It’s three o’clock in the morning and I’m sitting in New York City at our local bar with a few members of my team, reflecting over a few pints on that night’s service. My day began seventeen hours earlier, at ten o’clock the previous morning—which alternately feels like it was moments ago and weeks in the past. When I walked through the door of The NoMad yesterday morning, the prep team had already been at it for hours, producing more than one hundred quarts of juice and the four hundred hand-cut citrus twists we would need for service that day. Bartenders and barbacks arrived next to ready the Elephant Bar and its sibling next door; there were infusions and syrups to prepare and inventory, tools to gather and work stations to set, cases and cases of liquor to receive and catalog.
It’s a mad dash to prepare for service; over the course of a day, hundreds of guests will come through our doors. Some will dine in the restaurant, some will lounge in the library, some will pull up a stool to sit with us at the bars. Nearly all of them will have a cocktail. Our team consists of fifteen people per night, and everyone works their asses off during their ten-hour shifts—stirring, mixing, and serving nonstop. Now that it’s 3 a.m. we should, admittedly, call it a night—because tomorrow, we do it all over again.
I began bartending at Eleven Madison Park (EMP) in the spring of 2005. At that time, the restaurant was a busy brasserie known for its warm service and accessible fare. The bar was a meeting place for local businesspeople and a holding area for guests waiting for a table. The cocktail menu comprised eight proprietary drinks unchanged since the restaurant’s opening in 1998. The bartenders were all friendly and efficient; they were as thrilled to pour you a glass of wine or fashion you a gin and tonic as to mix one of the drinks from the menu. But, as with most dining destinations in New York in 2005, the restaurant had no real cocktail culture.
In 2006, EMP began to evolve. A rising chef, Daniel Humm, took the helm of the kitchen, and a young dining room guy, Will Guidara, joined the team as our general manager. They were determined to make radical changes to the restaurant—to elevate the experience to a level worthy of the luxurious grandeur of its dining room.
As always, with change came resistance. Many of the staff had worked there for years. There were some who embraced this new direction—but for those who did not, well, their tenure at the restaurant was drawing to a close. So I was scared shitless when Will and Daniel called me into their office for a talk. I was anxiously expecting the boot, but I was wrong. They had very high aspirations for the bar at EMP, and they felt that I, acting as head bartender, was the person to take it there. They made their goal explicit: They wanted our bar—in spite of the fact that it was a “restaurant bar”—to be one of the best in the world.
In 2006, good cocktails were not associated with restaurants, let alone fine dining restaurants. There were a few pioneering cocktail bars, like Pegu Club and Milk and Honey, that were bringing back the craft of the cocktail and devoting themselves to techniques and ingredients just as chefs did. But for the most part, you would be hard-pressed to find innovative and well-made cocktails at many other bars, let alone restaurant bars.
Essentially, Will and Chef were asking me to do something that had never been done before: create a cocktail program that maintained the rigorous standards of a top-tier fine dining restaurant—drinks that weren’t just an afterthought, but expressed the spirit and philosophy of the restaurant in which they were served. It might have been my lack of confidence, or maybe my shock that I was still gainfully employed, but my first reaction was to laugh out loud. This was not the response they’d wanted to hear. That’s when I received the first of many “Will Guidara” looks. (Years later, Will admitted that he thought about letting me go, right there and then.)
I not only survived the rest of the meeting, but I also started to become very, very excited by the ideas Will and Chef were sharing. Over the course of the next two hours, we ironed out our goals. We wanted to create a four-star restaurant for our generation, one that didn’t focus solely on food and wine, but rather approached everything we served—beer, coffee, tea, and what was to become the focus of my life, cocktails—with the same intensity of purpose.
When I left their office and stepped back behind the bar at EMP, I looked at it in a way that I never had before. I couldn’t help but think about where I was four years earlier: sitting behind a desk at an investment bank. It was a good job, I was making decent money, and above all else, my mom was proud. But I hated it. After a year of trying to convince myself that this was what I wanted to do, I finally quit, officially beginning my quarter-life crisis. A friend of mine was an investor at the very popular restaurant Sushi Samba, and suggested I work there. So a few weeks later, I traded in my suit for a brightly colored shirt and tight black pants, and got to work behind the bar. Sushi Samba was one of the hippest places in town—it even made multiple appearances on Sex and the City. (The show filmed at EMP a few years later—remember the scene when Carrie found out Big was engaged and knocked over a tray while tripping down the stairs? To this day I question why they were so enamored with me and the restaurants where I was working. But I digress. . . . ) The training at Sushi Samba was intense. They required mandatory wine, sake, beer, and spirit classes, which were led by Paul Tanguay and his staff. The classes opened my eyes to the vast world of beverage, and I slowly began to appreciate in ways I never had before the things I had been serving. But my appreciation for well-crafted cocktails didn’t come until a few months later when a coworker took me to the new hot spot, Pegu Club.
It was a Wednesday at 11 p.m. when we walked into the bar. I opened the menu to see a list of unfamiliar cocktails, all of which included ingredients I had never seen. I wanted a vodka cocktail and the only one they had contained a smoky Scotch that sounded absolutely disgusting to me at the time. Maybe the bartender overheard my desire for vodka, or perhaps he saw my look of confusion, but he suggested I order a Gin-Gin Mule. I did, hesitantly. Unsure of what to expect, I glanced over at the bar while he was making my drink, and I was captivated. The process was beautiful, almost like a dance—it was clear he took his craft seriously. The way he measured every ingredient precisely using this thing that I would later learn to call a jigger
; the way he hit the mint, bunched it together, and placed it perfectly in the drink, effortlessly but with absolute intention. I was fascinated. And then the first sip. It was so flavorful—spice from the ginger, a minty freshness, a citrus bang, and gin, combined in the most pleasant way imaginable. Had I really
just enjoyed gin?
Back in the real world of my day job, I still wasn’t even sure that being a bartender was my true calling. I’d always wanted to be a doctor, but years earlier had given up on the idea because I never thought I’d be able to afford medical school. But working in restaurants in New York City, I came to realize that there was no limit to how much debt one person could be in, so I took out some more student loans in order to pursue my dream. I enrolled in the pre-med post-baccalaureate program at Hunter College and began my studies while continuing to bartend at night. Trying to juggle school, work, and life was almost unmanageable at first—homework, so much fucking homework!—until I applied for a job at one of Danny Meyer’s properties, EMP. Many of my friends had gone to work for Danny, and said he was running restaurants in a different, more respectful way. They were happy and had balanced lives; mine was full of stress and chaos. When I was offered a position tending bar at EMP, I accepted without hesitation.
Copyright © 2019 by Leo Robitschek. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.