Medicine and mixology may not seem like similar career paths, but Leo Robitschek found two common threads: science and making people feel better.
“I get to facilitate people creating memories by providing them with something they enjoy that also lowers their inhibitions and allows them to connect on a deeper level,” says the medical student-turned-mixologist. “A doctor helps people [with medicine], while I help by giving them a good time!”
Today, Robitschek is serving up those good times at the recently opened Superfrico in The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas — a whimsical escape where guests can enjoy cocktails like Here Comes the Sun (a sweet and spicy tequila drink) and chef Anthony Falco’s famed pistachio mortadella pizza while circus performers stroll by.
The restaurant is the brainchild of Ross Mollison and his production company Spiegelworld, who are also behind Las Vegas productions “Absinthe” and “Atomic Saloon Show.” Superfrico encompasses an “Italian American Psychedelic” menu created by Falco (with executive chef Mitch Emge helming the kitchen), next door to the high-energy show OPIUM, whose performers saunter through the restaurant — which means having an astronaut peer over your shoulder while digging into dreamy fried mozzarella isn’t out of the ordinary. The venue also houses the Ski Lodge, a cozy après-ski speakeasy inspired by Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Vegas is a long way from Venezuela, where Robitschek was born before moving to Miami. Spending time in both places, his love for food developed early — oysters and crab among his favorites as a child — while meal times symbolized family bonding.
“We could do whatever we wanted but couldn’t miss family dinner,” recalls the James Beard Award winner. “My family also enjoyed going out, and my mother didn’t like places with children’s menus. Those were the times I looked forward to and felt like a grown-up — and what sparked my love for food and beverage.”
However, thanks to a love for science and math, it was medicine that Robitschek pursued, until working at SushiSamba hooked him into hospitality.
Later joining Eleven Madison Park as a bartender, he found inspiration in the kitchen and created his first cocktail, the Bee Lavender, by creating a syrup with ingredients used in a duck dish (Sichuan peppercorns, lavender, and honey) and mixing it with Scotch, Lillet and lemon.
Working his way up in various roles, he helped launch NoMad Hotels in New York and Las Vegas and continues working with the chain in his current role as managing partner of food and beverage at Sydell Group. He’s also Superfrico’s beverage consultant and “principal pourer.”
Robitschek spoke to VinePair about switching from medicine to cocktails, what makes Superfrico’s cocktails “psychedelic,” and how the pandemic is impacting the beverage world.
1. It’s quite a jump from medicine to cocktails!
I never imagined doing food and beverage as a kid. I remember touring schools in New York at 16 or 17 and one was a hotel school and I said, “Who would go to school to work at a hotel restaurant?”
Medicine inspired me because I was good at sciences and math and wanted to work with people. I loved being able to do or create something where you get an immediate reaction. I also remember lobbying for science kits as a kid and trying to mix things. And the first time I took chemistry, it became one of my favorite subjects. So, in a way, mixology always appealed to me.
2. Do you remember the first time you were wowed by a cocktail?
At SushiSamba, Paul Tanguay, the beverage director, made us take wine, beer, and sake classes. I never saw beverage in the light I see it now until I started learning how things are made and their history and tasting all the different nuances of flavor. That was my first awakening of, “Wow, alcohol’s much more than something you consume in a social gathering. There’s incredible technique, history, and passion behind it.”
3. What have been some of the biggest changes in the cocktail scene since you joined the industry in 2005?
Back then in New York, the cocktail scene was driven by the few cocktail bars that existed. To have a good cocktail in a restaurant was unheard of. And menus were driven by classic cocktails found in dusty old books.
Nowadays, cocktails are more culinary-driven, and restaurants are at the forefront of creativity. They have a kitchen with great culinary equipment, tools, and an incredible pantry at their disposal, which cocktail bars don’t, so we’re seeing more kitchen-centric ingredients used and lots of different flavors. Our palates as Americans have changed drastically.
4. Are there any elements of Venezuelan culture that have influenced your drinks?
I always look to dishes or experiences I’ve had when creating cocktails. Rum has also been a big influence. I’m always supportive of Venezuelan rums because every time I’d go back, it’s what I’d drink. My culture’s love for togetherness through food has allowed me to be where I am today.
5. How did you incorporate Superfrico’s Italian American Psychedelic theme into the beverage menu?
It was about thinking about American hotel cuisine in the ‘60s and ‘70s — the ’70s inspired lots of the cocktails with that psychedelic component. Also, being a restaurant that was created in Vegas, for Vegas made me think about what that meant. Vegas has always been this oasis from the world. You get to live without inhibitions and that’s what we did with the cocktails. I thought about guilty pleasures and things you want to enjoy when you’re letting your hair down.
6. What’s the “psychedelic” component to the drinks?
“Psychedelic” sometimes has negative connotations. People think about hallucinations and drugs, but to me, it’s about that [‘70s] movement of freedom, supporting small brands versus big industry, and thinking outside the box. It’s about not being restrained and taking things that are classic and turning them on their head. I took classic cocktails created around the ’70s and recreated them.
A really popular cocktail is the Pandan & Coffee, a coffee Negroni that’s psychedelic in terms of doing things you normally wouldn’t do. We’re flipping a Negroni on its head by using tequila infused with pandan leaf, a Southeast Asian leaf with coconut-like flavor. We’re also incorporating coconut milk instead of water, which gives another layer of flavor and texture.
7. Speaking of taste and texture, you wanted these cocktails to appeal to all senses. How else did you achieve that?
One example is Slava’s Snowstorm, our take on a White Russian. The bottom layer’s our version of an Espresso Martini, and the top layer’s hot foam with toasted coconut and cardamom. You drink through hot foam to get to the cold drink. We’re playing with the senses in that way.
We also have cocktails which are more whimsical like the Machine Dazzle, our iteration of an Amaretto Sour (which is typically a sh*t drink!). We’re adding fresh ingredients plus Campari to give it another layer of bitterness and depth. But it’s also visually fun and reminiscent of something you know.
8. You also created to-go cocktails for Superfrico’s Bottle-O store. What were the challenges of creating bottled drinks, and what sets yours apart from the canned cocktails out there?
RTDs have to be shelf-stable, so you have to use chemicals or ingredients that aren’t fresh to make them sellable from a mass production standpoint. But at the Bottle-O, we make those cocktails fresh every day, so hopefully, they taste better than RTD cocktails. That’s not to say there aren’t good RTDs out there, but we get more liberty and flexibility.
The hard part is that usually when you create a cocktail, it’s meant to be consumed right away, but we had to think about how it’ll sit in a bottle and change 12 to 48 hours later.
9. To-go cocktails have been handy during the pandemic. How has the pandemic impacted the cocktail world, especially now that more people are making them at home?
The pandemic’s hindered us and destroyed amazing spaces, but it’s also helped us because people have realized cocktail-making isn’t as easy as they thought. Craft cocktail bars spend hours prepping — we have two people spending eight hours every day prepping syrups, infusions, and ingredients. You can make a great Manhattan, Negroni, or Martini at home, but when it comes to more complexity of flavor, you have to spend time juicing ingredients and making syrups. People have realized how labor intensive it is!
10. How was it working with Spiegelworld?
I never realized how many similarities a circus has with food and beverage! It’ll sound hokey, but it’s been life-changing because during the pandemic, I missed having outside inspirations that pushed me to think outside the box like this place has. Ross [Mollison] and the Spiegelworld team have created an amazing space for artists, and I’m excited to hopefully continue on their journey.
11. Who’s the most famous person you’ve made a cocktail for?
We don’t usually share those experiences, but if you look online, there’s one person who’s a resident at [Park MGM’s Dolby Live theater] who comes into the NoMad and supports her band leader, Brian Newman. [Hint: She has a great “Poker Face.”] She’s an incredible human being, and it’s always an honor.