The Dandelion Chandelier Luminary Café is the place to find a series of personal interviews with fascinating people who are stellar achievers in their chosen field of endeavor. Our Luminaries are sharing their origin stories, life philosophies, secret songs, guilty pleasures and hidden talents. It’s guaranteed to be illuminating.
Leo Robitschek is the Bar Director for Make It Nice, the group that owns and operates Eleven Madison Park, The NoMad, and Made Nice in New York City. A member of the team since 2005, Leo has played a significant role in the development of the group’s cocktail program at both Eleven Madison Park and The NoMad. A native of Venezuela, he first began working in hospitality while attending the University of Miami, but it was upon moving to New York City where his appreciation for the craft of cocktails began to come into focus. He helped reinvent the cocktail program of Eleven Madison Park, and was promoted to head bartender in 2009. With an approach that stressed balance, the best ingredients, and technique, the cocktail program mirrored the same high standards as those of Chef Daniel Humm’s kitchen. Since opening The NoMad and Elephant Bar in 2012, Leo and his team have been the recipients of numerous Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards; the James Beard Award for Outstanding Bar Program; and best bar in North America and #3 in the world on the 50 Best Bars list in 2017. Leo is also the author of The NoMad Cocktail Book which appears within The NoMad Cookbook.
On a drizzly grey early November afternoon in Manhattan, we sat down in The Library Room at the NoMad Hotel for a cup of tea and a lively conversation with Leo.
Tell us your life philosophy in 6 words or less.
Question everything, but commit to something.
How did you decide to do the work you’re doing now?
I started working in hospitality out of necessity, and stayed with it because of love. In college, I was a bartender at a couple of clubs where the quality of the drinks was not the primary concern. Then around 2002 I started working at Sushi Samba. We were required to take classes in wine, beer and saki, and I enjoyed them. Growing up in Miami, I had always had a love for New York City, especially the heyday of the iconic hotel bars like the Algonquin and the Oak Room. When I moved here, I was disappointed to see how they had lost their magic. So when I started working at Eleven Madison Park for Danny Meyer, and inherited a lot of different and unusual spirits, I started recreating classic cocktails. Back then, there were only three cocktail bars in Manhattan doing anything like that: Flatiron Lounge, Milk and Honey and Pegu Club. When Will and Daniel arrived, they set out to make Eleven Madison Park the best restaurant in the world, and we all agreed that it should also have the best bar in the world.
Who lights you up?
My family and my friends. The family I have, the family I choose, and the family I work with.
How do you like to celebrate?
Surrounded by friends and family, with good food, good cocktails, good wine, and good music. And a shake of the derrière.
If you could travel anywhere, where would you go? Where would you stay?
I’m lucky that I get to travel a lot as part of my work. Thailand is at the top of my list for places I’ve never been to and really want to visit. If I did that, I’d want to stay for a few weeks. So in the short term, I’d love to go to San Sebastián and eat great food.
What’s the last new food item that you tried for the first time? Did you like it?
Wow, what haven’t I tried? I love trying new weird things. I guess the last one was a new flavor of chips from Korea – Honey and butter potato chips made by Haitai Calbee.
What song is on your playlist that people would be surprised by?
I don’t think anyone is surprised by anything I do! I’ve been going through a bit of a disco phase lately; I’ve re-fallen in love with it. Donna Summer. Sister Sledge. I was watching “The Get Down,” and they were playing a great song – it turned out to be “Telepathy” by Christina Aguilera. That led me down a dark disco hole. I also love Sam Smith.
What’s your favorite form of exercise?
I like hiking. Also skiing and weight training. Soul Cycle is a great hangover cure: the people are nice, you’re listening to the same songs you were dancing to at the club the night before, sweating out the same alcohol you drank the night before, and it’s dark. And dancing. I love to dance. But I am not into dance classes.
Who is your favorite artist?
Jean-Michel Basquiat. As an art form, I love dance and watching dance performances. Love Alvin Ailey during the holidays.
What are you reading right now?
Airplanes are my time to read. I’m also in a book club. Right now I’m reading Jim Meehan’s new book Meehan’s Bartender Manual. And also the novel My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent. It’s very intense.
Tell us about your style.
Polarizing! I live in extremes – I’m either in a tuxedo or a T-shirt and jeans, and rarely anything in between. I like a quiet night in, or going all out.
What is your favorite item of clothing? Who’s your go-to designer?
Favorite items are coats and shoes. Maison Margiela and Belstaff for coats. Prada and Gucci for shoes. And even though he doesn’t design for men, I like Erdem – when I see a woman wearing one of his dresses, I always think they look good.
What’s your dream car?
Over the summer in the Hamptons, I got a chance to drive the new BMW 7-series. It’s insanely nice. It has what I call “the Harry Potter feature:” you can program it so that when you wave your fingers in front of the dashboard you can change the music and the volume.
What are you looking forward to?
I’m really looking forward to Thanksgiving with my family. I’m looking forward to going back to my favorite taco place in Mexico City: it’s called Los Cocuyos, and it made Alex Stupak’s taco map. I asked a lot of different people for their lists of best taco places in town, and this one kept coming up. Last time I was in Mexico City, I ate there every night. On January 20th we’re opening The NoMad Los Angeles at the corner of 7th and Olive downtown. I’ve got tickets to a Sam Smith concert next June. And a vacation at some point would be nice.
What skill do wish you had that you don’t currently possess?
I wish I could sing. I would like to be able to see better – my vision is lousy. I would love to learn how to fly a plane.
What’s your hidden talent?
I can hula hoop really well. I won a competition in kindergarten. And last summer, in Montauk, I totally dominated in another contest. I am also an extremely good sack-racer. I always win.
What’s the most extravagant thing you’ve ever bought?
A Maison Margiela coat.
What’s the best gift you’ve ever received?
My dad once gave me a Patek Phillipe watch – but not by choice. I was attending a wedding that he was also a guest at, and I forgot my watch, so he loaned me one from his collection. Then my mom – from whom he was already divorced – said “don’t give it back.”
What’s your guilty pleasure?
On New Year’s Day I always order soup dumplings and cereal milk from Momofuku and watch “Beaches.” Then I do a “Kill Bill” marathon.
What does luxury mean to you?
Partaking of or being surrounded by things that make you feel more special and different than you did before.