Based in Toronto, Ontario, Nancy Matsumoto is a writer and editor who covers sustainable agriculture, food, sake, arts and culture.

Chef: Missy Robbins

Growing up outside of New Haven, Connecticut, Missy Robbins and her family were never far from good food. Special occasions meant trips to the big city, to celebrate at Maxwell’s Plum, Shun Lee Palace or the Four Seasons. Closer to home, she ate a lot of pizza at Sally’s and at the now long-gone Bimonte’s, where thin-crust, coal-fired oven pizza ruled. The Jewish holidays, meanwhile, were a showcase for her mom’s stellar brisket, and her nonpareil chicken soup.

Yet as an art history major at Georgetown University in the late 1980s, Robbins did not have cooking for a living on her map of possible life directions. “The restaurant business wasn’t what it is now—it didn’t have the respectability for someone in college like I was,” Robbins reflects. When a friend who had gone to Northwestern started cooking for Charlie Trotter, though, the realization struck: “If she can cook, I can cook too!”

Robbins landed a job at the dressy farm-to-table Georgetown restaurant 1789 and began learning the ropes, working garde manger, pastry and hot app stations. It was love at first shift. She set a test for herself: stay on for a year after her 1993 graduation and then “see if I still loved it.” (She did.) Next came a stint in the Berkshires, in the kitchen of the stately 17-room Wheatleigh hotel, then on to Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School (now the Institute of Culinary Education) in Manhattan. “Peter Kump’s was a very, very small school, not what it is today,” recalls Robbins. “It was like a vacation compared to working, pretty easy.”

Robbins detests the inevitable question about what it’s like to be a woman in the profession: she’s picked the people she’s worked with carefully, she says, and has succeeded on her merits as a cook. Her mentors include Wayne Nish at March and Anne Rosenzweig at Arcadia and the Lobster Club. After falling in love with the regional cooking of Northern Italy during stints at several restaurants there, she was primed for one of the most important mentor relationships in her career, with Tony Mantuano at Chicago’s Spiaggia. It was there that she ascended to her first executive chef job at 32, catering to loyal customers Barack and Michelle Obama. Robbins returned to New York in 2008 to take over A Voce Madison and opened A Voce Columbus Circle in 2009.

Her tenure at A Voce has been marked by her scholarly research into the regional cuisines of Italy, which forms the foundation for intelligent, adventurous forays into little known nooks and crannies of the country’s culinary landscape. She and her staff are now on their fourth rotation through the regions, but Robbins says, “We don’t get more obscure. As we grow as chefs, we get inspired by different things. Chefs get bored really easily, so we rarely repeat dishes.”

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