Leo Robitschek Creates a Cocktail Program For Eleven Madison Avenue

Leo Robistchek

What made you become a mixologist , any bartending or culinary schooling?

I started “bartending” while attending college in Miami. In retrospect, I was an awful bartender, mostly slinging shots and beers.

After moving to New York City, I decided to leave finance and return to school in pursuit of a medical degree. This led me to my first real experience with hospitality. I began working at Sushi Samba under the guidance of Paul Tanguay, now of Tippling Brothers Consulting. They required all staff to partake in mandatory sake, beer, wine, and spirits classes. This is where my love affair for cocktails and spirits began.

“I started at Eleven Madison Park in 2005, and met General Manager Will Guidara in 2006; where he challenged me to create a bar program rivaling Pegu Club and Milk and Honey (both in NYC). My initial response was less than favorable. But never one to back down from a challenge, I immersed myself in all spirits and cocktails. I began by reading every book and blog available, as well as attending all industry seminars as much as I possibly could.”

I am blessed to have bosses who recognize and develop talent. Their blind trust in me was not only motivating, it was inspiring.

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Where did your career begin and what landed you in New York, being a native of Venezuela?
My parents moved to Miami when I was young and I moved to NYC following college. When I started at Sushi Samba in 2002 the New York cocktail scene was really just beginning. Sushi Samba was the first place I worked at that used all fresh produce and ingredients.

While Sushi Samba was a springboard to awaken my interest, Eleven Madison Park was the real birth of my hospitality career.

Do you have some favorite flavors and spirits you like to mix with?
It is truly hard to pick just one and the “favorites” change seasonally. I’m currently working on our spring menu, which usually leads me towards aromatized, and fortified wines. I love using mescal and sherry in cocktails as well as atomizing spirits for the addition of aromatics components.

What’s the process and research behind creating a signature cocktail for a menu? Are some of your cocktails a spin-off from the classics or completely created from scratch?
I compare cocktails to baking or cooking in that you must master classic recipes before you can create new ones. All recipes are derived from classics: spirit, sweetener, bitter and/or sour. When creating a new cocktail you substitute specific ingredients within each of those categories and yet at the same time achieving balance.

“Our program is a mostly proprietary cocktail rooted in the classics. We are lucky to exist amongst an amazing kitchen/pantry, which allows us to have access to top-notch produce and ingredients. We also use modern techniques such as rapid infusions.”

Do cocktails seem to be a pre-warm up to meals that are usually served with wine? Do you develop cocktails that can be paired with a meal from the restaurant’s menu?
There are various cocktail categories, one of them being aperitifs or “pre-warm up to meal” cocktails. They are usually lower in alcohol and awaken the appetite.

There are also digestives, or cocktails and spirits made to aid digestion after a meal. While we do not have a set cocktail pairing, we have created cocktail pairings on a case-by-case basis.

How did you sharpen your craft of mixology?
It’s all about knowledge. I read every book, and attend every seminar and tasting I can. I also allow my staff to participate in the creative process. We inspire and push each other to become better. We also taste all of the cocktails multiple times. I am lucky to have some of the best palates in the culinary world just steps away in our kitchen.

Any mixologists that inspired you along the way?
The bartender culture in New York is amazing. We are all ready and willing to share ideas and concepts. Jim Meehan and Julie Reiner have been great inspirations and mentors. Dave Kaplan, Alex Day, and Don Lee are great friends and have all given me priceless insight. I am also inspired every day from my bar staff and from our kitchen.

What’s one cocktail that is currently your favorite on Eleven Madison Park’s menu?
I love the Black Dahlia: Mescal, Muscatel Sherry, Unicum, Grand Marnier, and grapefruit twist
I also love the Siegret Sour: An ounce of Angostura bitters, Venezuelan rum, lemon juice, sugar and egg white

How often does Eleven Madison Park change their cocktail menu? Is that your task and if so, how do you choose what cocktail to lose or to add to the menu?It is my task to change the cocktail menu seasonally – 4 times a year. The bar team has multiple meetings leading up to the change where I tell them what cocktails are changing (we keep 1 or 2 transitioning cocktails), what category of cocktails we need, introduce new spirits, and discuss flavors to focus on for the season.

Is there an “in season” for certain cocktails? If cocktail trends change, is it possible that there’s also a change in what the different generations are thirsting for?
Winter tends to be more Amaro heavy, and you see richer cocktails as well as hot cocktails. While in the summer rum is popular within cocktails, as well as lighter, refreshing, citrus based cocktails. It would be odd to have eggnog in the summer and pina coladas in the winter.

“We do use many seasonal ingredients within cocktails like rhubarb and apricots. The new generations of cocktail drinkers are going back to drinking classics, or our grandparents’ drinks.”

Looking into your crystal ball…where do you see yourself in 5 years?
Definitely in cocktails and food! I see myself continuing my work with Will and Daniel in creating unique projects that are hugely impactful to our industry.