Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Lisa and the Loebotomy

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Todays news reports that Lisa Loeb will be starring in a new tv series on E! Entertainment Television about moving back to New York City and searching the dating scene for a new mate. I don't know why I found this intriguing enough to write about because I barely know Lisa Loeb. I mean, I know she's a singer, but that's about it. I don't listen to her music and never thought much about her until this morning when I saw the article on

So, here's my open letter to Lisa Loeb:

If you're really looking for a new mate why on God's Earth do you want to televise that fact nationally? Perhaps you're difficult to get along with - why let the public see that up-close and personal? Let them guess. You're a cute girl with cool-looking glasses. That "Girl Next Door" look goes a long way, don't mess it up now.

But if you're really looking for a new mate, come down to Baltimore and hang out with me. I'm crass, rude and unapologetic about the way I live. I have very little interest in the lives of celebrities so you'll get no special treatment from me because of your singer status. In fact, I can't stand "talent." Usually "talent" are just bratty, whiny and super-narcisstic. I can get that in my own mirror thank you very much.

Hang out with me and hang out with real people. People who work for a living. I'll even teach you how to make killer espresso and shave ice.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Something Different

Finally, I've taken the time to read something other than a business-related book. And what a pleasure it was. For awhile there I was just getting too bogged down in business books and nothing else. A narrow focus makes for a dull mind and I was certainly feeling a bit dull there.

I've been wanting to see the Broadway musical "Wicked" for quite some time now, but since I hardly get up to New York City anymore, it's kinda difficult for me to make it happen. Or perhaps I'm just not motivated enough to see a show by myself anymore.

Either way, I spotted the book at the local Border's Books and decided to pick it up. It's all about the Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, a certain Elphaba who would have become the Eminent Thropp and the leader of Munchkinland had she followed a different path.

There's too many reviews about the book already on the Internet so I won't go into it here. Suffice to say that the book started off pretty slow in the first few chapters. It almost lost me. Then it picked up steam and I plowed through most of it in a few days. I thought it was interesting to see a different view of The Witch and how she's not really "evil" - she's just another misunderstood person who sees things from a different point of view and has to live with the choices (or mistakes) she makes. Kinda like most people I know.

Now that Wicked is finished I'll be starting on a couple of other books I have queued up here. The choices are: "Beat The Craps Table" by Martin Jensen, or "The Game: Penetrating The Secret Society of Pickup Artists" by Neil Strauss.

I'll let you know later my choice.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Celebrity Podcasting?

What kind of craziness is this? Way back when (1987) I did a stint at a local college radio station playing music and talking trash about whatever came to mind in the mind of pseudo-new wave, punk rock clubkid. The Cold War, a bleak outlook, Bauhaus, Nitzer Ebb, Tackhead and Hall & Oates. It was a mish-mash of the times.

Eighteen years later I'm once again doing something very similar. I've been roped into something called "Podcasting." It's a form of underground radio where people can do what they want and say what they want. So myself and my cohort in crime in Washington, D.C., Nick Cho, are doing a show on our current vocation in the coffee business.

We finished our first podcast earlier today and it's a decent first effort. It's kinda funny and somewhat interesting, we touch on a variety of subjects pertinent to today's modern barista. Things like the Barista Guild, barista jams, coffee cupping, gossip, ethical journalism and Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith. We even have our own guest star making an appearance via telephone, a certain Miss Bronwen Serna of Hines Public Market Coffee in Seattle and the 2004 US Barista Champion. And like any somewhat competent media outlet, we even break news!

Perhaps it will catch on and become the biggest thing in coffee since hot water, or perhaps we'll die a slow death in Internet media Hell. But for now, we're planning on more guest celebrities, more coffee tastings and just odd humor.

And yes, Luke Skywalker is a fag.

If you're interesting in listening to this odd chatter, visit

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Jon Lewis: The Barista's Thomas Keller

Let it flow,
Let it flow,
Let it flow.

It was like a mantra to be repeated over and over again. An enchanted experience taking the audience where no other barista has gone before. It was the USBC presentation of Jon Lewis.

I've seen Jon Lewis, barista at Coeur d'Alene's Cafe Doma, twice now. Once at the Northwest Regionals and most recently at the United States Barista Championship and each time he's given presentations that are so unlike anyone else that he really is in a category all by himself.

John operates at a whole different level than the rest of us. While my fellow barista competitors are working on their coffee skills, serving skills, server protocols and how to be a good showman, Jon Lewis is doing something else. He's fabricating carbon steel stands for his barley grinder. He's fabricating a water fountain from Mazzer grinding burrs and La Marzocco Linea heater grates. He's not only working on espresso, he's working on creating a whole new world to operate.

Let it flow.

Like Thomas Keller of The French Laundry fame, Jon Lewis is doing things to a different standard. He's consistently nurturing an environment that sucks you in and leaves you fascinated and a touch bewildered. Everything is carefully planned and plotted, from the music to the words to the motions to the signature drink. It's over the top and no one comes close to matching his game.

That's what it is - a game. A game where only Jon knows the rules - to hell if it jives with what the USBC wants. This is Jon's game and he's playing it hard.

His USBC performance started out with his mantra of "Let it flow." Yes, at times it seemed forced. Yes, some of the scripted material was cheesy. But you forgave all that because there he is with a hand grinder grinding away at some malted barley because he's about to make wort for a signature drink in the style of beer.

Over the top.

And judges, there's a freakin' water fountain on your table!!!

Who knew?

Like watching Keller in his kitchen, I'm blown away by the whole thing. I can't keep up with that. The first thing that comes to my mind when I see this grinder mounted to an impossibly heavy-looking welded carbon steel base is: How did he get all of this here? Did he rent a tractor trailer? I can't imagine. All I can think about is how outrageously expensive the FedEx bill must be to ship that monstrosity across the country.

HIs presentation progressed through the usual espresso and cappuccino course but everything was calculated and thought out. You could see that Lewis had probably spent months honing this presentation for this moment while I suffered through a few brief hours over the past two months pretending that I was practicing my cappuccino making.

By the time Jon reached the signature drink, everyone was glued to their seats. What was this crazy guy going to do with that wort and how do I get the chance to taste it? Mixing the wort with espresso and then charging it with carbon dioxide in a seltzer bottle - simply amazing. Squirting the mixture rushed thoughts of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo through my mind and I suspect that those memories too were calculated by Jon.

Watching all of this makes me afraid to visit Cafe Doma in Idaho. Afraid because I've seen Jon weave his magic and create a world for us. I'm afraid that the romance will be broken. That a visit to Doma won't be a magic mystery tour. That we'll arrive at Doma only to find Jon schlepping 20oz. vanilla lattes like the rest of us hacks.

It's too horrible to imagine.

I have to say though that Jon's game is so different, I wonder if he'll ever have the chance to win the USBC. He's doing his own thing and I think it probably hinders his scores a bit.

But whatever, no matter what I'm looking forward to the next barista competition presentation by Jon Lewis - because I'll be glued to my seat in anticipation of what he's going to do next.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

I Hate You Mister Sorbetes


After a five-year hiatus, there it was.

It was back.

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I guess it must have been more than five years ago, definitely in the late 1990s, I was visiting Manila, Philippines and found myself (as always) stuck in traffic on the EDSA. For those of you unfamiliar, The EDSA is what Filipino civil engineers call a circumferencial road. Meaning: it goes around the city. But really, The EDSA and it's counterparts are more like a half-circle, radiating out and around the sprawling megaplex that is Metro Manila.

In a word, The EDSA is insane.

All day, and most of the night, it's jam packed with vehicles and people. In the 90s, it was commonplace that a trip on EDSA would take hours. The same trip that took hours would take fifteen minutes when they finished building the MetroStar elevated railway in the late, late 1990s.

But that's not important to our story.

So, there I was, stuck in traffic. Sitting in the passenger seat wondering how much longer this short commute was going to take us when I spotted one of the many billboards that line The EDSA near the Araneta Coliseum. It was a billboard for Magnolia ice cream - the national ice cream of the Philippines and the weathervane for the tastes of the nation. But this wasn't just any old vanilla or chocolate they were advertising. Oh no. This was for Queso Ice Cream.

That's right, Cheese Ice Cream.

God, if that didn't sound nasty. Just utterly disgusting. Horrific. Words could not do justice to the horrors in my mind about eating a cheese-flavored ice cream. That's like mixing slices of Kraft American with your vanilla sundae. Yuck!

Mark that down as something never to try.

I was in Manila to visit friends and family. It's always a fun trip. The details of which are irrelevant for this discussion. But about two weeks later, I find myself at a family gathering where some bright mind had the idea of: "Let's bring the Pride of Our Nation Ice Cream so that our cousin from the States can taste real Filipino ice cream." To my horror there was a half-gallon tub of Queso Ice Cream.

Most of the time, I try not to be rude and since they were oh so excited to let me try this, I couldn't just tell them: "That's fucking disgusting, get that crap away from me!" That would be rude. So, I played along and let them serve me a small cup of this cheese-flavored ice cream.

The texture was like most Magnolia ice cream I had tried in the past: creamy but slightly coarse, if that makes sense. Oh, but what was that little nub on my tounge? I think it was a small bit of cheese. Yes, definitely small bits of cheese. Like chocolate chips in cookie dough ice cream. It wasn't nasty. It was just weird. The flavor was odd too. It tasted like, well, cheese. But it was weird. And strangely compelling.

I can't say that I liked it, but I didn't hate it either. It has such a compelling taste that I wanted to figure out. I had another serving. Still odd. Still strange. Still compelling. I had to have more.

In the end, I must have consumed nearly half the tub.

But I still didn't LOVE it. It was just too weird. But too compelling to stop.

Fast forward to this evening. My parents were hosting a party for a family friend so I went to the party. And what were they eating at the end? Magnolia Ice Cream. Not Queso Ice Cream. This time is was Mais Con Queso.

Corn and Cheese Ice Cream.

And there was that odd and strangely compelling flavor from my past.

Damn you Mister Sorbetes.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Eat THAT La Marzocco!

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Finally, after months of pondering and weeks of actually trying to get it done, the lighting mods on my La Marzocco Linea 3AV are complete.


As you can see, it's quite dramatic. The LED strips came in a couple of days ago and were installed right away. It just took a couple of days for me to get in the mood, wait for the right conditions and start my photo shoot with the Linea. And yes Auntie, that's Hines 'Spro flowing from those portafilters.

Thomas Keller - Eat Your Heart Out.

I dare you to do this with your Unics and your Illy Pods...

Cap ou pas cap?

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

The Day I Beat Thomas Keller

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French Laundry. Bouchon. Per Se.

Icons of the American restaurant scene. The mere mention of the name Thomas Keller subjects chefs around the nation to intimidation, fear and mediocrity. Read anything by Anthony Bourdain and you'll see a chef gushing about the man and his Yountville encampment.

It was a bright and sunny January afternoon that I made my way over to Yountville after attending the Barista Guild of America directors meeting. The French Laundry. A $60 rental car. It wasn't a sightseeing trip. It was a pilgrimage.

For a mere mortal like myself, landing a seat at The French Laundry means swift use of your speed-dialer, the kind help of people-in-the-know, or an Act of God. And since my speed-dialing is poor, I don't know the right people and didn't feel comfortable asking The Creator to help me for something so self-indulgent, I made my way into the wine country content with the notion of enjoying a late lunch at Keller's French bistro, Bouchon.

I have the cookbooks (both "The French Laundry Cookbook" and "Bouchon"). I've read them thoroughly and couldn't wait. In fact, I was so eager to eat in The World of Keller that I didn't eat at all morning. My only consumption was an espresso at Steve's new Blue Bottle Coffee stand on Linden Street in San Francisco.

Luckily, the weather was beautiful. Slightly cool in the upper fifties but with bright sunshine - so taking a seat outside, in the sun, was a no-brainer. My server Gerald brought me a full bottle of Vittel and recommended a couple of wines to go along with my meal of a half-dozen raw oysters and the steak and frites.

How was the food? Beautiful. The oysters were perfect. Succulent, briny and expertly shucked with no visible trauma to the shells. Juicy flavor. Fantastic. The steak and frites was also wonderful. Perfectly cooked to a medium rare, the meat was just the right shade of bloody pink and had a soft, chewy texture with solid flavor that matched brilliantly with the Joseph Phelps Syrah Gerald recommended. In fact, both wines Gerald recommended were stellar with both the oysters and the steak. Brilliant.

It was a relaxed, slow and oh-so-enjoyable late afternoon lunch. Basking in the sunlight, it was as though the world was shining on my face.

Time for dessert.

By this time, I had decided that I would have a cappuccino. That would be perfect: Espresso, milk and foam with exquisite sweetness - a perfect way to end a great meal.

Before I had been seated, I took a run to the rest rooms where I passed Bouchon's two group Unic espresso machine. Evidently, Keller takes this French thing so seriously that he even uses the French-built Unic. I had the opportunity to work with a Unic several months ago while visiting Small Town Coffee in Kapa'a, Kaua'i and was more than interested in seeing just what this machine could do.

I'm somewhat adventurous when it comes to food and when I feel as though I'm in capable hands, I'm perfectly comfortable with allowing the staff to choose for me. I simply asked Gerald to bring me whatever he felt best complimented the cappuccino.

As I sat there, basking in the Northern California sun, I noticed a tall-ish man in a chef's coat and a dark-haired woman in a dark suit walking past. "Hey, I swear that was the lady I saw in The French Laundry Cookbook." Gerald confirmed that they were indeed both Thomas Keller and general manager Laura Cunningham. I was giddy with excitement seeing such stars casually walking down the street on their way to another night serving food that I've never tasted.

Those of you who know me know that I've met a lot of movie stars and celebrities. No big deal. Let Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie walk by and you'll hardly get a yawn from me, but let Chef Keller and General Manager Laura walk by and I'm ready to stalk them - at a good distance, of course.

My dessert was a chocolate mousse. Served in a small cup with several biscuits, the mousse was light and delicate. A great pairing idea for a cappuccino.

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One of the biggest problems in the American restaurant scene today is the lack of attention to the coffee being served. So many chefs and restaurants go to great lengths preparing their dishes but end on a low note by serving poor examples of coffee and/or espresso-based drinks.

I'm sad to say that Bouchon was no different.

All this work. All this planning. All this anticipation. A wonderful meal. Spoiled by a bitter, lackluster and slightly offensive cappuccino. The portion size was about right. The ratio between coffee, milk and foam was about right. But the flavor was just, well, not so good. Bitter, burnt, bubbles, no sweetness. It was a cappuccino in serious need of the two sugar cubes that came as an accompaniment.

It was no better than my neighborhood Starbucks.

At three dollars, at least it didn't cost more than my neighborhood Starbucks.

So what to do? Send it back and ask for another? No. It's unlikely the replacement would be any better. Besides, I was in Yountville, eating at Bouchon and planning on walking over to see the famed French Laundry. I wasn't about to let a crappy cappuccino spoil my afternoon amongst the stars of the restaurant world.

After bidding Gerald a fond adieu, I made my way next door to the Bouchon Bakery where I spied lots of tasty French pasties - none of which would make it back to the East Coast in suitable condition. Croissants, baguettes and more. I ended up with a Ham and Cheese sandwich for the plane ride and a bottle of Mexican Coke that I tore into right away.

By this time, I had figured out that Equator Coffee prepares the coffee for both The French Laundry and Bouchon. But the espresso being served in the bakery is Illy and in pods. Pods. PODS??? Here's the bakery of the world's greatest chef and they're serving espresso made from pods that have travelled from the other side of the planet???

Where was I? In some sort of culinary and coffee Twilight Zone?

Pods. Bah!

Again, another Unic espresso machine. This one though was rigged for pod use. Two pods per grouphead.

Strange looking.

Cool looking.

But pods?

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I wandered down Washington Street, past Beard Plaza, winding through the neighborhood and a small park with a water fountain, to the famed French Laundry. I had read that the French Laundry is a small place, but it was smaller than I expected - and much more nondescript. Just a simple facade of dark wooded two-story structure with small, brass plaques letting the initiated know they have arrived. There's a covered walkway running along the length of the building that opens into their inner gardens

I didn't know my way around and I must have looked rather befuddled walking awkwardly around the premises. Even though I knew I had zero chance of eating there, I had to check it out. In Bourdain's A Cook's Tour, he chronicles a visit with chef friends as they gather in the window peering into the kitchen. I was content to do just that.

The grounds were spectacular. Sort of a California meets Japanese garden kind of thing. The gravel curbside on Washington and in the back parking lot were being carefully groomed by The Man With The Rake. All of the walkways had been freshly hosed down, giving the place that movie-quality look. Staff in various modes of dress were rushing about setting up their stations, arranging plants, putting together table centerpieces and who knows what else.

Okay, I'll admit it. My timing was poor. I got to Bouchon later than I hoped and ended up at the French Laundry around 4:30pm. With a staff meeting at five, everyone was frantically doing their final cleaning and prep. Through the only windows I could see into, the cooks, in their chef whites and aprons, were scrubbing off the stainless tables, hosing everything down, drying them and then climbing into the windows to clean the glass and the frames. By hand.

Though a side door, I spied Thomas Keller sitting in a directors chair in a small alcove. On the phone, probably speaking to some purveyor somewhere in the world about a special ingredient he must have at any cost. Either that, or he was just sitting there on hold like the rest of the world.

Suddenly, a young server named Ben jumped out, tie dangling around his neck and asked me if I would like a tour. A tour? At 4:45pm? Is this guy serious? Well, I didn't travel all the way across the country and rented a sixty dollar a day car for a few hours just to turn down a tour invitation of the object of my pilgrimage.

Looking back on it all, I must have looked like a total doofus. One of the other servers, an Asian female, noticed my shirt and proclaimed that she loved Hawaiian Shave Ice. In my awe of being addressed by Those Who Work The Best Restaurant In The Nation, I barely managed a thank you.

As we made our way through the side door, Ben showed me the main kitchen. We stood there in the hallway, next to the alcove where Keller had been on the phone and that's when he finally acknowledged me with the "What is this idiot doing here on a tour at 4:45pm," look.

Intimidated, I would have preferred to melt into the walls.

There I was, no more than three feet from the person who has been hailed as the "world's greatest French chef" and he wasn't looking particularly pleased with my presence. So much for the photo opportunity and autograph signing.

But really, I don't think he was all that pissed off by my standing in the middle of the kitchen hallway. He started off with a curious look from his director's chair, gave a glance at the logo on my collared shirt and was probably wondering: "Who is this guy in the shave ice shirt and why the hell is he in my kitchen at 4:45pm!?!??!?"

So, if you ever read this Chef Keller - my apologies for getting in the way.

My tour of the French Laundry continued with Ben leading me around, through the hallways, everyone rushing, but quietly, around, getting everything just right for another night of world-class service.

The French Laundry has 18 tables and seats about 85 people per night. Everything is in immaculate condition, right down to the polished wood railing for the upstairs staircase.

What's this I spy in a server's alcove? Another Unic espresso machine. There really is a theme here and I'm starting to wish for my La Marzocco Linea. Doesn't this guy know anything?

Ben continued showing me around, the service wine cellar, the space where they prep desserts, fold napkins, keep china and God knows what else. I saw everything but was so in awe, it's like I saw nothing. Everything moved so quickly, I just couldn't absorb it all in time.

"Any questions?" Ben asked me.

"No, not really."


Of course I had questions! What kind of espresso do you use? What blend? Who prepares it? Are you serving your Coffee and Doughnuts tonight? Could I see where you prepare that salmon in a cone amuse gueules that everyone raves about? Could I meet the Chef? Could I talk more to that attractive server who likes shave ice? Can I sit in a corner somewhere and watch? Or wash something during service?

But I didn't say any of those things. Just some lame answer about how I didn't have any questions and with a friendly push, I was spit back out into the garden, wondering just what happened and where was my Mexican Coke?

There it was, sitting on the outdoor bench where I had left it not more than ten minutes ago.

What was I to do? I've seen Mecca and now what? Do I just go home? Is it that simple? No French Laundry meal? I didn't ask the receptionist, but I should have. I have to ask. I can't leave without asking. So I head back inside and ask the pretty blonde if by some miracle they might have an opening for lowly little me - the lonely single diner.

Hmmm, maybe.

Maybe? Damn, that's the best answer I've heard in two years! Over the past two years, I've tried calling many times. The very first time, I got through, spoke to a receptionist about a particular date and then said that I would call back when everything was in order. I thought it was pretty easy.

I have never succeeded reaching a live person since.

Eh, Eh, Eh - that's all I hear when I call The French Laundry. That busy tone that means I've been relegated once again to the unloved, ungraceful and outcast masses who must forever look through the glass window like the homeless.

Maybe there might be an opening. If someone cancels. There's a chance. She wants to take my name and number just in case. I'm thrilled. Then I remember that French Laundry dinners are long, lavish affairs and I ask how long will dinner last. Three hours is the reply. A 5:30 seating and finish at 8:30, but my flight to the East Coast leaves at 10:45. I'll never make it. I don't want to make it. But I don't want my first meal at The French Laundry to be one worried about making a flight on US Airways, so I reluctantly decline, tuck my tail and walk out as more staff carry centerpieces through the front door.

My day in Yountville, Bouchon and The French Laundry is over. I have to accept that and drive away from this hallowed place. In one day, I've managed to soak it up in the hotel jacuzzi, visit a great new coffee stand in San Francisco, pick up a car, drive out to wine country, spent money recklessly while eating great French food at Bouchon, pick up a meal for the plane at Bouchon Bakery and irritate a world renowned chef at The French Laundry. Not bad for one day in Northern California.

I leave with the knowledge that our little shop in Timonium, Maryland makes better cappuccinos than some of the world's most famous restaurants.

It is a grand triumph, no matter how small.

Thank you Thomas Keller.

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