When I was a kid, I wanted to be just like Batman. I mean, didn’t we all? Yet unlike other 10-year-olds, it wasn’t his rippling muscles, dark costume, and endless array of shiny gadgets that I dreamed of possessing. No, it was Batman’s real superpower that I wanted: his knowledge. He knew everything about everything, and forget fighting crime, I just wanted to somehow gain the same level of infinite mastery that Bruce Wayne had.
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Fast-forward about five years: I stumbled into a Starbucks as a gawky, wide-eyed teenager and applied for a part-time job. Humble beginnings they may have been, but that was my doorway into the coffee industry. I then worked as a barista for the next half a decade—yet I still wasn’t Batman.
Then one day, a friend of mine introduced me to a BBC show called Heston’s Feasts. I was glued to the screen. I couldn’t believe food could be prepared and served with that much expertise, that much mastery. I had my new Batman. I wanted to learn to cook the meals I saw Heston cook and so, slowly, I began to experiment with food.
So I went to culinary school. I spent two whole years learning about mirepoix, meat, mis-en-place, and meltdowns. When I finally graduated, I felt—I kid you not—enlightened. I had learned so much more than just how to cook. I had learned how to keep calm under intense pressure, how to work at breakneck speeds, how to keep my station spotless, and how to work with people from a great variety of backgrounds.
I ended up working in kitchens around the country for the next two years or so, but like that first lover you never forget, coffee never once left my train of thought. I read and learned about every new brewing method available, and scraped together as many part-time shifts as I could possibly get behind a coffee machine. It was exhausting, but I couldn’t stop. Being behind a bar slamming out flat whites made me feel calm despite the chaos.
Why Cheffing Makes You a Better Barista
Fast-forward another 5 years: I opened up my own café and suddenly found myself back behind the bar again. I made it my mission to apply every ounce of culinary knowledge I possessed into the caffeinated beverage to elevate it to the next level. I wanted to make coffee in a way that no one had seen before, but in a way that preserved the integrity of the product. And for this, my background as a chef was invaluable. Why?
1. Greater Standards
I’m going to say something that might upset a great lot of you. Compared to cheffing, being a barista is really easy. Instead of working with 50 products, I’ve only got to focus on two: coffee and milk. Even easier, the milk comes in packages while the coffee is put into one machine that grinds it for me and then another that turns it into espresso. I’m not straining my back poaching 300 eggs for a Sunday brunch service, I’m not watching over a pot like my life depended on it, and I’m not losing fingernails chopping things into ruler-precise measurements.
Even the margin of errors we work with are almost negligible. I’m not sweating bullets because I might completely ruin an irreplaceable $800 piece of meat—if I pull a $0.80 shot of espresso wrongly, I can just do it again, and again, and again.
Yet, thanks to my chef background, I can’t be satisfied with redoing things again and again. I die inside every time I see a barista waste a carton of milk just for the sake of latte art. Wastage is a real issue in coffee but, had I not gone through the nightmare of food costing, I would probably chuck a cappuccino because I didn’t get my rosetta perfectly symmetrical too.
The biggest difference between being a chef and a barista is customer interaction. The hardest part of cheffing was not seeing the customers. As a barista, I talk to them about my coffee. I smile and laugh with them on a daily basis. But as a chef, the only real feedback I could get on my dish was seeing how clean the plate came back when the waiter brought it to the sink. The only human interaction you really get in a kitchen is with your colleagues, so it can get lonely—especially when you realise that you’re just another faceless drone making table 2’s eggs.
Yet what you miss in customer interaction, you gain in team interaction. Teamwork is crucial for chefs. Unlike coffee, where a single barista can make a drink from start to end entirely by himself, in the kitchen each dish will have at least three people working on it. The Stagier probably peeled those potatoes, the Chef de Partie probably made that sauce, the Sous Chef probably grilled that piece of meat, and the Head Chef was probably the one to plate it all up to perfection. Many, many hands are needed to make a singular product all come together—and if one link is broken, the entire chain falls to pieces.
Yet as I said, my main objective in my own café is to elevate coffee to the next level. As you may have noticed from my articles on Perfect Daily Grind, I love to innovate. For me, the implementation of new techniques came surprisingly naturally. Brewing a coffee felt a lot like the process of making a great stock: showcasing the natural flavours of an original product by extracting it delicately with water. And after spending so much time being exposed to many different types of flavours, I was able to brew with a sharper palate and a much wider perspective.
Modernist cuisine: cold-infused dashi made in a porthole infuser. Credit: http://www.theportholeinfuser.tumblr.com/
Working with food taught me how to manipulate flavour. Sweetness is easily affected by shifts in temperature; saltiness, in small amounts, enhances other flavours; bitterness can be made delicious as the element of complexity is introduced; and acidity can be balanced as it is combined with other flavour elements.
One bartender I work with taught me the theory of balance used in building cocktails. I lean on that principle when it comes to making signature drinks but, of course, without my knowledge of food and coffee combined this would be very difficult to execute. I would have no idea how to actually go about putting a complex and delicate ingredient—like speciality coffee—into the mix without masking or overwhelming it completely.
Abhishek C. George, my partner in crime. He’s awfully annoying but he does make a terribly good drink. Credit: http://www.theguardian.com/
4. Operational Excellence
Knowing how to work as a chef and a barista certainly didn’t hurt when it came to running the café operations, either. If my barista is sick, I can jump behind the bar. If the chef is missing in action, I can simply step back into the kitchen. Plus, the supervision and training I’m able to provide my staff has also improved since I know exactly what they have to do and how they should be doing it.
It may feel silly, or even detrimental to your abilities, to shift your focus onto something you don’t consider yourself remotely involved in when you could be practising coffee techniques—but learning cheffing or bartending is about more than how to cook a lasagna or pour a pint. It’s about flavours, balance, teamwork, high standards, and a wider understanding of our industry. If we want to excel at coffee, we should start by immersing ourselves in other aspects of the food and beverage industry.
Special thanks to contributions by fellow Chef-ristas: Becky Martinez, Timothy Alexander Jay, Dean Mackay, and Eric Squires.
Perfect Daily Grind.