A look inside the NoMad with bar director Leo Robitschek
Feb 25, 2019
Squeezing into a seat is nearly impossible and yet the crowd doesn’t scare the cocktail aficionados away. We asked Robitschek about how he built such a loyal following, exquisite cocktail menu and influenced Manhattan drinking culture as we know it today.
You’re a highly influential bartender! How did you start out?
I started bartending in college, but that wasn’t really cocktail [focused]. Years later, in New York City, I decided to apply to med school so I started working in hospitality again. I began working at SushiSamba in New York City, where I took spirit, sake and wine classes. I started falling in love with beverages. I eventually left and started working at Eleven Madison Park in 2005, when no one was really doing a cocktail program. It was a nice platform for me.
What was that like?
I could do whatever I really wanted! I could experiment. After the first year, I asked if I could work on a cocktail list and eventually I became head bartender, kept working and really created the program.
How did the Eleven Madison Park program translate to the NoMad Bar?
Will [Guidara] and Daniel [Humm] asked if I would take on a bigger role, so I helped design the NoMad space with them and then I created the cocktail program there, two years after the hotel opened. There’s been an evolution at both places. In the beginning Eleven Madison Park was almost like a smaller platform, but it was grander. There have been different iterations of the menu, at Eleven Madison Park, we feature seasonal ingredients that are featured on the [food] menu. NoMad follows that format, so it’s a similar style, but a bigger menu that’s more classically driven with a more fun presentation, we’re more playful. We’re bringing craft cocktails to a classic hotel bar setting. And we have large format, shareable cocktails.
Where did you get the idea for the now iconic shareable drinks?
It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, that I’ve always loved. [In New York], we don’t have the biggest homes, so we tend to go out to places to entertain our friends and have a good time.
How has the menu at the NoMad Bar evolved since it opened in 2014?
We’ve gotten a bit more savoury and eclectic, while still being rooted in the classics. We’ll use yogurt or different vegetables.
What about the alcohol-free “soft cocktails”—like the Peter Piper made with pineapple, black pepper, pickled passion fruit and lime – where do those it in with the NoMad Bar experience?
It’s a nice option for people who choose not to drink or don’t drink for health reasons. Why not be able to give somebody the same experience? This also came with the idea of being more green – we make so many different syrups to just go into one drink and they go bad and lose their quality over a while. So we don’t have to waste any of these syrups when they’re in the soft cocktails.
How else do you go green with your menu?
We always have sustainability in mind. A lot of our cocktails come with our [food] menu development – if there’s something leftover or something that’s not going into the food menu that could go to waste, we like to use it in a cocktail. One year we had pickled strawberries in a salad, but there was all this beautiful pickling liquid leftover, so we made a cocktail out of that, making it into a shrub. At Eleven Madison Park, we’re doing fermented asparagus juice. We do find ways not to waste so much and use as much as we can. But there’s definitely a lot more we can do!
What do NoMad Bar fans have to look forward to in the near future?
We’re going to be doing a new format menu. We’ll still serve out classic menu with aperitifs, light spirited and dark spirited cocktails, reserve cocktails and more, but we’re also starting what we’re calling The Library Collection. It will be based on a book, which will change every year. It will be eight different cocktails, and the first book will be George Orwell’s 1984, selected by our manager, Pietro Collina. This menu is going to be even more experiential – we’ve taken it even more over the top, everything will be thematic around the book.