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.