Robynne Maii, Chef Instructor

Robynne Maii, Chef Instructor
When we first got together with Robynne over the summer, it was pretty apparent just how passionate this girl was about her food - whether it was through the photos she shared of her recent Persian pilaf obsession, or the very patient way she handled her gorgeous apricot tart. One look at her meticulously organized cabinets (check out her freezer!) seriously had us itching to run home and clean out our own unkempt pantries. We couldn't be happier to have someone as knowledgeable and downright nice as Robynne kick off Pantry Confidential with us.

Read on for Robynne's trusted pantry items and which chefs she thinks "give a shit about their food"!

Please tell us what you do.
I teach culinary and pastry arts classes at Kingsborough Community College (CUNY). Last fall, we rolled out our new culinary arts AAS degree (we are the only school offering this degree in the New York metro area). I feel very lucky and privileged to teach with tremendous colleagues and to share my enthusiasm for all things related to cooking, eating, and experimenting different cuisines with our students.

What made you decide to go into culinary arts?
When I graduated from Middlebury College with a degree in English and modern dance, I was offered a teaching position at an all girls school in Manhattan - teaching, of all things, English and modern dance! I couldn't stop thinking about food and turned the position down and moved back to Honolulu and enrolled in the culinary program at Kapiolani Community College. It was important for me to pursue a career that I felt passionate about (I know this sounds cliche, but it's true!) and I could see myself enjoying for many years. Culinary arts is constantly evolving and there are endless things to learn. Everyday, I feel grateful for an opportunity to work with my hands and create delicious food. It's exciting and rewarding and I feel an extra responsibility to not only teach my students how to cook, but how to cook responsibly - minimal waste, good safety and sanitation, identifying quality ingredients, caring where our food is sourced, composting, recycling, and overall, becoming more involved than just putting food on a plate.

How would you describe your cooking style? Has being a Hawaiian in New York City impacted your food aesthetic at all?
I like rustic ethnic home cooking from all cultures - food made at home for either everyday cooking or for special occasions, but nothing that requires liquid nitrogen, sous vide, gums, etc. (I think molecular gastronomy is important and fascinating, but it's not how I like to cook). I mainly draw from the French and Italian repertoire - which is interesting, because I didn't grow up eating a whole lot of either cuisine.

I've been in NYC for 12 years and my palate has changed. I stopped eating white rice everyday during my first year here and have learned to love other grains - kasha, quinoa, spelt, barley, as well as pasta and couscous. I also go through phases where I'll do an intensive study of a particular cuisine. My latest obsession is Persian cuisine. No one makes pilaf like the Persians! The food is hearty, sensual, yet not overly aromatic with spices.

Moving to the East Coast has introduced me to really paying attention to eating seasonally and locally. In Hawaii, we have access to incredible tropical fruits, but I never really had great apples, pears, berries, and stone fruit until I started shopping at the Green Market. All these fruits and many vegetables are flown into Hawaii and are inevitably sub-par at best. During my visits home, I look forward to the papaya, mango, and apple bananas and likewise, when I return to NYC, I look forward to each season's offerings.

A lot of the ethnic culinary influences are Asian, yet the "local" food really has evolved into its own cuisine. It's a taste I don't find outside of Hawaii (well - perhaps in Vegas!). But, I've fallen in love with all the Mediterranean cuisines and when I go home, cook my family something new to give them a break from white rice, soy sauce, and meat. I think one of the most important things I learned from growing up in Hawaii is developing a good palate. People in Hawaii can cook! My mother and father are great cooks and I grew up eating well-seasoned home-cooked meals nearly every day. I feel that I bring this sensibility to my cooking style.

What are your favorite things to cook and eat at home with your husband?
On the weekends, we love making frittatas. I have to be careful because I can easily eat two eggs per day. We also love roasting chicken and make it about once a week. I've been experimenting with Chad Robertson's Tartine Bread book. It is brilliant and I've been baking some spectacular loaves of bread made from a natural yeast starter. We toast this bread nearly every morning for a quick breakfast. During the winter months, I make kimchee chigae pretty regularly to stave off the chill!

What's your go-to dish that's sure to draw raves from guests?
Korean-style braised short ribs (kalbi chim/beef Bourguignon hybrid) or slow-roasted leg of lamb (marinated with herbs, garlic, anchovies, lemon zest) or Zuni roast chicken and bread salad.

What are you favorite kitchen utensils or gadgets?
Kuhn Rikon Original Swiss Peeler: best peeler ever; comes in fun colors; useful for ribbon salads.
Sitram pot ware: great value and even cooking.

Top pantry essentials in your kitchen?
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- Red wine vinegar
- Kosher salt
- Maldon Sea Salt
- Shoyu
- Rice wine vinegar
- Pasta
- Anchovies
- Crushed chilies
- San Marzano whole plum tomatoes
- Unbleached all-purpose flour
- Granulated sugar
- Hellmann's Real Mayonnaise
- Sriracha Hot Chili Sauce
- Unsalted butter
- Chilled Champagne
- Water crackers
- Large eggs
- Parmigiano-Reggiano

Who are your cooking inspirations?
- My father and mother
- Claudia Roden
- Richard Olney
- Edna Lewis

Which chefs do you admire?
This is such a hard question to answer simply! Too many to list! But, as of this moment:
- Gabrielle Hamilton: love her food - simple, gutsy, delicious
- Sara Jenkins: ditto from above - some of the best Italian I've had recently
- Nick Anderer: if we lived in Manhattan, we'd go more often - superb pasta
- Zak Pelaccio: I'm totally on the Fatty 'Cue wagon - some of the most addicting food I've ever eaten

These folks give a shit about their food! You taste it in every bite!

Do you have a tasty hole-in-the-wall you'd be willing to share?
Thai Son on Baxter for pho.

Whose pantry(ies) would you like to raid?
Families with lots of children because there's always fun snacks!

Where do you shop for kitchen supplies?
- A Cook's Companion (Brooklyn)
- Broadway Panhandler
- JB Prince

Best tips for novice home cooks?
- Start with what you love to eat.
- Don't recipe hug! Improvise and relax!
- Learn to use salt!

What do you like to listen to while you cook?
- Frank Sinatra
- Hapa
- Nina Simone
- Louis Prima
- Jay-Z

Favorite cookbooks/blogs/sites you get inspired by?
- Canal House Cooking Cookbooks (all)
- All cookbooks by Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford
- All cookbooks by Claudia Roden
- In the Sweet Kitchen by Regan Daley
- The River Cottage Meat Book by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

Sites (I'm not much of blog/site reader)

* * *
Robynne's Apricot Tart

1 recipe pâte brisée (see below)
1 cup frangipane (see below)
1 lb apricots
½ cup apricot jam
2 tablespoons apricot or cherry brandy (optional)
¼ cup pistachios, toasted and coarsely crushed

1. Roll out pâte brisée and line tart pan. Dock with a fork and chill until firm.
2. Blind bake tart shell for 10-15 minutes at 375F. Cool.
3. Spread frangipane over tart shell.
4. Halve or quarter apricots and nestle in decorative pattern in frangipane.
5. Bake tart at 375F until crust and frangipane is golden brown (frangipane will puff up around fruit), about 35-40 minutes.
6. Heat apricot jam in a small saucepan and loosen with 1 tablespoon water. Bring to a simmer and stir for an even consistency. Take off heat and add brandy if using.
7. Brush apricot mixture over tart—being generous.
8. Sprinkle nuts on tart as a decorative border.

Pâte Brisée (Flaky Tart Pastry)
Yields: One 10- to 11-inch tart shell

1¼ cup all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
½ cup unsalted butter, cold and cut into small cubes
3-5 tablespoons ice water

1. Combine flour, salt, and sugar in a medium bowl. Cut butter into flour mixture until butter is the size of peas. Add water, starting with 3 tablespoons, and use the tips of your fingers to toss until dough holds together when squeezed. Add a little more water if necessary.
2. Form dough into a flat disk and wrap with plastic wrap. Chill at least two hours to rest. Dough may be stored in freezer up to 2 months.

Frangipane Filling (almond cream)
Yields: about 1 cup

7 oz almond paste (not marzipan)
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon almond extract
½ teaspoon kosher salt
2 oz unsalted butter, softened
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1. In a bowl of an electric mixer, beat almond paste, sugar, extracts, and salt on medium speed until uniform in texture.
2. Add butter in chunks, being sure to scrape down bowl between additions and maintain a cohesive mixture.
3. Add eggs in one at a time, scraping down bowl and beating well after each addition. Then finally, add flour.

Thanks for the beautiful recipe and peek into your pantry, Robynne!

*Photos by Christine Han Photography for Pantry Confidential. All photos on Pantry Confidential are original and copyrighted. Please credit and link back to our site when using our images, thank you.


  1. Fabulous. I feel like I'm in the kitchen with her. Takes NYC pretentious cooking down several notches to remind us that good food needs heart not extravagance.

  2. Great stuff! Every spice with its own hand printed label. I need to u tube the old SNL anal-retentive chef skit. In all seriousness, love the piece and photos.

  3. kimberly woodberryNovember 2, 2011 at 9:24 AM

    I'm one of her students at kingsborough and I'm happy to be in her class cause she re energized my love for baking

  4. Bravo. Immediate connection to Robynne's style. Down to earth; insightful; funny; and she obviously knows what she is doing!!! A welcomed change from an industry taken over by the "Hollywood" glitz and glamour. Real people - real thoughts - real cooking/baking. Love it.

  5. Great. I have taking many of her classes and the one thing that has stuck with me is never be wasteful.

  6. Thank You. What a great profile. I'm inspired. Thanks for sharing the pantry list and favorite cookbooks. Love the photos. Now I want to try the recipe.

  7. Hey guys! I LOOOOVE this new blog / idea! Looking forward to reading more and kitchen raids =)


  9. Chef Maii is a real big inspiration to us all. Iam one of her students and I'm glad to say that she is the best at what she does and I hope to one day feel the joy in teaching others all the cooking techniques I learn from her. She's great ; )

  10. Chef Maii you are awesome!! I am definately taking some notes for my new kitchen


  11. Chef Robynne Maii is amazing!! A true cooking artist! Her Apricot Tart looks scrumptious! She is also an inspiration! I'm cleaning out my pantry, re-organizing my freezer and stocking up on her pantry essentials! By the way, awesome photography!

  12. Thank you for featuring Chef Robynne Maii, she is truly incredible! Her love for cooking shines right through! Someone should offer her a spot on her own cooking show!! She would be great!

  13. As a colleague, I count myself as lucky to work with Robynne. She has a great sense of humor about life and her passions - a great balance of truly serious and not taking herself seriously.

  14. I am one of Chef Maii's students at Kingsborough. Not only is she an amazing creative chef, but she is patient and kind as well. She is always willing to share her her knowledge; therefore, you are always learning when working with chef. She really is, soooooooo organized and a neat freak. I feel blessed to know her. Congratulations chef!

  15. Love it! This was such an awesome read with great photos to go with it. Full of juicy content!!!

    (Congrats you guys!!!) - June

  16. Beautiful Photos! Love the concept and the great detailed answers... thanks for this awesome new blog :)

  17. My new favorite blog for foodie adventures and inspirations. Beautiful photographs and a well written piece! Bravo

  18. Great interview and photos! Can't wait to see more...

  19. I was enraptured- by the photos and the writing! Excited for your next post! And motivated to do some pantry overhaul. :)

  20. Looks so good! And impressed By how organized her kitchen is!

  21. You are so RIGHT ! There is nothing greater than doing what you love. Great career choice ! You are one talented, admired chef .....
    I am glad I actually had the opportunity to meet you.

  22. I could not stop reading this. Wonderful new site and feature. I can't wait to see what/who else you feature. Robynne is a breath of fresh air. She is obviously serious about cooking but doesn't appear to take herself too seriously, totally relatable. And quotable!!

  23. Fantastic interview and amazing pictures. I'm inspired by her love of cooking and her love of life. She maybe a great chef, but an even better person. Love ya Rob.

  24. Chef Maiiiiiiiiii!!! you are the best!!!

  25. I was Chef Maii's former culinary and pastry student at Kingsborough. I love you and will never forget you. You're a true inspiration to me.