James Beard Awards: NYC’s 2013 rookie class

Get to know the culinary talent—chefs, restaurateurs and bartenders—repping NYC at the James Beard Awards for the first time this year.

Leo Robitschek

Leo Robitschek Photograph: Nathan Rawlinson

Leo Robitschek, the Bar at the NoMad
Nominee: Outstanding Bar Program

Where were you when you found out about your JBF nomination? How did you react when you heard the news?
I was at work testing recipes for our spring menu and our general manager, Jeff Tascarella, came to the bar to congratulate me. I was caught off guard, wasn’t quite sure what he was referring to. I was completely taken aback. The nominee list is diverse and well thought-out, full of talented people doing amazing things. I respect all of the teams behind the bars nominated.

The NoMad has gotten a lot of love this year—TONY awarded it Best New Restaurant of the year at our Food & Drink Awards. How does it feel that the bar program specifically was singled out by JBF? What does a James Beard Award mean to you?
I am so proud and humbled to be nominated. Opening the NoMad was a huge undertaking, and this nomination, just a year after we first opened our doors, recognizes the work that our entire team put into it. I view our team as the best in the industry, and this nomination makes us all want to continue striving towards excellence.

The NoMad obviously has a very sophisticated, pedigreed kitchen, courtesy of Daniel Humm—how much does the kitchen influence the bar program? Is there a lot of crossover with ingredients?
I always say that the kitchen is my biggest tool. Not many bars have the luxury of a walk-in full of fresh seasonal produce and a team of honed palates. I feel so lucky to have a kitchen team that’s excited about cocktails and always willing to help. There are some influences that come from the chef’s flavor combinations and choices of seasonal ingredients, but the biggest asset to me is their unending collaboration, their willingness to lend a tool, to share a technique or to help taste through our cocktails.

You revamped the cocktail program at Eleven Madison Park into one of the best in the city and went even bigger for the NoMad, in terms of volume and variety. Other than the sheer quantity, what is the biggest difference between the two bar programs? Is it different running a hotel bar from a restaurant bar?
The NoMad was our chance to take what we did at EMP and apply it to a larger, looser setting, taking inspiration from the great hotel bars of the late 18th century. We have a larger selection of cocktails at the NoMad and execute them in high volume, while at Eleven Madison Park we explore innovative techniques and presentations that are best executed on a smaller scale. At EMP, we play with various clarification and carbonation methods, and we get to collaborate with the kitchen more directly with our seasonal kitchen cocktails.

There are plenty of classic cocktails on the menu and the space itself evokes a luxe 18th-century hotel bar—how often do you revamp the menu to include more modern cocktail trends? What are your favorite and least favorite trends in the cocktail world right now?
Our list is comprised of eight to ten classics and about 25 proprietary cocktails. The menu changes seasonally but is rooted in the classics, using modern techniques and flavors. My favorite trend is the use of low-proof, grape-based products, such as sherry, aperitif wines and vermouths. I’m also excited about methods of infusing flavors, including rapid infusions using nitrous oxide. I am not against any trend, because I love the idea of exploration and curiosity, but if I had to choose my least favorite, I would say barrel-aging of cocktails. The lack of consistency in the process brings out my OCD issues. 

What is the cocktail you’re most proud of at the NoMad? What was the inspiration behind it?
It’s hard to choose, but I would say either the Old Alhambra or the Start Me Up. When coming up with the cocktails for the NoMad’s opening menu, I looked for inspiration in the history of the neighborhood. It was one of the first times that I came up with cocktail names before actually coming up with the cocktails themselves. Old Alhambra was the name of an infamous saloon in the area, and I knew I wanted something manly to represent the Moorish Fort in Spain, but also something smooth, smoky and playful. The Start Me Up holds a special place in my heart because it was the first real collaboration with my head bartender, Jessica Gonzalez. I hired Jessica from Death and Company because she made delicious cocktails and exuded genuine hospitality. When we started recipe testing together, we realized that we had very different palates. It took a good three weeks—and some blood, sweat and tears—before we clicked. This was the first drink that was a true collaboration between the two of us—it represented a beautiful and lasting change in our work dynamic.

Other than your own bars, where are your favorite places to go for good cocktails in New York City?
I love what Alchemy is doing at Pouring Ribbons. They make some of my favorite cocktails in the city. The Dead Rabbit blew me away. They are so hospitable and so focused. Jack is one of the most impressive bartenders I’ve met. Also, Karin at Little Branch makes me feel special and at home every time I walk through the door.

If you win the James Beard Awards, how will you celebrate?
I hope that this may be the first James Beard Awards in five years that I won’t be behind the bar, working a raging party that we host. Though realistically, I wouldn’t know how to celebrate in any other way than behind the bar with my team.