On top of the Blake Hotel in New Haven, Connecticut is a magical place. An enclosed roof top bar, covered in lush fur throws, dried fauna, and twinkling lights, High George’s season-long “Winter Garden” theme transports us instantly to a luxurious Alpine ski lodge complete with boozy hot beverages, cozy nooks, and, of course, Brockmans Gin.
The last time we caught up with Michela Zurstadt, who’s in charge of everything drinks-related here at the Blake, she was managing the bar at The Essex, where she made us a nerdy Bee’s Knees riff with candied lemon peel powder and Crème de Violette pearls. Now, she’s taken her enterprising spirit and perfectionism to High George, where she just can’t shake doing things to the nth degree.
“For two months I was working on a hot chocolate recipe,” she says, a bit self-deprecatingly. “I nailed it though, and it’s stupid good.”
As we learned the last time we chatted with her, Michela cooked in kitchens long before she ever stepped behind a bar. Now we’re learning that cooking wasn’t always her plan, either.
“I was serving at this tiny 5-star bistro, and one day the dishwasher called out. We had a lot of servers that day, so I volunteered to wash dishes. The chef/owner came up to me at the end of the night and said, ‘You just did a better job washing dishes than the person I’ve had doing it for three years. You take instruction really well, you work fast, you’re clean. I wanna teach you how to cook.’ I said, ok.”
From there, Michela moved up the ranks to sous chef, until she left to move to Florida with her brand-new fiancé.
“I was 19, my boyfriend had just been accepted to a school down in Florida, and before we were set to move there together, he proposed. We broke up 6 months later and I moved back up here. Dodged a bullet there.” She laughs.
Thankfully, her chef mentor had a job for her when she came back, but after almost three years of struggling to make ends meet, Michela took a second job at a goat farm, which she tells us was the happiest and also most exhausted time of her life.
“I took care of the baby goats, milked the mom, pasteurised, made cheese. And they had a little restaurant on the farm that was open just on the weekend, just for breakfast. So I would wake up at four in the morning to leave my house at five, to drive an hour to get to the goat farm by six. I would work there until two, then I would drive an hour back to the restaurant, and work from three until midnight, then I would go home, sleep for three hours, and do that three days in a row.”
That lifestyle wouldn’t last, however, and eventually Michela found herself waiting tables at a hip taco restaurant in New Haven. And just when she was truly over it, when she kept trying to leave the industry entirely, her manager pushed her to try working behind the bar.
“The first time I got behind a bar I realized, yo, this is it.”
Now at the helm of this enchanting roof lounge, Michela knows for sure this is where she’s meant to be. And when she misses farm life, she can always go visit her mom, who lives on her own farm full of alpacas, llamas, horses, and peacocks.
“She has so much fibre she hasn’t done anything with, so I asked her to get me a spinning wheel so I could help her with it, and now she has to teach me how to spin!”
But first, a wintry Brockmans cocktail.
by Michela Zurstadt
- 1.5 oz/45 ml Brockmans Gin
- .75 oz/20 ml Averna amaro
- .75 oz/20 ml roasted pineapple-almond orgeat
- .75 oz lime juice
- coconut-vanilla whipped cream
- Add all ingredients except whipped cream to a shaker.
- Shake vigourously for 8-10 seconds.
- Double strain into a chilled coupe, then slowly pour whipped cream until it reaches the rim.
- Garnish with a few slapped sage leaves and freshly grated nutmeg.