Upon entering Missy Robbins’ lofty white-walled apartment in South Williamsburg, a guest will notice a few things: first, the compact and pristine kitchen, with only a KitchenAid mixer left out on the marble counter. Second, the rows of books lining the custom-built wooden shelves stretching across one wall are organized by color.
“I read them like novels. These are all cookbooks, by the way,” says the chef early one afternoon while seated at her dining table, a few hours before heading over to her nearby restaurant Lilia, which opened in 2016. “I read them more for inspiration. I don’t ever follow recipes.”
Now Robbins will be able to add her own cookbook to the shelf. “Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner…Life!: Recipes and Adventures From My Home Kitchen,” out this month from Rizzoli, is the result of a sort of sabbatical she took a few years ago to travel and refocus on relationships and health outside of the notoriously taxing long hours of working back of house.
“It’s definitely a tough life, you have to really want to do it,” Robbins says of being a chef. “It’s also the only life I know; I’ve been doing this since college. When I took time off — it’s funny, I learned that life’s a little boring. No one’s doing anything that exciting at night on a regular basis,” she adds. “I don’t have it 100 percent figured out, but I’m in a better place certainly than I was five years ago, and it reflects at Lilia, in my work and it reflects in how I manage people. It really changed my life to take that time off.”
After graduating from Georgetown University in the early Nineties with a degree in art history, she pursued her love of cooking, going on to cut her teeth at restaurants including Spiaggia in Chicago and A Voce in New York, where as executive chef she became one of a few Michelin-starred chefs in the U.S. She left the latter post in May 2013 and her lack of plans puzzled many in the industry, including longtime New York Times food writer Florence Fabricant.
“She was really pressing me to ask me what I was doing, and I literally had zero plans — I didn’t want to plan,” says Robbins. “Finally I said, ‘I’ll probably write a book.'”
While writing a book wasn’t part of her plan at the time, the interaction might have planted the seed ever so slightly. “I was cooking a lot at home and having all these life experiences and I sort of was like, ‘Oh there might be a book here. I’ve cooked all this stuff at home that I don’t usually cook and I don’t usually have the opportunity to cook.’ It was sort of born that way.”
Calling it a “cookbook” isn’t an entirely accurate description; the book is part-memoir, with personal essays and stories detailing Robbins’ professional path and time off from cooking.
“I just felt like I had all this stuff going on and I had a story to tell and that hopefully I could inspire other people — not just other chefs — to live a life that’s better and take care of themselves and figure out how to have balance,” she says. “It’s a little strange that I wrote this because I’m very private and I don’t share a lot about my personal life and about my life in general, except with a very close circle. It’s a little scary that I did this but I can’t take it back now. I was also in a different place; at the time I wasn’t as public as I am now, I didn’t have Lilia and I wasn’t working.”
While it’s not a Lilia cookbook, there is certainly overlap with recipes — the salsa verde and calabrian vinaigrette — and the pasta recipes are similar to what is served at the restaurant.
“There’s natural overlap, just from how I cook and what I’ve been doing for years. I’m kind of psyched that it’s not a direct Lilia book and it shows a different thing,” she adds, pointing to an Asian section inspired by her travels.
She doesn’t have plans to write another cookbook anytime soon (“I want a little break from it,” she says), but hasn’t ruled the option out; Robbins wants to see how her first one is received. So far, so good.
“One of my best friends read the last chapter and she’s like, ‘It sounds like you’ — and she’s a major editor. She didn’t mention whether the writing is good or bad, which I’m fine with, but she’s like, ‘The writing 100 percent sounds like you,'” Robbins says. “I know my writing’s not amazing, but I know it’s definitely my voice.”