there, Sean?” I was like, “Huh?” And I was like, “No, he hangs around the kitchen a lot, but usually he’s making a snack.”

Motamed: Also, you’re always there. Yeah, he’s having a little bit of a ricotta.

Robbins: He’s usually grilling bread for himself. But no, I think it’s about having a real understanding of who’s doing what and it’s always been understood that I am the creative in the group and that he is the business in the group. And he always says, “I’m not creative. I’m not creative,” but what I’ve learned is that he is quite creative.

He has an incredible marketing mind. I don’t know if anyone’s seen our hashtag or our T-shirts that say, “Choose Pasta,” but that’s all Sean that’s not me. Our Instagram is all him. He built the whole Lilia Instagram. He does have a really creative mind just in a different way. And I’ve gotten him very into interior design. He’s constantly sending me stuff from Dwell now, and things-

Motamed: It’s exactly like you’re married.

Robbins: I’m not even sure he knew it existed before, but I think that’s pretty cool.

Motamed: You talked about Instagram, and you touched on something that I think is definitely an issue for all of us who are in this industry. You just opened a restaurant two weeks ago, a week ago?

Robbins: Two weeks ago yesterday, yeah.

Motamed: Two weeks ago yesterday.

Robbins: Yeah, Saturday.

Motamed: What is the most challenging thing to opening a new place in this environment, even though your restaurant was one of the most hotly anticipated. There are literally, when I say literally there are actually lines out the door when you open, and this is not hyperbole this actually what’s happening from last week.

Robbins: It’s very frightening.

Motamed: Which is amazing, but what do you waking up in the middle of the night sweating?

Robbins: I think it’s a couple of things. I think on a bigger scale when I opened Lilia people knew me and they were curious like where did Missy Robbins go? Why isn’t she cooking anymore, and what the hell is she doing opening in Williamsburg? I think two and a half years has passed, and for me there’s a lot of internal strife of the anticipation and expectation coming off the James Beard Award, and coming off of Lilia, and I think everyone … There’s not a lot of time to get it right, and you feel this pressure to get it right from the minute you open the door, and that’s not necessarily realistic.

There’s a lot of moving parts to the restaurant. I think getting the right team in place, and we have an incredible team, we have an incredible front-of-house management, and an incredible back of house management, and an incredible support staff on every side, really impressive people.

But it doesn’t work like a well oiled machine in five days. And so, I think in the age of Instagram everyone comes there now and they already want this tomato dish, which was the last dish I came up with the night before we opened.

Motamed: And somehow I didn’t have it when I was there, friends of family, and now I’m mad.

Robbins: I think you don’t get any chance to work on things and fix things because there’s already this expectation the night you open because people start putting it out there whether you want them to or not. But on the flip side, there’s something really beautiful about that, and to see people so excited, and so excited about particular things is motivating also.

Motamed: And then you get I mean immediate gratification for, not just you, which I think is great, but I think for your team.

Robbins: Yeah.

Motamed: I think one thing I really want to touch on because I think you work on this really hard is the culture of the restaurant, so the culture of Lilia, your management style with Sean, so talk us through that.

Missy Robbins, the Chef and Owner of Lilia and Misi, (R) in conversation with Nilou Motamed at Skift Restaurants Forum in New York City on September 24, 2018. Skift Table / Dan Loh

Robbins: Yeah, I think I grew up in age of restaurants that was difficult and challenging and sort of like this is the way you do it, and it’s the only way you do it. When I left A Voce, like I said, I was burnt out. I was stressed out. I didn’t always manage the way that I would want to. I was, I don’t know, angry might be a good word, but stressed out. I wasn’t always the best listener.

When I left A Voce the one thing, reason, I really wanted to leave was to work on myself, and that had physical implications, and it had mental implications. When I came to open Lilia one of the reasons why Sean and I came together and in those conversations about sharing values it was about the kind of company we wanted, and how we wanted to be with our staff, and create this family within our restaurants. We’ve worked really hard to do that.

I am just in a point in my life where I’m much mellower than I was before in taking that time off after 20 years of working without a break at all really, really mellowed me out. I think there’s a certain confidence that I think comes with age, and development, and understanding management, but I think the culture that we want is one where people are happy, and where they can thrive, and where they can thrive outside of work, and inside of work. We really work hard to give people the days off they want. And if someone comes to me and they’re like I have three weddings this summer, the old me would’ve been like tough shit, you gotta work.

In the time that I was off I really thought about how many holidays I missed and how many weddings I missed because I was afraid to ask my boss for the weekend off. I was really afraid. And 15 years later I still regret not going to a very good friend of mine’s wedding because it was a week after my brother’s wedding, and I knew she was going to give me off, my boss, and I just don’t want to be like that, so I now realize that there’s a way to always make it work. And if someone needs the weekend off it’s a restaurant it’s gonna survive. And if someone has to work an extra day, so their teammate can get an extra day off, and then you make it up to them the next week that’s all okay. And it really I think goes a long way.

Trying to close on big holidays, it seems like such a small thing. I sat in orientation at the new restaurant, and we were going through the handbook — just boring stuff — and I looked at the people’s faces when I said ‘We’re closed Christmas Eve and Christmas Day,’ and people got this sigh of relief. And so, I think there are a lot of little things you can do.

But going back to that communication stuff it’s about really listening to what people are telling you and giving them the chance to talk to you and making sure you’re available. And Sean has been really great at this, and encouraging me to be like this.

He, from the very beginning, was always like, “I’m gonna go grab a coffee with whomever,” and I was like, “What? They’re going to grab a coffee with a bartender.” That just wasn’t done in me coming up. So, I think one of the cool things about Sean is he brings this very different perspective from not having been in the restaurant business for 20 years, and saying like, yeah it’s always been done that way, but who cares? Let’s do it our own way. That’s been really a positive influence for me.

Motamed: I feel like there’s a lot of growth.

Robbins: Yeah, I’ve grown up a little bit, yeah.

Motamed: For someone who’s been quite busy, and I feel like one thing that I don’t think a lot of people may realize is this last year has been one of incredible success for you.

Robbins: Yeah.

Motamed: But also an incredible challenge. You were diagnosed with breast cancer.

Robbins: That is a true story.

Motamed: Last summer?

Robbins: Yeah, July 14, 2017.

Motamed: When was your book launched?

Robbins: I started radiation treatment on September 14th, and my book launch was September 19th. I’m fine, by the way.

Motamed: Yeah.

Robbins: Let’s put that out that there.

Motamed: Yeah.

Robbins: I’m healthy, and fine, and cancer free, and all that.

Motamed: Yeah.

Robbins: Thank you.

Motamed: But also opened a restaurant exactly a year later.

Robbins: Yes.

Motamed: Are you mad?

Robbins: Life goes on. I think that we had signed a lease. We had signed a lease I believe in March or April of 2017. I don’t know. You have to keep pushing. Look, when you get cancer and I learned a tremendous amount during that time, first of all, I learned a lot about cancer because to me I thought you get cancer and you start chemo the next day.

That’s not how it happens at all, luckily. I think I learned a lot about the process of cancer, but in that time I also learned it’s not a death sentence and there are treatments. I was very lucky, and I caught it very, very early. It wasn’t a pleasant thing to go through, and it was very, very scary.

There’s a lot of time between getting diagnosed and knowing what your treatment’s going to be. I didn’t know that, that’s how it works. There are biopsies and tests and all this stuff. I think for me I had a task to do, and I had signed this lease, and I didn’t want to let anyone down.

I was healthy enough to be able to still go to meetings. I definitely adjusted my life quite a bit. I wasn’t at Lilia as much, but I was there almost every night still. I was just there three hours of service instead of six hours of service. I would go home when I got tired. I was already on this kick of understanding balance and work and that had come a lot in my two years off of wanting to figure out.

It was a non-negotiable for me to be able to open a restaurant and I needed to be able to open a restaurant and still have balance. I was not good at that at A Voce, and I wasn’t willing to do that again. So, I set a lot of boundaries for myself, and in getting cancer I had to reevaluate those boundaries again and say, okay I can’t be on this schedule anymore. I’m not gonna expedite. This is ridiculous. And so, I took myself off the schedule, and then once I was done with treatment I was like, oh this is pretty good. I’m not gonna put myself back on the schedule.

Motamed: And you saw that your chefs were …

Robbins: Sean can expedite.

Motamed: Yeah, because he’s so good at it. And you saw that your chefs were thriving.

Robbins: Yeah.

Motamed: Which I think is an amazing opportunity for them. There are questions for you from the audience.

Robbins: My least favorite topic is talking about being a female chef.

Motamed: So, should we just skip that right away?

Robbins: Look, I’ve had a very, very thriving career. I’ve worked for men. I’ve worked for women. I’ve worked for kitchens that are all men. I worked in kitchens that were all women. I’ve done it all. I’d say I have not experienced anything bad as a female. I’ve put my head down, I worked. I would love it if I could just be known as a chef instead of a female chef.

Motamed: How much do you think design contributes to the experience and the success of your business.

Robbins: Huge.

Motamed: Huge.

Robbins: I think I can’t speak to Misi yet because we don’t know if it’s successful, but I’ll touch on it. Lilia, I think the beautiful thing about Lilia is that for those of you who have been there I stand in the middle of the restaurant every night. The kitchen was built so you feel like you’re in my home kitchen, and I can talk to you and interact.

I think the coolest thing about Lilia is that every night people come up to me, and they say the food was great, but the service is amazing, but the room is so amazing. Your music is amazing. To me I know I can cook, and if I couldn’t get that right after 25 years of doing it then I should definitely go do another profession.

But for me to be able to get the whole experience right, the people on our staff, everyone saying they’re so nice. The room being warm and lovely. To me that completes a restaurant. You can’t have great food without the great service. You can’t have the great music without a great room.

It all contributes to the experience. I think we’ve gotten that with Misi too. I’m getting a lot of comments about how great the room feels, and it’s very different from Lilia. It’s really modern and it’s in a new building. I couldn’t replicate the charm of Lilia, but I think there’s a different kind of warmth that is coming from there.

Motamed: I’m so happy to talk to you.

Robbins: Thank you. I’m so happy to talk to you.

Motamed: Thank you, everyone. We’re gonna get off stage.

Read More Recaps and Interview Transcripts From Skift Restaurants Forum

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