Find your cullinary voice

An Interview with Ivy Stark and Missy Robbins

Chefs and ICE alumni Ivy Stark and Missy Robbins shares their culinary perspective with the Institute of Culinary Education.July 2009

Ivy Stark is the executive chef of Dos Caminos, which has three locations in New York City. She obtained a bachelor’s degree in history at the University of California--Los Angeles, and later graduated from ICE. She worked for Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger’s award-winning Border Grill in Los Angeles, and when back in New York at The Sign of the Dove, and Cena. She returned to Los Angeles to become chef de cuisine at Ciudad, with her two mentors. The excitement of New York City compelled her to return as executive chef of Match Uptown. She then become the beverage director and sommelier at Brasserie 8 ½, followed by stints as executive chef of Zocalo and Amalia, and corporate chef of Rosa Mexicano.

Missy Robbins is the executive chef of A Voce and the soon-to-open A Voce at the Time Warner Center. She graduated from Georgetown with a degree in art history, and from ICE with a degree in culinary arts. Her career began at 1789 in Washington DC, followed by New York restaurants March, Arcadia, and The Lobster Club. She then went to work in several kitchens in Italy. Upon her return to the US, she worked at the SoHo Grand Hotel. In 2003, she became executive chef of Spiaggia and Café Spiaggia in Chicago, where she stayed until 2008. She was one of StarChefs’ Ten Rising Star Chefs of the Year in 2005, and the recipient of the Most Promising Chef Award given by journalist William Rice in conjunction with the Chicago Wine & Food Festival. Chefs Stark and Robbins were both inducted into ICE”s Alumni Hall of Achievement in 2005. The Main Course met with them at ICE for a joint discussion of their careers and the restaurant industry today.

How did you decide to become chefs?
MR: I traveled a lot, and my family was really into food when I was younger. I thought I’d have another profession and open a restaurant when I was older. Then I found out that a friend of mine went to college and was cooking. I thought, ‘Oh, if she can do it, I can do it too.’ I started applying for jobs my last semester, senior year, thinking I’d do it for a year and see if I liked it. I started cooking every Friday and Saturday night, which I thought was insane, but I loved it. After the first week, I really looked forward to going. I worked in this fine dining restaurant, 1789 [in Washington, DC], which happened to be above my college bar. I could sneak down the back, and my friends were there, so it worked out quite well. I ended up staying there for another year. The guys were awesome. I had no experience and they showed me how to hold a knife, the basic fundamentals, everything. I said I’d do it for a year and now 16 years later here, here I am.

IS: My father is in the hotel business, so I grew up around it. I remember my dad taking to us to the restaurant shows when we were little kids and seeing ice sculptures, things like that. That was really cool. I started working, in the summer when I was in junior high, as a busser in one of the restaurants. I’d always liked cooking, even as a little kid. I had the Winnie the Pooh cookbook, and I would rather do that on a Saturday afternoon than almost anything else. I worked in the kitchen through high school, and went to college. I had questioned whether I wanted to do it or not, and thought about some other things, about medical school even, and really decided that I loved cooking. I don’t know if it was ever a conscious decision. I just felt like it sort of happened.

MR: For me it was a conscious decision. Graduating from school, thinking about the kind of money you made in a restaurant… it definitely was a very conscious decision. My friends certainly weren’t going off to be chefs. They were going to law school and into investment banking. I definitely got a lot of---I don’t want to say scrutiny---but people were like, ‘Really? You just graduated from this really amazing school [Georgetown University] and you’re going to cook?’ Back then it was right on the cusp of when it started to become popular. But I mean it wasn’t like it is now. There was no Food Network. But I stuck with it because I really loved it and I definitely was having more fun going to work than anyone else I knew.

Which year did each of you did get started in the business?
MR: 1993.

IS: 1993, as a career. But I had been working in kitchens before that as a slave [laughs] in my dad’s restaurant.

With these types of backgrounds and hands-on experience, what made you decide to go to culinary school?
MR: I worked for about a year and a half before I went to school. I left D.C. and went up to the Berkshires for a summer to work. I essentially was really nervous to move to New York. I didn’t think I’d get a job, coming from D.C., which was a very different world then. I was doing pretty well in kitchens; I was moving up from garde manger. But I missed out on some fundamentals. I thought it would be a good way for me to move to New York, and to make sure I liked New York, for one, without committing to a job. It got me into the kitchens I wanted to get into, which might not have happened otherwise.

IS: I have a similar story. I wanted to make sure that I knew the basics before I went into a kitchen, so that I wouldn’t look stupid when someone told me, ‘Make hollandaise.’ And having already gone to college, I didn’t want to go to a two-year program.

MR: That’s how I felt also.

IS: The fundamentals are really crucial. The restaurant world is so fast-paced that you often don’t get the proper training completely on the job. You learn tips and tricks, but you may miss out on some basics just because the chef doesn’t have time to stand next to you and teach you all the time.

Have either of you ever considered having your own restaurant?
Missy Robbins: Absolutely.

Ivy Stark: I think that’s on every chef’s mind pretty much all the time.

MR: My intention was to move back to New York and open my own place, and then this job came along. The economy had also started to shift at the time. This job was an incredible opportunity. My reputation was minimal in New York, so I thought it was just a better way to come back and re-acclimate myself to the environment. But yes, I think every chef wants to open their own place.

IS: I definitely plan on it. It’s going to have to be the right time. And I’d like to find the right partner. I don’t necessarily want to do it completely by myself.

MR: I think that’s really important too, to have the right team of people to do it with.

IS: Yes. And that’s not always easy to find.

This question always comes up, and often feels like it matters most to those asking than to the chefs. But I’ll ask anyway: Have you faced any specific challenges, as a woman chef?
MR: Not really. I’m asked this question all the time. Maybe I have specifically chosen women friendly kitchens. I worked for Anne Rosenzweig for four years, so that’s a given that her kitchen was very female friendly. Wayne Nish, for whom I worked for a long time, always had almost 50/50 in his kitchen. Tony Mantuano, at Spiaggia, has had a woman chef for I don’t know how long, probably 15 to 20 years. That kitchen was pretty balanced---60/40. I just think that you have to pick kitchens that you’re comfortable in. I never went into it saying, ‘do they take women or not take women?’ I pick kitchens that made food that I really loved and a chef that I really liked and had sort of a rapport with. I never found it really difficult.

IS: I would have to agree with that. My first job was with Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, and it was mostly women in the kitchen. I’ve worked in kitchens where I was the only woman, one of two, or there were only women in pastry. When I was at Sign of the Dove, I was the only female in the savory part of the kitchen. I was a sous chef and I was responsible for all of the men in the kitchen. I had to show them of course at first that I could hang with them on the line and do the job. I don’t think it was because I was a woman; any new sous chef coming in would have had to prove themselves.

So how annoyed do you get at those gender questions?
MS: As I was leaving A Voce, my sous chef said, ‘Have fun.’ I said, ‘You know I love to go talk about being a woman chef.’ [laughs] It’s going to happen. There aren’t as many of us. But to me it’s a non-issue. I go to work every day, we have to do the same thing as the guys.

IS: I agree. Someone asked me the same question last week. There’s no difference between being a woman chef and a man chef. The job is the same. You find people who work with you, who are willing to work with you, who enjoy working with you, who respect you. For a man, the job is the same. I don’t personally care to be asked what it’s like to be a woman chef.

MS: It’s a weird question.

IS: It is. In fact, I remember that a few years ago, a new PR company I was working with wrote my bio. It said all this flowery stuff about ‘Ivy Stark is one of the best women chefs.’ I told them to take that word out. [laughs] I don’t want to be qualified. It’s kind of weird. There are women accountants, women lawyers, women doctors. I will say that if I’m at a special event with one of my male chefs, often people will walk right by me to him. It’s happened even with my sous chefs before. It was the funniest thing. I was standing in front of the table passing out the stuff, wearing a white jacket with my name on it and all. My sous chef was behind me, in a dishwasher shirt and whatever, and people would just walk right up, pass right by me, and say ‘Hi, chef, how are you doing?’

MS: Seriously?

IS: That’s happened quite a lot actually.

MS: Wow. That’s never happened to me.

IS: I could say that at almost every special event that I go to, that happens a lot. I think it’s just the general public not being aware yet.

You’ve both worked outside of New York. What are some of the differences or similarities between New York and other cities in the US, from your perspective as a chef?
IS: I worked in Los Angeles, which, at the time, did not have very many good restaurants. Now it’s got a great restaurant scene; I like to go visit. But part of the reason I came back to New York is because I felt I could get a better education by working in different restaurants, and also eating in different restaurants. Back then, in LA, there just really wasn’t any place even for me to eat and learn.

MR: I think that’s the biggest difference. In New York, there are so many places to eat and so many chefs. I left DC because it was time to leave---I’d been there for a while and I think that every young cook wants to cook in New York at some point. That was the ultimate goal. When I left to go to Chicago, it was a really good thing for me to go to a different city. It made me a better chef and mellowed me out quite a bit. It gave me perspective that there is life outside of New York. Coming back at this sort of level, there is a very different kind of pressure than I had in Chicago, just in terms of media and the blogging world in New York. That doesn’t exist in Chicago to the same extent that it exists here. My friends all told me, when I was coming back, that it’s really different. And now that I’m back here I get it. It’s much more competitive here for sure, and you have to want to be in that competitive environment, but take it in stride at the same time.

IS: There’s a tone of pressure, I think, from the media, and especially the blogs. I’ve been reviewed and opened restaurants before the blogosphere started, and it’s really changed things a lot. It’s very intense; everybody reads them, even if they say that they don’t.

How does that affect what you’re doing, what you’re putting on the menu, how you think about your food?
MS: I very rarely read them. My PR company reads them and sends them to me. Sometimes they’re important. If you read 30 things and they all say the same thing, you definitely have to ask yourself if you are doing something wrong, if you should keep a certain dish on the menu. You also have to take it with a grain of salt, and you have to look at the dates of postings. There’s still a lot of stuff up for A Voce, both negative and positive, from when I wasn’t even the chef here. You also have to realize that one in a thousand people that comes through your door is writing, so it’s one person’s opinion. You have to pay attention to it but I don’t think you have to heed to everything that everyone’s saying. It would be very confusing to do that.

IS: I just look at it in the same way that we look at our comment cards. They write both positive and negative things. We look at all of it, evaluate it, and if we get 10 comments that say that something is terrible, we all taste it and see if it really is terrible. We don’t get everything right all the time. Some dishes don’t resonate with people. But I wouldn’t say that I design my menu with that in mind.

What audience do you consider when you are designing your menu?
IS: We have a very loyal following. What I was able to cook at Dos Caminos six years ago is different from what I’m able to cook there now; people are starting to be a little bit more adventurous about Mexican food than they were. It’s still kind of a battle to convince people that there is no melted cheese in Mexico. I try not only to please people who want something very simple but also to have some items on the menu for the more adventurous diner who wants to learn something about the food. I look at Mexican food as where maybe what Italian food was 30 years ago, with red sauce spaghetti; now it’s evolved into something very refined in many cases. I hope that Mexican food can get there.

MS: When we look at the menus for A Voce, we want them to be accessible to people, but interesting. There are a lot of Italian restaurants in the city now, with more and more opening. I want to be authentic and true to Italian culture, but also give people something they might not have seen before. I definitely have tried to put some more interesting dishes on as specials, and like Ivy, sometimes it resonates and sometimes it doesn’t. As a chef, you have to take your ego out of it and say, ‘All right, this is a chefy dish and they’re not getting it,’ or ‘Wow, this scored and they are getting it.’ But you never want things on your menu that aren’t selling. So I’m definitely very quick to take things off if they are not selling, even if I like them or my kitchen or the staff likes them, because it’s just not worth it.

What are some of the advantages or inconveniences of working for a restaurant group, even a smaller one, versus for working for the owner?
MR: The company I came from, Spiagga, is owned by a very large company. It was frustrating at first. There are more rules, regulations, and paperwork. Then you get used to it and you learn to appreciate certain parts of it. Now, coming to a smaller but a growing company, I really appreciate the stuff that I had before. I think I would use a lot of those tools if I owned my own place. I’ve now been in a corporate environment for nine years. I think it would be really hard, as annoying as it is to me as a chef---because all you want to deal with is the food, your staff, and the guests---to go work in a place that didn’t have some of the structures that I’ve become accustomed to.

IS: I would totally agree with that. I don’t find many disadvantages to working with a big group. Sometimes you have to go through a couple of levels of approval. But the advantages way outweigh the disadvantages. You get a paycheck every week. That’s not always the case with an independent restaurant. I have very good benefits.

What do you look for when you hire someone?
MR: The desire to learn and succeed, and the humbleness that you just want to cook. And sense of humor for sure. It can be a quirky sense of humor but you have to have one.

IS: Yes. And they have to be nice. I only hire nice people. I just interviewed a kid yesterday, who was so nice, and I said ‘Well, I think he’ll fit in.’

MR: I’d rather hire a really nice, young, green, inexperienced person who’s going to fit in to the rest of the staff than someone who’s spent seven years cooking at every best restaurant in New York and thinks they know everything.

IS: I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t say that they would rather take a nice, enthusiastic kid out of school who doesn’t necessarily know as much over a seasoned line cook who has an attitude or who knows it all already, and maybe has bad habits that they don’t necessarily want to break. It’s about adaptability too. Certainly, the more skilled the people in your kitchen the better, but they have to be able to adapt to your style and do things the way that you prefer to have them done. That’s not to say that I can’t learn something from them, because I do all the time, but someone who absolutely refuses and says, ‘This is the way I learned to do it at such and such place’ doesn’t fly.

MR: It’s the worst.

What is one essential technique that you feel either you need to have or cooks in general need to have?
MR: Knife skills, really basic stuff is really what sets different cooks apart. A lot of cooks can cook and get food out of the kitchen and can sauté, but they can’t get the prep done properly. It starts with the fundamentals.

IS: Some people are incapable of following a recipe, of understanding how it works. It’s important for me because I have to run three big kitchens with countless people in them, so I have to be able to write a recipe, test it, test it with the sous chefs, and pass it along to them to teach the cooks how to do it. I want everything to taste the same every single time. I actually learned that from Gary Robbins when I worked with him. He was adamant that the recipes were followed exactly. And he was right. Everything tasted the same every time and it was good. There was no room for any personal interpretation on the cook’s part.

What room is there for a young cook in your kitchens to be creative?
IS: There’s plenty of room for them to offer me ideas for specials or to make a sauce. I wish they would do it more, to tell you the truth. When I was cooking under other people, I was always bringing them stuff to try, to see if they thought it was good. Sometimes they did, sometimes they didn’t. My staff can offer me an idea about plating, and they do all the time.

MR: In terms of menu creativity, there’s not that much room right now. I’m also pretty new where I am and trying to establish myself and my sous chefs. I basically just opened a restaurant without opening a restaurant. So, right now, I don’t offer a lot of room. But sometimes they ask if they can do something this or that way. And I think, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’ You feel really stupid actually.

IS: It happens to me all the time.

MR: And sometimes they want to change it and I’m like, ‘No, absolutely not.’ It depends on who the cook is, their approach, and how they deal with it, because some cooks are just talking and think that they know everything and they don’t. [laughs] But sometimes they do have really good ideas and see things from a different perspective than me walking in the kitchen and saying that I want to do this dish and this is how I want to do. They have to actually execute it every night, all night, and they sometimes find ways that are a little bit smarter. But I want full participation from my chef and my sous chef. I want them doing the specials, participating and actively researching. We have a $29 regional Italian menu that changes every week. That’s a lot of dishes. I certainly don’t know everything about every region in Italy and they don’t either. So it takes the three of us really researching, studying, and coming together. It makes the food better.

What do you like most about what you do?
IS: Nothing makes me feel better than serving a dish that I am extremely proud of, that I know tastes good and that the guest is really going to like it. I love it every time.

MR: Serving great food to people, but also just the interaction with people in general. I also think that it’s really cool to develop people and see them grow. Two people whom I worked with in Chicago started with me as line cooks and are now chefs of two of Tony’s [Mantuano] restaurants, which is really rewarding. I also like the excitement of raw ingredients being delivered to the door every day.

IS: The interaction and camaraderie can be really fun, too.

MR: We work really hard and sometimes it’s really a stressful industry to be in, but we also probably have a lot more fun at work than most people. You have to, because you’re there all day together. Going back to what I look for in an employee: I look for people I want to spend 12 hours a day with. If I don’t want to spend 12 hours a day with you I don’t want you in my kitchen because it’s not good for you and it’s not good for me.

What do you like least?
IS: I could work a few less hours a week.

MR: I definitely think that the hours, the lifestyle are grueling. I didn’t think so necessarily in my 20s but in my 30s, and maybe not even five years ago, I do. As I get older, there’s a sense of normalcy that I crave a little bit more than I used to. I used to think it was cool that I was so different and that my friends had to wake up and go to work at nine and now I wake up and go to work at nine but I come home at midnight. [laughs] And managing people is really hard. As much as I love the positive parts of it, when managing large staffs, you’re half psychologist. I spend a lot of my day trying to figure people out.

Do you see yourself working in a restaurant in 10 or 15 years?
IS: Physically, I don’t know that I will be able to do what I do now. It’s extremely demanding physically. But I do see myself continuing to be in this business.

MR: I see myself in the business. I don’t know if I see myself working service every night, standing, expediting and all of that, but I definitely see myself involved in the food industry. I love food. I don’t know what else I’d do.

IS: Me neither. I can’t really imagine doing anything else.

What’s a word of advice you have for someone starting in this industry?
MR: Be willing to go into kitchens and learn. Don’t worry about how long it’s going to take you to become a sous chef or a chef. I took a pretty long route to get to where I am now. This is my first really major, on my own, chef job. I was executive chef at Spiagga, but Tony was there holding my hand. People coming out of schools today think that they are going to come out of school and be Emeril in a year; it’s a problem I see over and over again. People should just be excited to cook. You never get that time back. I was a line cook for six or seven years before I became a sous chef. Once you become a sous chef, you end up making more money and it’s very hard to go back. You kind of crave the responsibility. I was very lucky that after I was a sous chef for Anne [Rosenzweig] for two years, I went to Italy. I was 28, and I went because I thought, ‘If I don’t do this now, I’m never going to do it. I’m going to start making too much money, I’m not going to be able to afford to go.’ You have to just enjoy the learning process and what you’re doing and not worry about moving up the ranks. That cooking time is fun and you should enjoy it. And I would suggest going abroad. I think it’s the best thing I ever did for myself, to experience not just the food but another culture.

IS: I would agree: don’t skip the basics. I was a line cook for a long time---more than most. Anyone who shows any promise as a line cook is a sous chef after two years now. I think that you need to spend at least five years as a cook, minimum. Spend that time cooking and learning, and if you don’t have an absolute driving passion for the work, don’t do it, because you’ll find yourself five years down the road wanting to get out. You have to be passionate, because it really takes everything you have.

---Anne E. McBride