Making a good mess with
Heirloom Kitchen’s Neilly Robinson
PHOTOGRAPHED BY JENN HALL
In Neilly Robinson’s sunlit Asbury Park kitchen, the sourdough starter is ever hungry. Fridays through Sundays, Robinson, the founder of Heirloom Kitchen in Old Bridge, bakes bread for the cooking school’s new weekend chef ’s table and supper club. Launched in November 2016, it is helmed by chef David Viana, who garnered high praise from the New York Times while working at the Kitchen at Grove Station in Jersey City. Much of Robinson’s fresh bread goes with her to work at Heirloom Kitchen. But she keeps some aside for sourdough French toast breakfasts with her husband and business partner Jason Robinson.
The breakfasts are a nod to tradition: Growing up a bit north of here, Robinson remembers making challah French toast with her grandmother. Her mom’s meatballs and gravy also stand out in her memory: “We had a corner banquette where I could sit on my knees and watch my mom at the stove. I would hang out there a lot,” Robinson says.
In her own kitchen, clad in a bright apron from Japanese brand Fog Linen Work, she performs a virtuoso baker’s dance, guided by chirping timers. Still, she is modest. “Until I interned at Moxie Bread Company in Louisville, Colorado, I had never really baked bread,” Robinson says. As it turns out, even a short internship in a serious baking operation makes a difference, both in skill and in the setup of one’s cooking space. There are food-grade buckets in various sizes and an Escali scale for precision.
Then there are the French oven mitts from Mastrad. “The chefs at Heirloom laugh at me when I use them instead of a bar mop, but I swear by them,” Robinson says. Not only do they stand up to a molten Dutch oven, but the outer portion goes into the dishwasher and the liner into the washing machine. For a self-proclaimed neat freak, this is a boon—though lately, Robinson says, it’s “been feeling good to just let go and make a really good mess.”
She thanks baking for that revelation: Flour has a funny way of traveling.
In time, bread emerges crackling from the oven. “I love that sound,” Robinson says, placing it on a rack near the window. We move to her midcentury-inspired dining room, where we sip fresh-pressed Honeybell orange juice and water poured from a vintage Blenko pitcher. Awaiting the next timer, we discuss the intersection of her two kitchens.
“The simple act of
gathering around a table
and sharing a meal can
stop time in a way.”
You opened Heirloom Kitchen with your mother, Judy Rosenblum. Is your family food-centric?
For sure. My mother is an Eastern European Jew who wishes she were Italian! Though my parents were always foodies, I think my mom really upped her game once she had her three girls. She took pride in running the household—especially the kitchen—and was constantly coming up with new dishes to cook. She also has a design background, and I think sometimes decorating the table was almost as important as the food itself.
That has clearly translated in your life.
I worked in fashion for about ten years in New York, and studied fashion design. I feel like my taste has definitely evolved, even since doing Heirloom.
How did the idea for Heirloom Kitchen come into focus?
My first stab at trying to be an entrepreneur stemmed from wanting to be my own boss, and then exploring, “What would I do?” In 2012, my mom and I were out to dinner at Jean Georges’s ABC Kitchen. Dan Kluger was the chef at the time. It was spring, and there was pea pesto on these beautiful British Victorian plates. My mom was in a place where she was soul searching, too, and we came up with this silly idea—it sounded silly at the time—that we should do cooking classes out of her home. That was the first seed.
What’s the meaning behind the name?
Heirloom Kitchen is really about skills, recipes, and knowledge being handed down generationally—the same as with an heirloom plant.
Food & Wine dubbed you one of the world’s best cooking schools in 2015. Has it been a whirlwind?
That was an exciting moment. We were really proud to be nationally recognized.
Tell me about your latest evolution.
We started as a cooking school and retail boutique. We’re now a chef ’s table and cooking school. It was something we had always discussed, that if we were going to redo our business concept it would be a restaurant with a private food lab.
We’ve had chefs from all over the tri-state area do pop-up dinners—Black Eyed Susan’s (Harvey Cedars); Jockey Hollow (Morristown) was in when they just opened; Common Lot (Millburn) just came in and did a dinner with us; Andrea and Jim from A Toute Heure (Cranford). David Viana was a guest chef back in September 2015, when he had just received three stars from The New York Times. I loved David’s food and his progressive philosophy in the kitchen. When he was parting ways with Barrio Costero (Asbury Park) more recently, I suggested that he spend the holidays at Heirloom. A week later, my husband and I both said, “Why would we want David to go anywhere else?”
From the start, our whole mission has been about food education. When people come into our space, it’s so that they can learn something, whether it’s in a class or coming to dinner.
“You’re going to cook more
if you love what’s in your kitchen.”
Has running Heirloom Kitchen changed your approach to food at home?
I use skills that I pick up there: a lot of high heat, a lot of reducing. I’ve learned that good food comes from proper care for the ingredients. It’s smart to prep things at the beginning of the month or week that you can use on a regular basis—such as chicken stock or herb oil—and have lots of roasted garlic at your disposal. Your simple food has so much depth of flavor because you spent the time roasting ten cloves of garlic. That has always been a big difference between a restaurant chef and a home cook, and we tell people that all the time. They’re making sauces and stocks and making things so much more flavorful.
What are your pantry staples?
Acid: vinegar, lemons, and limes. I love making curries, so definitely turmeric, cumin, and chili powder. We do kimchi fried rice a lot during the work week. Quick, high-heat cooking is the way to go.
How does your personal style translate into your kitchen and dining space?
I am definitely into midcentury. It’s polished in a sense, but also very warm. My parents live in a very modern home and the colors are like a Miro painting: yellow, red, blue, and very white, with a lot of glass. For me, it’s more about having something modern in vibe but very warm and cozy.
And the paintings in your kitchen?
They’re my great-grandfather’s, and they are pre-Warhol. He was a fine artist, photographer, and painter.
You’re throwing a dinner party. What’s on the menu?
I usually start with a nice cheese-and-charcuterie plate to snack on while cooking. I like serving one-pot meals and not coursing anything out; it feels less formal and you’re able to enjoy your guests more. We’re lucky to have met some great friends and cooks here in Asbury, and we love to host our friends from Brooklyn.
The simple act of gathering around a table and sharing a meal can stop time in a way. The crazy day falls away and you pass the bread and catch up with one another or get to know one another. Family, friends, lovers, those relationships are often built around the dinner table.
Do you entertain differently now that you’ve been running Heirloom Kitchen?
Well, my table is a lot prettier!
Do you think beauty inspires better cooking?
You’re going to cook more if you love what’s in your kitchen. But ultimately, I think it’s less about any external aesthetic and more about the feeling that your kitchen gives you. If you feel good in your kitchen, you’re going to have better results. I know what an angry bake looks like!
3853 County Road 516, Old Bridge
NEILLY ROBINSON’S HOME SOURDOUGH TIPS
- Start with a class: A solid basics class boosts confidence. As for books, Robinson recommends Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast by Ken Forkish, who also posts handy YouTube videos.
- Filter: Use filtered water and pay close attention to its temperature.
- Handle with care: Overworking your dough during shaping can impede the rise.
- Flour generously: Your proofing basket needs enough flour to prevent sticking. Keep your basket (or stainless bowl) in a cooler location while proofing, away from the oven.
- Trust your feelings: When dough reaches a full proof, it will slowly spring back to the (well-floured) touch.
- Put a ring under it: Halfway through baking, place a foil ring beneath your bread and remove the lid. This tip (from Charcoal in Yardley, PA) leads to a “dark and sexy” crust without burning the bottom of your loaf.
- Watch the weather: Bread is temperamental and responds to humidity and elevation. In winter, keep your starter in a warm location, feeding it twice a day. Or “cheat” by using a gram or two of instant dry yeast per loaf to help the rise when your starter is less active.
- Journal: Track variables to fine-tune your recipe, from ratios to temperatures. Robinson goes for 20% whole wheat to 80% low-protein, artisanal flour, with about 75% hydration. Her oven sweet spot is 495°F.