Friday, April 28, 2006

Grilling Steaks & The USBC

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Beef Rib Steak on a Charcoal Grill by Jay.

Those of you who have been reading my posts lately on this blog and that "Bulletin Board Which Desires Not To Be Named" probably have the idea that I'm ranting and raving, going on and on about how screwed up the USBC Committee is over this latest scandal.

So I thought I would share a little bit of my personal life.

As the world of the United States Barista Championship began to shake and competitors and industry friends began to make their thoughts known about all this hoopla, I stayed true to my goals: I went home and had a steak.

First of all, I stopped off at the local Super Fresh for a nice cut of rib eye. Upon reaching the butcher and not seeing any rib eyes, he tells me (in his slightly strange but friendly, if not a bit autistic way) that he doesn't have any rib eyes. Gee, thanks. But they do have this Beef Rib Steak with the inch-and-a-half cut for $19.99/lb. So what is this "beef rib steak"?, I ask him, "And how is it different than a rib eye steak?"

He doesn't know and begins to tell me a long story about how people don't like steaks because they cook it too long. Dude, I'm not asking about cooking it - I want to know what's the difference? Is it more marbled? Is it better? How? Well, this guy doesn't know and replies that he's never tried either this steak or a rib eye to know the difference. I was just so flabbergasted that I really didn't know how to respond, so I just took the darn thing and got out of there.

$21.08 of pure beef pleasure.

The cut itself was pretty nice. Good marbling and looking slightly air dried (aged). It felt a bit resilient so I hoped it wasn't tough. Went home and pulled out my baby: a steel New Braunfels charcoal grill with smoking box that I picked up several years ago at Home Depot for $115. Hands down, this is the best grill I've ever owned - much cheaper than any gas grill and the charcoal makes it taste so good.

Ooops, I should re-phrase that. Perhaps it's not the best grill I've owned, but it's definitely the best charcoal grill I've owned. Just for the record, I also have a 48" MagicCater propane grill at the OnoGrill that I absolutely love. But that's a whole 'nother story.

Back to the steak...

I use Royal Oak natural wood charcoal because I love the flavor and because it's pretty cheap at Restaurant Depot when you buy it these huge bags. Burns beautifully and has a great aroma. I lit that sucker up and let the coals burn down while I ran into the house and powered up the rice cooker.

Okay, perhaps this is an "Asian Thing" but I love steamed white rice. It's an absolute essential for daily living. A day without rice for me is a day without sunshine. It's the perfect accompaniment. Slightly sweet and almost neutral. I liken the entree to a picture and the rice to a frame. The picture is nice, but it's nothing without the rice to frame it.

When it comes to seasoning, I cheat. Since it came out, I've been a big fan of McCormick's Montreal Steak Seasoning. Yes, I know it's a cop-out. Yes, my chef friends hate me for it, but I don't care. I like my steaks thick and crusted with this stuff. I buy it in big containers at Restaurant Depot for five bucks.

Grilling is one of two ways that I prefer to cook steaks. The other is to pan sear the steak in butter then finish in a blazing oven. It's delish. But last night it was all about the grill and I wanted that sucker to get hot.

That's the key, the bitch has got to be hot. Blazing hot. Five hundred degrees is okay by me. Once the grill is hot and the grates have turned an ashy white, it's good to go. Drop that steak on the grill and let it work. I leave it there until it crusts, then I sear it on the other side. Usually takes about five minutes each side for a 1.5 inch thick steak.

Once the sides are seared have sealed in the juices, it's time to cook the fat in the meat by taking off the heat and placing the steak to the side and closing the top so that it finishes in the oven-like heat. I leave it for about ten to fifteen minutes, but no more than twenty.

Meanwhile, I've got a saute pan with canned corn (nothing fresh yet available) simmering in half a stick of butter, a little salt and freshly ground pepper. Time it just right to coincide with the rice and the steak and God will be on my side. And when it starts to emit that roasted corn and butter aroma...heaven.

After fifteen minutes that steak is done, but it's not finished. I'll drop it on a plate and let it rest for at least five minutes to let the cooking slow down and for it just to develop a bit more. This will give me time to scoop some rice, spoon out some corn, fill a glass with ice and bust out a Coke. Grab a fork, spoon and knife and it's time to grind.

And let me tell you, while the world of the USBC was crumbling across the nation, I sat in my kitchen enjoying an exquisite steak, carmelized on the outside and a perfect medium pink on the inside. Holy Mother of God.

Then after, I enjoyed an AVO LE 05 cigar...

I Could Be Hines

Most of the Third Wave Cognoscenti (gosh, I can't help but laugh when using that!) know about Hines Public Market Coffee and their old shop in Seattle's Eastlake neighborhood. It was a cool little shop who's most notable feature was the lack of a cash register. Just a plain old cigar box for the bills and some ceramic cups for the change. Very bohemian.

Tuesday night, I'm sitting in my office smoking a big cigar and doing miscellaneous administrative work (you know, the kind of admin work that corporate CEOs do: surfing the 'Net and IM-ing hot chicks), when the power goes out for a couple seconds. No big deal, the UPS units kicked in and both the computers and network kept on running.

The next morning I come in and find that the power surge has fried the memory of our most excellent Costco purchased, Royal 9155c electronic cash register. Everything has been wiped out by this surge, including the 800+ PLUs programmed into the thing. Crap.

So, I spent two days completely reprogramming the register. It sucked. But it also allowed us to run without a cash register for two days. Two days that I found strangely invigorating, refreshing and free. Free to interact with the customer in a more casual setting without the pressure of accurately inputting the drink into the register so that we'll have historical data to compare to the past and forecast for the future.

That freedom awakened in me a desire to toss the register in the dumpster and bust out the cigar box. Suddenly, numbers and exact change weren't as important as before. I had more counterspace to lay things out. It was brilliance defined.

That's all over today since the register is programmed and ready to go. Ready to record the daily sales at Jay's Shave Ice to tell us our past, forecast our future and let us know exactly how close to bankruptcy we really are. Even as we move back to reality, my brief flirt with a register-less existence was fun - like a short, torrid affair.

I saw for one brief moment that even I, with my obsessive compulsive obsession to quantify and systematize everything, could be like Hines.

And isn't that refreshing!

Thursday, April 27, 2006

BrokeBack Barista

No, this isn't some sort of new comedy movie with baristas testing each others' tampers.

Get your mind out of the gutter and get yo hand outta my pocket!

This is serious.

A fellow barista in San Francisco fell out of a three-story building while most of us were cavorting in Charlotte at the SCAA Conference the other week. Steve Ford is his name and he built his fame with Blue Bottle Coffee. I met Steve in January 2005 just after he had opened Blue Bottle's kiosk in the Hayes Valley neighborhood of San Francisco. I personally don't know him very well having only met him once, but what a nice guy - and everyone on the West Coast from Brownwen to Dismas to the crew at Ritual all think he's swell.

So, he falls out of a building and was airlifted to a shock trauma hospital in the Bay Area where he was treated and is recovering nicely. But as some of you may know, a visit to the hospital is an expensive one. Being airlifted and kept in the hospital is exorbitant. And Steve doesn't have medical insurance.

Because of this, some of our friends have started a "Save Steve Ford" fundraising drive to help Good Man Steve cover his medical expenses.

Please take a moment of your time to consider a donation of any amount to help this effort and help a brotha out.


It's Never Dull at the USBC

If you're a regular listener of the Podcast and have heard the most recent episode, Podcast 36, then you already know what my thoughts are about the USBC Committee's spineless attempt to placate a certain Nebraskan competitor.

In a word, I think it's "Bullshit".

After the recording and release of Podcast 36, I thought I would enjoy a nice leisurely night at home. To my chagrin, a message from the USBC Committee popped into my e-mail box, it read:

April 26, 2006

To Whom It May Concern:

It was brought to the attention of the USBC Event Manager, Michelle Campbell, by the USBC Judges' Committee Chair, Tracy Allen, that there was a mis-judgement against USBC competitor, Ryan Dennhardt. This took place during his competition in the semi-finals of the USBC on Sunday, April 9, 2006.
It concerned the type of cappuccino cup used by said competitor. The cups were judged incorrect by three of the four sensory judges. Later, during the judges' calibration that follows the performance, the cups were deemed incorrect by all four judges. This decision cost competitor, Ryan Dennhardt, four points in his final score of the semi-finals.

In reviewing the validity of the judges' decision, several things came to light. Mr. Dennhardt had brought two sets of cups for his performance. Both sets appeared to be the exact same cups from the outside. Inside, one set had squared or straight bottoms and the other set had the appropriate rounded bottoms. Prior to his performance, Mr. Dennhardt had asked the advice of one of the judges to check one of the sets of cappuccino cups he hoped to use. The judge told him the cups had a flat bottom and would be marked incorrect. Upon hearing this information from the judge Mr. Dennhardt decided to use a second set of cappuccino cups he brought that did have the correct rounded bottom. During his performance, the correct cups were used, but due to the similarity of the exterior of the cups, (compared to the flat bottom cups first reviewed) three of the judges assumed that they were the incorrect cups. This was an incorrect assumption. In fact, the correct cups had been used.

As a result of this review and the events that took place, it is the decision of the USBC Event Manager and the Judges Committee that Mr. Dennhardt be given the four points that he lost (in the Semi-Finals Round) as a result of this mis-judgement.

We appreciate this coming to the committee's attention and the opportunity to correct the score. Please know that the process in place for contesting judges' decisions is there for the most transparency possible in the use of the USBC Rules and Regulations for these competitions. A complaint must be made in writing to the Event Manager and all information must be compiled immediately following the event.

It's always refreshing to see how the vanity and ego of one person ruins it for the whole.

Is this Dennhardt guy so hard-up for validation of his place in the USBC Finals that he can't let it go? What more do you want? Bullied his way into the Finals round on a bullshit call but got smacked down by the people who deserved to be there by placing Seventh. The illegitimate fact that he participated in the Finals round should have been enough. But obviously that's just not enough for this guy.

Hey Dennhardt, wake up. There's not a competitor in the USBC that believes you deserved to be in the Finals this year. And no matter how hard you try to make your placing look "legit" everyone knows that it's a sham.

At the 2005 USBC Dennhardt did a very noble thing at Cyclops in Seattle. Something that earned tremendous amounts of respect from me. He's thrown that respect away by his actions at this years' USBC.

"Cups that looked alike." What kind of bullshit is that? Each competitor knows that judges will drag their demitasse spoon on the bottom of the cup to test the "roundness" of that cup. If a USBC Judge hits you with points for a flat bottom, it's because they tested it, not because they "looked" at the outside. Let's not miss the fact that THREE OUT OF FOUR Judges scored incorrect cups. A majority of the judges said they were wrong and yet the USBC Committee is going with the minority?

Also, don't miss the point that Dennhardt talked to "a judge" about which of the two cups were appropriate. Is this one of the actual judges from his round? If so, isn't that illegal unto itself? Or did he speak with all four of his sensory judges, asking each one which cup was appropriate? Because that's the only way those three judges would have predisposed to marking him incorrectly.

And to bring that forward now after SIXTEEN DAYS?

So who was this judge that Dennhardt "consulted" about his cups? If it was the Head Judge for his round, why didn't the Head Judge challenge the rulings of the three sensory judges? He obviously challenged the minority judge to change his/her score.

It's time to lend the truth to this claim of "transparency" by providing the names of the judges involved in this incident. Is this truly a question of incompetence on the part of the judges? Or is this just a prime example of the corruption of the USBC?

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

No More Bourdain Audio Books

A Cook's Tour CD

First off, I want to make it clear that I'm a fan of Anthony Bourdain's books. Both Kitchen Confidential and A Cook's Tour. I read both of those books over and over again and always enjoy the stories. But, unlike most people, I've never, ever seen Bourdain on television or any of his tv shows. My experience with Bourdain has been strictly through his books.

On the way back from South Carolina (after the USBC and a side trip), I stopped off at a JR's to buy cigars and found A Cook's Tour on sale. I loved that book - especially the chapters on riding through the Saharan desert to eat lamb and his visit to The French Laundry - especially his visit to The French Laundry.

Upon seeing the Audio CD, I immediately thought that if the books were so good then having The Master himself, the Bad Boy of the restaurant business, reading the stories would make them come alive and lend greater insight into the mind of the master.

Please God, don't ever let me make that mistake again.

To say that I am disappointed would be an understatement.

Read his books and the man's got some prose. Innuendoes and a great writing style made the stories come alive in my mind. But to hear Bourdain read the passages... gosh, how uninspired he sounds. And that slight New Yawk accent starts to become seriously grating to the mind as he drones on in a relative monotone.

In the book, he writes almost giddy about his experience at The French Laundry. His writing of that experience is awe-inspiring and causes me to curse The Maker for not allowing me the chance to have the same experience. But to hear him read it? Oh God, it's absolutely awful. No enthusiasm. No inflections to suggest his emotion. Just a droll monotone for six discs.

And worse yet, it's an abridged version that deleted the best parts of the book.

Please Tony Bourdain, I love your books, but please don't ever make another Audio CD.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

My Barber Has A Mullet

You're right, it's a bit embarassing to admit, but it's true: my barber has a mullet. Ever the quitessential fashion statement of the 1980s, The Mullet defined a certain aspect of Life In The 80s. Not necessarily a positive aspect of the 80s, but an aspect of Life back then regardless.

Of course today, The Mullet is seen as the epitome of, well, you know. But my barber has one and he's not planning on cutting it off anytime soon.

Overall, he's a pretty good guy. Has a wife, kids and enjoys fishing on his days off. That's really all I know about him. Oh, and he knows how to cut hair pretty well too. He's a quiet kind of barber. He doesn't talk much. Just a casual mention of his latest fishing outing when I ask, otherwise, we don't talk much. I just sit back and enjoy the haircut.

But honestly, I don't enjoy a haircut as much as I used to, but I don't hate it as much as when I was a child. When I was young, back in First through Eighth grades, I was sent to Military School. Crewcuts, uniforms, marching and guns. Eight years of military school. That's two tours. And I hated every haircut I had to endure. It was worse than going to the dentist. And it happened every three weeks. Eight years. It's probably the reason why I never joined the military as I got older.

After military school came years of long hair. It was high school and the Days of Rebellion: The Late 1980s. Deconstructed jackets, thin ties, parachute pants, leather jackets, black eyeliner, Doc Martens - ah, the heady days of youth and discontent. Back then we were stuck on Comme des Garcons, Jean Paul Gaultier, Azzedine Alaia and expensive stylists who would shave the lower part of your mushroom cut for $30 a pop. VooDoo Economics, nightclubbing at Nell's Basement and at parties thrown by Michael Alig and John Sex. Such good times.

Then I moved away from the fast paced, blurry and unfocused direction of being Hip and Stylish on the East Coast while clubbing all night and going to art school during the day to a more slow and serene pace in Honolulu. There I found myself floundering from stylist to stylist, looking for something real in a haircut. I still held onto my mushroom cut for several years before transitioning to something less extreme. Toyed around with some barbers, but no one really caught my attention.

One thing about growing up in the 80s and 90s is that we're lost on tradition. There's something satisfying and comforting about tradition - especially after spending half my life telling tradition to Fuck Off. But finding that in a barber would prove to be next to impossible.

For me, the fantasy is to find an Old School style of barber. One who does it all: cuts your hair, scalp massage, blackhead removal and a straight-razor shave. Manicure would be a plus, but not absolutely essential.

Shortly after returning to live on the East Coast, I heard about an Old World English barber that had opened on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. For $185 they would give you the full treatment: haircut, shave, massage, manicure AND pedicure. Established in 1805 and barbers to British Royalty? Well, my anglo heritage demanded a visit!

Not too long after, I found my way to 900 Michigan Avenue for a visit to Truefitt & Hill. Glorious. Wood paneled and very British-looking, I thought I too could be landed gentry. And with a bill fast approaching $200 for a haircut, they thought I had the money of landed gentry. It was a great time. I must have spent at least an hour there. But at those prices, it's a luxury that I could only afford once. But I understand they now have locations in Toronto and Las Vegas. And since I'm building a house in Vegas, I just might have to go for a comparison test.

But really, jumping on a plane to get a haircut is just foolish. For that kind of money, I could keep my hair long and buy a gaggle of women to do my bidding. But a haircut is what I want and a gaggle of women just won't do.

My search continued back in Baltimore where I eventually found an old Italian barber named Enrico in the suburban enclave of Timonium - not too far from where I would start Jay's Shave Ice years later. Enrico had been cutting hair for over 40 years starting in Italy when he was young. He prided himself on his clippers. A model that he had kept running, repairing and upgrading for thirty years. This guy was the barber's answer to the traditional barista: a Lifer.

Enrico regaled me with stories of Italy and with his own homemade red wine. It was always a good time and he could cut hair. He prided himself with the fact that he "shaved the neck" with a straight-bladed razor. The first few times really wigged me out and I was shaking as he put the steel to my neck. But over time, I've found warm comfort in that carbon steel blade. Today, nothing is more reassuring than that blade expertly trimming away errant hairs.

On top of all that, Enrico would give you the full-service: a straight-razor shave - straight out of the movie The Untouchables. A hot towel covering your face to soften your rough, manly bristles. Then warm cream. Finally, the razor came down for a shave so close you'd swear you were a 7 year old boy again.

There was nothing "nice" about Enrico's shop. Just hard linoleum floors, old school white barber chairs, big mirrors, 1950s style cabinetry and pictures of baseball players, jockeys and boxers on the wall. Not the kind of pictures that had been signed by the players when they came to sit in his chair. Oh no, these were the pictures of the sports heros. Atheletes long dead who had never come to the shop, nor ever would. It was pictures of male heros for males in a completely masculine setting. No foo foo and nothing feminine. It was the kind of place where a man could be "a man" and not be apologetic about it.

As years passed, Enrico became older and his skills a bit shaky. He's retired (I think) and hopefully sitting back and enjoying his homemade wine - which, by the way, was pretty darn good for red table wine.

Someday, I'm going to open my own Male Haberdashery. It's sort of a dream. Like Enrico's, it will be a place where men can be men. A place to come in, smoke a cigar, enjoy a stiff drink, have a haircut, shave and manicure, and outfit yourself with a new wardrobe. God willing, it will even be a place where a man can select a new handmade trap shotgun.

But for now, I'm enjoying my time with my Mulleted Barber.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Competing in Fear of the USBC

A certain Darren posted a comment to my Coffee and a Cigarette entry. Don't really know which/who this particular Darren really is, but here's what he had to say:

Curious as to what you thought of the judging/judges this year. I heard they were a joke. Take what happened to Ryan Dennhardt. Yeah, they recognized their screw-up and reinstated him in the finals, but then made him pay for it anyway with a 7th place finish. When you do what the judges tell you to do and still get penalized. When the head judge doesn't catch/correct the mistakes of the other judges? This is a joke.

As far as I'm concerned, if you made the Semis you are clearly one of the top Barista's in the country. Who really cares about #1? Ryan came out of nowhere (Kearney, Nebraska actually) to make the Nat'l Finals three years in a row. He's got nothing to be ashamed of (in contrast to the Nat'l judges).

If you are going to continue to compete, I doubt you will say what you really think on this subject, but thought I'd ask.

If people really didn't care about being "Number One" then Dennhardt would never have protested the outcome of his Semi-Finals performance.

Overall, I thought the judging was pretty spot-on. Some of the best judging I've experienced in three USBC competitions.

Well, friendly Darren, you're probably not a listener of the famed Podcast where I've gone on (at times at length) about what I think is messed up about the specialty coffee industry. I even shared my thoughts rather vibrantly on the Dennhardt ruling at the 2006 USBC.

In a nutshell, I thought the ruling was bullshit.

A complete insult to every competitor at the USBC - especially the Finalists.

There is a method and a means to a protest in a competition. One would think (and expect) that such a protest be voiced and filed at the time of the incident. Not the next morning. That's worse than the Monday Morning Quarterback.

If one listens to Podcast Number 33, you'll hear Dennhardt wax poetic about missing the Finals. It's disappointing to miss the Finals, but there's no hint that anything is awry or amiss - or that he has any clue about how close his score was from the Finals or that there may have been some measure of impropriety on the part of the Judges or Runners.

All of that came later. And I think it's because someone improperly disclosed the scores.

Let's look at it from a more objective viewpoint. We're not talking about Dennhardt just missing the 15-minute mark and losing the Finals. He protested his SECOND overtime penalty at 15:30. He's already overtime and then to blame that on Runners and Judges? Like I said below, the Judges are your customers; your guests. They have the prerogative of taking their time and it's still your job to compensate. I'd give the seed of doubt if this were a case of 15:05, but it's not.

Others will desperately try to make it seem "legit." They'll argue about the integrity of the rules, or how some skeptical judge even said it looks legit. Sounds to me like they're just trying to appease the USBC Machine. Others will even question my support of the "Red Tape" - as though I'm not "Third Wave" enough to roll with this.

Fact of the matter is that I've always been a strong proponent of very explicit rules. Rules that limit and define strictly what can and can not be done. And when it comes to protests and challenges, then the rules need to be exceedingly explicit. No provision on video tape review means that there is NO video review. You cannot have video review at one competition without providing it for all competitions.

Don't get me wrong, I like Ryan. An incident in Seattle last year demonstrated to me that he can be a man of character and I respect that. However, it was a Cold Day in Hell in the competitor's room that Monday morning. From the other Finalists to the other competitors, to the members of the audience - the one remark that ran across their silent faces was: "That's bullshit."

It's disappointing to lose the USBC, but it's far, far worse to lose the respect of your peers.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Time To Get Merrie


In the world of hula, this is the biggest weekend of the year. The Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo culminates in a three-day competition that pits the best hula halau in the world in a winner takes all format. While to win the Merrie Monarch is the Holy Grail of Hula, just the chance to perform in the competition is every dancers' dream.

I competed with my halau, Na 'Opio 'O Ko'olau in the 1992 and 1993 Merrie Monarch Festivals. The last time I went was in 1998. I'd much rather be there this weekend than sitting here in Timonium.

Coffee and a Cigarette

Before I begin this blog entry, I just want to say "Thank You" to the outpouring of support and encouragement from industry peers, customers and spectators. The level of enthusiasm shown for the drink and to me is deeply appreciated and very humbling. Thank you for the kindness.

Coffee Crew

Gee Barger, Jay Cunningham, Troy Reynard

Ritual Blood

The only reason worth citing for the expense of travelling the world to compete is the friendship and camaraderie. Photos by Alistair Durie.

Last week I was in Charlotte, North Carolina where I competed in the 2006 United States Barista Championship held in conjunction with the Specialty Coffee Association of America Annual Conference & Exhbition, a veritable orgy of all things coffee from the mundane and lame to the hip and happening. Of course, I tried to associate myself as much as possible with the hip and happening.

This year's USBC was a tough one. Absolutely the best baristas in America battling it out and beating each other over the head. It was rough. It was tough. It was the meanest national competition yet.

But, in the end, I lost.

Oh well, no use crying over spilled milk.

I had my literal fifteen minutes of fame during the competition and I'm honored by the tremendous response to the performance and the signature drink. Because of this outpouring of love, I wanted to share with everyone my thoughts behind the performance, the history and the actual recipe for the signature drink.

First of all, a confession: the actual name of the signature drink was supposed to be "Coffee and a Cigarette" but while I was unpacking my gear I realized that I had lost my pack of DuMarier cigarettes and I was without my cigarette prop. Luckily, I had a bundle of JR Limited Edition Torpedo cigars and decided to substitute a cigar for the pack of cigs and hence the new name: "Coffee and a Cigar", which is actually a more accurate name for the drink based on its' ingredients.

The History
The genesis of the drink started from my early days smoking cigars in 1996 during my afternoon smoke sessions at the now defunct Rolling Road Tobacco Warehouse in Lutherville, Maryland. Most afternoons from 3p to 6p you would find myself and a gaggle of regulars puffing away on big cigars. The proprietor of this shop loved coffee and served drip brew coffee from White House Coffee in New York. Back then (and for most of my life) I hated coffee. It was this nasty, bitter drink that was a poor substitute for the coca-laden Coca-Cola. But coffee was the only beverage available and I was usually too lazy to walk next door to the deli and buy a Coke. So, I would take whatever coffee (flavored or regular, it didn't matter), pump it into a 16z cup, add six packs of sugar, a large pour of cream and that would be my smoking companion for the next two hours.

I really don't know if White House was a quality cup, but many years later when another friend opened a shop serving S&D Coffee, I really noticed that the S&D was crap compared to White House.

For at least four years, this is how I drank coffee. As an uneasy and choiceless companion to my tasty cigars. And while it was sugar and cream laden coffee, it set the stage for the appreciation I have for coffee today and the complimentary cigar flavors. In many ways, it was natural that we would come to making a tobacco based coffee drink.

Competition Theory
To be quite frank and honest, I think the competitions are incredibly boring and uninspired. I mean really, how interesting is it watching some schmoe quietly and politely serving four other people? I usually find myself turning comatose. My past experience has been so poor that I'm hesitant to watch any barista competition today. As a spectator, I want to be inspired, informed and entertained, with "entertained" being the key word here.

I find it entirely droll to listen to some barista explain why he likes to adjust the grind so that he can pull a better shot. Or that the doser lever needs to be pulled to evacuate grinds from the doser hopper and into the portafilter. Say that one more time and I'm going to bury you in cardamom - which seemed to be the favorite ingredient of the 2005-2006 Competition Season.

Because of this, I want to entertain the audience. I want them to stick around and watch. I don't want them falling asleep or wandering over to the S&D booth for a sample of their hazelnut coffee. During the 2004 NWRBC I tried a very audience-centric approach that focused alot of attention on the audience. It was a hit with the audience. And I got hit with points from the judges. Losing points is not the way to win.

And that's the bottom line, we're here to win. While we may talk about friendship, camaraderie and community, each of us secretly (some not so secretly) wants to win. It's much more fun to talk about community when you've got the big trophy and sitting in Virgin-Atlantic's Upper Class sipping mimosas on your way to the World Barista Championship. The rest of us talk of camaraderie while flying in steerage, or worse yet, staying at home pretending to be hip and On The Scene.

But I don't allow winning be the all-consuming thing. It has to be fun and entertaining. And for me, there needs to be a balance between properly attending to your customers (the judges) while entertaining and inspiring the audience.

Otherwise, you're just another stiff in a suit flying across the Atlantic in your Upper Class Suite with mimosa juice dribbling down the bedsheets.

2006 USBC Semi-Finalists

The Semi-Finalists. Note who's on the Big Screen and its' foreshadowing of Champions to come. Photo by Alistair Durie.

Service Theory
For the past couple of years, everyone involved with the barista competitions has heard the term "Five Star Service" branded about. Just what is this elusive "Five Star Service"? As far as I know, "Five Star" is the brand name of a multi-subject notebook sold by the Mead Corporation and not some actual measure of food service. Even the U.S. Military no longer has a Five Star General. And the most respected and worshipped rating in the restaurant business, the Guide Michelin, only issues a maximum of three stars. Four stars are given out, of course, by lesser publications.

Just for the record, my shop holds Three and a Half Stars for Food and Service from The Baltimore Sun. I surmise that I'm the only barista in the specialty coffee industry that actually holds a star rating in the United States. Does this mean I "know" service? No, that would be absurd. I'm just a guy trying to present an experience to our customers. An experience that is what it is, and one that is very different than what you would experience at the top restaurant in the nation.

Even if we moved away from the stars and looked to the top levels of restaurant service in the United States, I'm afraid that we (as a collective barista competition society) fail miserably. Most baristas (and judges) have never eaten at a top-tier restaurant to experience true top level service and probably wouldn't know top level service if it bit them in the butt. How can we create or judge an experience no one understands? It's really beyond me.

Visit The French Laundry, Charlie Trotter's or Citronelle and the level of service is impeccable. Hell, just go to Gary Danko or even Bouchon and the service is incredibly attentive and sharp. None of this "Hey Barry, good to see you" kind of colloquial, "I'm your friend" banter. None of this placing the serving tray on the table nonsense. None of this talking to you while you're looking at my back and I'm too busy making something to address you properly bullshit. I didn't experience my server at Gary Danko telling me some fancy about the menu while he walked back to the wait station to pick up the water pitcher.

But yet, we see it all the time. Competition baristas chatting incessantly about their blend, or how their cappuccino is "keeping it real" because it follows the "Rule of Thirds." I mean really, who cares? I know that if I was your customer, I'd want you to Shut The Fuck Up about that shit. Yes, be friendly. Be welcoming. Serve me with deference. Serve me with respect. But stop your constant yapping because I'm tuning you out like I do to the external noise while I'm trying to go to bed when staying in New York City. Jibber jabber, jibber jabber - please take your tray off my table, and while we may be friends who go out and get trashed during trade shows, I'm judging you today and because of that fact alone, I deserve greater respect and should be given such. Calling me by my first name is just improper and too casual for this professional setting.

Jay Caragay

Somehow, I finally made it onto the Big Screen. Photo by Alistair Durie.

The Experience
Many times when I watch a performance, I wonder: "Just what is this barista thinking?" "What kind of experience is she producing?" To me, a competition performance is just that: a performance. It should be thought out. I sit around thinking about the experience I'm trying to create and craft during my fifteen minutes. I want it to be fun. I want it to be informative. I want it to be memorable.

For the 2006 USBC, I took a divergence. The previous two years I focused on the origins of my company: Hawaii, by crafting drinks and experience that focused on the islands. Of course, I also lost those two competitions but it did result in one of the more popular coffee drinks on the Jay's Shave Ice menu: the Haupia Macchiato. For this year, I wanted something different. Moving away from the Hawaiian focus, I toyed with the idea of focusing on my ancestral homeland: The Philippines. Thoughts of flying there to seek out the best of the Barako Coffee (Coffea Liberica) and using that as part of the espresso blend danced in my mind, but the trip never materialized and I decided to pursue another route.

For me, the performance is about manipulation and pressing emotional buttons. I'm trying to find a way to touch on the memories of the judges and the audience and each element is designed to do just that. I want it to be slightly whimsical, but not ironic. That's why The Buddy Christ of "Dogma" and "Jay and Silent Bob" fame sat on top of the espresso machine. It's a small and almost unnoticeable detail that might play in the subconscious if it goes unnoticed, but it might generate positive and happy memories when noticed.

Of course, the signature drink served in a bright red plastic ashtray straight out of your high school pizza shop that has something to do with smoking and drinking coffee is designed to play on your memories, but so too is the music. The soundtrack has musical elements that play on the 20/30 something judge/audience member, bringing them back to their youth and what were, hopefully, happy times.

The Music
Choosing the music is no small detail. In my mind, it's an essential element that demands serious thought because it sets the mood for the presentation. My intention was to start off with something peppy and upbeat to kick it off, then transition into something mellow during the middle (mainly because it gets tiring and fatiguing to the audience to keep it continuously uptempo) and then back to something catchy to round it out. Here's the playlist from the performance:

Conga (12" instrumental) - Miami Sound Machine
Lovers Fly North - John Williams - Superman II Soundtrack
Forgiven - Bear McCreary - Battlestar Galactica Soundtrack
January Rain - David Gray - Serendipity Soundtrack
Main Title (UK) - Bear McCreary - Battlestar Galactica
Mortal Kombat - Utah Saints - Mortal Kombat Soundtrack
The Bird - Morris Day & The Time

Again, I'm trying to play on memories with some of the tracks. "Conga" reaches back to the mid-1980s and was really included because I once overheard Marcus Boni remark while another competitor played Miami Sound Machine that if he could dance, he would have (of course, he didn't). "Lovers Fly North" was a quick, 40-sec piece that places Superman and Lois Lane flying through the sky and moved us from the up-tempo to a slower pace for the cappuccino stretch of pieces from Battlestar Galactica and Serendipity. I chose the Battlestar Galactica Main Theme because it started off with a slow and haunting melody that crescendoes with taiko drums and a perfect build-up to the driving Mortal Kombat Theme - and there's almost no one in their 20/30s that isn't familiar with that theme. "The Bird" by The Time rounded out the performance as a fun ending that hopefully reminded people of their experience watching "Purple Rain."

Jay Caragay

Finishing touches on the sig drink. Photo by Dismas Smith.

The Service
But an experience is more than just the music. It's the person behind the counter. It's the barista. And what I try to focus on is the interaction with the customer (the judges). My approach is very relaxed (bordering on casual) and friendly, but I'm still here to serve. Which is why, if you listen closely, I always address the judges formally. Not by "mister" but rather "judge." For example, if I'm speaking directly to Spencer Turer, it's always "Judge Turer". It's not the stiff "Mister Turer" and it certainly isn't the casual "Spence", but it does maintain respect while acknowledging the honorific.

The tray never touches the table - ever. That's just a faux pas that I think should result in immediate disqualification. What reason is there to place your dirty tray bottom on your clean table? None. End of discussion. Need to set the tray down? Bring a tray caddy.

And I've stopped yapping while doing everything else under the sun. If I'm going to speak to the judges about something, I'm going to address them properly. This means I'm going to face them and give them my attention. Sure, I might have to refill their glasses or set the table (another peeve), but I'm not going to turn my back to them and make a drink while still blabbering on and on and on.

I look at it this way- if we were in a real restaurant, I would be in the kitchen preparing something, or at least removed from the dining room. Am I really going to yell across the restaurant to my table to describe how much cardamom I'm putting in their drink? Of course not. That would be dumb.

Another aspect of service I've incorporated follows the "Shut The Fuck Up" theory. After serving the drinks and closing my mouth, I'll stand back, allowing the judges to savor the drinks, compose their thoughts and mark their scores. This quiet time allows me to attend to my mise en place while the Head Judge and Runners do their thing. Once things are tidy and the judges still need more time, I'll quietly wait for them. Yes, time is burning, but that's not a concern I'm willing to transfer to my guests (judges). They're not under a time constraint, I am. Time is not their concern and they should not feel rushed.

Another reason to stop and wait is Power. During these fifteen minutes, this is my space and I own it. You are my guests and are under my control and environment. I control the situation and determine the order and pace of drinks. Control is confidence. And confidence instills trust in my guests. Trust that they will be served in an appropriate manner. Trust that they will receive tasty beverages. And trust that they are in the hands of a capable professional.

It is what service is all about.

Paul Garmirian

The Man Behind The Curtain. Paul Garmirian.

The Cigar
For the past couple of years, only one cigar has sufficed: the Paul Garmirian Belicoso Maduro. It's sweet. It's lush. It's been 98% perfect over the past three years. If there's one cigar that I could smoke until the End of Days, this is the one. Problem is that it costs $12.55 each! Dammit.

Paul Garmirian, or "PG" as he's known, is a very interesting cigar manufacturer based in McLean, Virginia. He's interesting, educated and well-travelled. He's got some great stories about his life - from rubbing with politicos to serenading his wife in a rowboat on the Potomac. Sometimes you think he's just bullshitting you but you don't care because the story is just too enjoyable to worry about fact-checking.

But the man, along with Hendrick Kelner and the Davidoff factory in the Dominican Republic, makes some of the best damn cigars on Mother Earth.

I stop into the PG Boutique every other month or so just to see what's going on and grab a couple of Belicoso Maduro cigars to savor until the next visit. On my most recent trip a couple weeks ago, PG asks me if I knew about the event that day - the day they were releasing the 15th Anniversary Cigar and that it was great timing. I don't know if it really was the release day, but I didn't care. When you're visiting PG "It's all good".

When it comes to PG, there's always a ton of hyperbole: "It's like a mid-1990s Cuban" or "It hasn't been this good since the Cubans of the 1950s". Well, I wasn't around before the fall of Batista so I can't comment on the latter, but I did smoke a mid-90s Sancho Panza Corona Gigante in 1995 that absolutely floored me (after a large steak dinner no less), so those were large promises indeed.

I grabbed a couple of my fave belicoso maduros, three 15th Anniv Corona Extras and a 15th Anniv BomBon - a very small and short cigar. I decided to smoke the BomBon on the journey from McLean down to Murky Coffee in Arlington to record another Podcast.

That tiny cigar hit me like a ton of bricks. Power, strength, heavy spice and an abundance of flavor. Just pure energy. And this was the teeny-tiny version. I like a strong cigar, but I have to admit, this one was borderline for me.

During the Mid-Atlantic Regionals, some of the judges commented that they had difficulty discerning the tobacco flavor in the drink. For that round, I used an el-cheapo Savoy cigar. But after reading the judges comments, I knew I needed a cigar with stronger flavor to punch through the cream. I toyed around with the idea of using a La Gloria Cubana Serie R Maduro, but I never liked the ashy character of that cigar.

However, one taste of the PG 15th Anniversary and I knew this was the cigar for the job. I'm told by P.G. that the wrapper is eight-year old Nicaraguan wrapper that came from the Placensia factory and has been in storage with Davidoff for six years. It's an exquisite wrapper encasing a wonderful blend of Dominican filler and binder leaves that makes for a strong and spicy cigar. Tobacco that I now knew would stand up to the sweet cream and pair wonderfully with the sweet and chocolate notes of the Hines Espresso.

Sanders and Hines Public Market Coffee

Colonel Sanders sports a Texan hat at the original Hines Public Market Coffee. Photo by Alistair Durie.

Hines Public Market Coffee
It should go without saying that I would be a lost, floundering coffeeshop owner offering six different flavored drip coffees and 12 second espresso shots if it weren't for the influence of John Sanders of Hines Public Market Coffee, now of Vancouver, British Columbia. The man is a coffee powerhouse. Knowledgeable, experienced and more than willing to mentor and share with a shave ice hack like me from the East Coast. I met Sanders, John Hornall and Bronwen Serna during NASCORE 2003 when I was just starting out. Sanders took some time to chat with me about coffee and that's how things got started. A few months later, I started on my USBC Tour travelling to Chapel HIll, NC for the SouthEast Regional Barista Championship, then to the Latte Art Competition in Washington, DC, to the MidWest Regionals in Kansas City, and by the Atlanta USBC, a bond had formed and Hines supplied me with coffee and knowledge helping me to finish 17th that year.

Many operators have a good relationship with their roasters. I'm honored to say that I have a great friendship with mine. I know some operators who merely tolerate their espresso blend. We're 100% enthusiastic about our coffee. Sweetness, chocolate, hints of nut. I think it's the best damn espresso blend in the industry today.

And it's a central element in the barista presentation. One thing I'm always proud about is that the blend we use in competition would be the same blend we use in the shop. Of course, the blend is tweaked on an on-going basis to compensate for a variety of things, but there's nothing inherently different about the shop blend and the competition blend.

And this week's blend was so delicious. I just wish I was a better barista to accurately deliver the flavors 100% of the time. Using the Rodo Munho bean from Brazil this weeks' blend just had tons of body, sweet and chocolate tones that I think complimented the vanilla and tobacco in the signature drink immensely. Other elements to the blend included beans from Papua New Guinea and Nicaragua - an interesting counterpoint to the Nicaraguan wrapper leaf.

Brownen Serna

An unidentified peasant grovels at Coach Bronwen's feet. Photo by Tonx.

The Drink
Now that I've written a veritable book, I'll tell you more about the signature drink. Like I said before, this drink is ten years in the making and a culmination of everything I know about food, cigars and coffee - and those of you who know me know I've eaten a lot of food, smoked a ton of cigars and tasted a bit of coffee over the past ten years. A normal person who ate smoke and drank this much would be fat...

Oh wait, I am!

The base of this drink really is about inspiration. Tony Bourdain is right when he says that The French Laundry Cookbook is the closest thing to Food Porn. It really is a wonderful tome that anyone serious about food should own. I refer to it regularly for inspiration or for tomorrow's dinner (suggestion: the poached lobster is so simple to prepare).

Before Coffee and a Cigarette, this was actually The Spro Shake - my 2005 USBC signature drink. A semi-frozen vanilla cream foam with espresso. That drink was inspired by Thomas Keller's "Coffee and a Doughnut" dessert and I used it again this year as the base for Coffee and a Cigarette. The difference was that this time I infused the cream with cigar tobacco.

Jon Lewis

The Legend: Jon Lewis. Intense concentration at the 2006 USBC. Photo by Mark Prince.

Like I said, this drink is about inspiration. And while I've been wanting to explore further avenues of coffee for the past couple of years, the person who really paved the way is Jon Lewis, that rascally barista from Idaho with his custom-built hops grinder, water fountain and window panes as serving trays. I've gushed and blogged about him before so I'll spare you, gentle reader, from another gush. But suffice to say that the man operates on a different level than the rest of us and I'm a hack compared to Mr. Lewis.

While I'd love to tell you that this drink came solely from my mind based on my world travels and years of experience, I must be honest. I stole the idea from Thomas Keller (again). Over a year ago, I was reading Anthony Bourdain's accounting of his visit to The French Laundry in his book "A Cook's Tour". It's a great read but the highlight was... Oh hell, I'll let Tony tell you:

"There is no smoking at The French Laundry - maybe the only place on earth I don't mind refraining. But to be honest, by course number five I was feeling a slight need. To my embarassment and delight, they had anticipated this in the kitchen. When the next courses arrived, mine was called 'coffee and a cigarette': Marlboro-infused coffee custard (with foie gras)."

So there it is. I stole the idea. From Thomas Keller. My cappuccinos are better than his but I'm stealing his ideas. Oh well.

That said, here's the actual recipe I used so that you can make it at home. If you decide to use this in your shops and add it to your menu, I would appreciate it if you would call it the proper name and treat me out to a nice meal the next time you see me. And if it makes you alot of money, I prefer ribeye steaks, medium-rare. If it makes you a TON of money, a meal at The French Laundry is always appreciated.

jay caragay at the USBC

Thanks to Tonx for sharing this image.

Coffee and a Cigarette - Approximate Yield: 20 servings

2 large eggs, separated
3 large egg yolks
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract (or 2 vanilla beans, scraped)
1/2 cup tobacco infused heavy cream

To make the infusion, take one cigar, slice open and soak in heavy cream overnight.

Place egg yolks and 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons of sugar into mixer bowl with whisk attachment. Add vanilla extract. Whip for 12 minutes medium speed or until mixture has lightened and tripled in volume.

Transfer mixture to a bowl placed in a larger bowl of ice water to maintain consistency.

In separate bowl, whip infused heavy cream with 2 tablespoons of sugar until it holds its' shape when the whisk is lifted.

Fold whipped cream into yolk mixture and return to bowl with ice water.

Whip egg whites in mixer bowl until frothy. During whipping, add remaining 3 tablespoons of sugar and while egg whites until they hold soft peaks - do not over whip.

Fold beaten egg whites into egg yolk & cream mixture until completely combined.

Spoon 1z of foam into 3z cups, tap to settle, cover with plastic wrap and freeze no less than six hours or overnight.

Remove from freezer several minutes prior to serving to thaw.

Pull single shot of espresso on top of semi-frozen foam.

Serve with spoon and stir before drinking.

Coffee and a Cigar

One of the sig drinks prepared backstage for interested parties. Photo by Tonx.

The Bottom Line
So, what's the Bottom Line here? I lost. I suck. I'm a hack. I didn't even make it into the Finals. I don't think I'll ever win. Why? Because I don't take this seriously enough. Here's the truth: after the Mid-Atlantic Regionals in February, I never practiced once. Zero. Zilch. Nada. No practice. And it's not because I'm just "Bad Like That". It's because I've got more pressing things to do than sit in my shop after hours practicing how to pour the perfect cappuccino foam. I've got a business to run. Marketing to plan. Payroll to meet. Bills to pay. People to manage. Orders to fulfill and customers to satisfy. Not to mention a podcast to host, curse on and infuriate people with.

And when I'm not working, I'd much rather be out with friends eating great food, smoking big cigars, driving recklessly, watching concerts or chasing women.

Don't get me wrong, I love what we do and I'm inspired by all my friends and other competitors. There are so many great ideas flowing out there but in many ways, I'm disappointed. All this time and energy to create a unique coffee beverage but the only people who will ever get to taste that beverage are the four judges? That's a crime against humanity.

Take Ellie Matuszak's grappa-style drink. She's taking frozen grapes and pressing the juices with an antique hand press. Gosh that drink looks interesting! But is that something Intelligentsia will incorporate into their menu? Probably not. And what a disappointment for us all.

To me, one of the greatest aspects of competition is creating a drink that you can generate buzz about. Something to bring back to the shop and offer to customers. A drink that stood on the national stage against the best of the best. It's my own personal theory, but I strongly believe that the USBC Signature Drink should be a drink that can be recreated behind the bar on a daily basis - by any barista. Come into Jay's Shave Ice and you'll find a complete menu of all our signature drinks. In fact, our most popular signature drink, the Haupia Macchiatto, was my 2004 USBC drink. Starting in June, you'll even find Coffee and a Cigarette on our menu.

I know I've put down a lot of thoughts about competition in this blog entry because I want to share with everyone my thoughts. Perhaps some people will be enraged by what I've written. Hopefully, these words will offer some small insight into the complex world of national competitions. Bear in mind that these are only my thoughts on ths subject and are not USBC Canon. I could very well be completely wrong on some of the topics. Consider that I didn't win.

Party On Nick and Jay

The Team calling you out for USBC 2007. Photo by Mark Prince.