When Missy Robbins opened the doors to New York’s Lilia at the beginning of last year, the infatuation was instantaneous. All of a sudden, Williamsburg became a destination for the absolute best pasta in the city – and the place has been packed every night ever since.
Robbins has a long history of being a restaurant hit-maker. She was the Executive Chef of Spiaggia in Chicago, where Obama frequented during his presidential run (though, as you’ll find out, she’s more than a little sick of being labeled as Obama’s favorite chef); and also ran the kitchen at A Voce, helping the place to earn its first Michelin star. Lilia, however, is Robbins’ first stab at being both a chef and an owner. And if the three-hour waits are any indication, ownership seems to be going pretty well so far.
In the past few years, Robbins has also turned her attention to her health, documenting much of her process of getting in shape in her new cookbook, Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner...Life! Of course, she’ll still make room for a beer, especially if it’s a saison – she says they make for the perfect mate to a plate of pasta.
We sat down with Robbins before service over Italian pink peppercorn ales to discuss Italian beers, books, and her former love for Sun Country wine coolers.
What was the first beer you ever tasted?
It was most likely a Keystone, which I drank at a high school party.
Did you like it?
No. I hated beer in high school. I wasn’t a fan of the bitterness. I drank a lot of Sun Country Wine Coolers – the ones that would come in those two-liter bottles.
What was the turning point for you, then, with liking beer?
It was college. I did whatever my brother told me to do, and when I went to college, he said, “You have to like beer now.” So I did. I was a big fan of Rolling Rock. I liked the green bottle, and the fact that there was no label to peel off.
You run an Italian restaurant. Are you also a fan of Italian beer?
Very much so. Italian beers use such cool spices and aromatics, and I like that a lot of them are saison-style – that’s my favorite type. Also, Italian beers usually have great-looking labels. Like this Almond 22 Pink Peppercorn Ale, which is just so tasty.
Do you think pasta and beer are a very natural pairing?
Yes. I firmly believe the bubbles in beer go together with everything.
What, specifically, is your favorite beer to pair with that incredible Pink Peppercorn Mafaldini you make?
My absolute favorite is the Goose Island Sofie. That’s my go-to, as it’s light and aromatic. My hard and fast rule is basically that I hate super hoppy beers.
You recently wrote a cookbook! What was that process like, especially considering you were writing while simultaneously running one of the most popular restaurants in New York right now?
Very challenging. The book was sold long before Lilia, but it was due right around when the restaurant opened. It was really hard to find the time to write, especially because the two projects were so different – the book wasn’t a Lilia book, and I was also trying to figure out what Lilia was going to become as a restaurant. And then the restaurant took off so quickly and there was no down time, period. I trusted in how good my team was and would just lock myself in my house from seven in the morning to two in the afternoon. That’s how it got done.
I think if you asked Obama, “Who is Missy Robbins?” he might not know the answer.”
Did you have a beer when the book was all done and submitted?
I was so busy, I didn’t even think to have a beer! At one point I went out with my co-writer and my agent to celebrate – we went to Le Coucou.
What are your favorite dishes to cook at home?
An awesome roast chicken, and dishes like Osso Bucco that require a lengthy braise. I also make a lot of Caesar Salads at home. And if I’m drinking, it’s got to be a really good beer. No more Keystone Light for me.
How do you feel about constantly being pegged as Obama’s favorite chef?
I think it’s totally silly. I think if you asked Obama, “Who is Missy Robbins?” he might not know the answer. I have been gone from Spiaggia for nine years, and people are still talking about it. Yes, I cooked for the Obamas a lot, but it has been totally blown out of proportion. I don’t think this should be my claim to fame. I think there are more interesting things about me.
That said, I did get to witness this incredible evolution of him being a senator to him campaigning to him about to be elected. It was interesting to see the security detail grow. By the time I left in 2008, there were metal detectors at the restaurant.
Does Obama like beer with his dinner? Just curious.
The Obamas were awesome guests. I think they were more into martinis than beer, but I could be making that up.
You write a lot in your book about how much you love traveling – particularly to Asia. How did those trips influence you?
My first Asia trip was really influential. I went to Vietnam, Thailand, and Hong Kong. The biggest influence on Lilia was discovering the Bangkok fish dinner – I went to this place in Bangkok Chinatown where they set up these steamers and grills and you order while you are in line and they just start sending out fresh seafood. You are served two sauces and a fish, you drink a ton of beer. It is just so simple and so good.
Any Asian beers that you took a particular liking to?
I drank so much Chang in Vietnam. It was nice and light, exactly what you want to be drinking when it is hot out and you are devouring spicy food.
If you could do a Lilia beer, what would it be? Is there a brewery you would want to collaborate with?
It would be a saison with lemon and fennel – the sorts of ingredients I use in my day-to-day workings. I’d probably collaborate with Brooklyn Brewery – they used to do this Ama Bionda Italian beer that was flavorful, light, and not too hoppy. I don’t think they are making it anymore, which is a huge bummer.
Can we expect a Lilia in Manhattan, or anywhere else, anytime soon? Perhaps a Lilia Beer & Wine Bar?
Lilia is Lilia right now. I think Lilia is a really special place and space. I’m not saying there won’t be other Missy Robbins restaurants, but Lilia is going to stay Lilia in Williamsburg.