Sunday, April 27, 2008

Finding Happiness at the USBC

This week all of the coffee industry converges on Minneapolis (that's in Minnesota) for the annual Specialty Coffee Association of America Conference and Exhibition. It's the largest love-fest, coffee free-for-all in the world and everyone and their mother is expected to attend. Being held at the show is the annual United States Barista Championship where baristas from around the nation are going to compete to see who's "best" in the country and represent the red white and blue in Copenhagen this June.

And I'm missing a trip to Lake Como, Italy for a weekend by the waters of Lake Minnetonka.

There's poetry in there somewhere, but I'm not going to try to find it.

For American baristas, this weekend is "it". The big show. Hopes and dreams have been piled on anticipating the literal fifteen minutes of barista superstardom as you take to the stage to strut your stuff. Many individuals (and the teams backing them) have spent months, perhaps years, preparing for this moment. Late nights, tears, blood, sweat, pain, anguish and God knows what else they've endured to get to this moment. For many, it's a dream come true.

But for me, I'm disconnected.

Like many others, I've thought about what it must be like to win the national championship. To feel the warm glow as camera flashbulbs warm my face and the tingling sensation on my skin as groupies rip the clothes from my body. How fun it must be to travel the country spreading the good word of quality coffee. Appearances on national television and guest spots on Food Network, not to mention magazine articles, quotes in newspapers and my face on a bottle of syrup. How cool it must be.

But the more I think about it, the hollower it becomes for me. For years I've been told by judges that I don't take the competition seriously enough and I don't disagree with them. There's always been a part of me that just didn't "get it." Is this how I want to get my name known and build a reputation: by winning a competition?

The answer has always been: No.

When I think about those individuals whom I admire in any field, I realize that they didn't build their reputation on competition. They built their reputation on their work. They built it on the line, day in and day out by serving their customers. By providing their customers with exquisite cuisine and a wonderful experience.

They didn't build their reputation through competition.

But it wasn't until I was re-reading Michael Ruhlman's The Soul of a Chef this week that it hit me:

"I'd come to know three outstanding American chefs, each one of whom had been cooking his entire adult life and had made people happy doing it. In fact all three of those chefs stated that a main reason, if not the reason, they cooked was that simple: to make people happy."

He would continue:

"...happiness was anathema to the CMC (Certified Master Chef) exam. It wasn't the point and had no place there. Skill, technique, knowledge, those things did have a place, absolutely; they were the craft elements of cooking that the test aimed to measure. Bu you did not cook to make people happy at the CMC exam..."

And there it was, the exact reason why I had always felt so hollow about competition: it wasn't about making people happy, it was about something else entirely. Barista competition judges wanted you to talk about the coffee, its' origins and other weird, odd and obscure facts. They wanted you to tell them about the flavors - and then you had to nail them or suffer the consequences. Judges were instructed to show no emotion, betray no feeling so as not to give the impression of impartiality. They wanted to see if you tamped exactly the same way each and every time. Did every step of your technique meet standardized criteria?

Judging under these conditions is harsh on both sides of the table. As a judge I was instructed to "reward the barista" - meaning that we were perhaps judging too harshly, looking for a reason to score a zero instead of a four (or maybe a five). As a competitor, you're facing what is essentially a hostile table of "guests" looking for any and every mistake you could make.

But it's not about "right" or "wrong". It is what it is and I'm not interested in changing the competition format. I just know it's not the arena I want to build a reputation upon. So many positive things have arisen from the competition format. Those standards actually can impact a barista and a store, helping them to improve their quality and that's a wonderful thing.

If, on the other hand, cooking for people was how you had always connected to the work of cooking, if pleasing people in a visceral way had always been your ultimate aim, then you were going to have trouble with the CMC exam because your main connection to the work didn't exist in this environment and you were therefore a different cook here."

As a competitor, I think this may be my last barista competition. The disconnect this time is too strong to ignore. I've been so preoccupied with everything else that I haven't dedicated time to the competition. I've spent the past months focusing on business and our customers, trying to work out new recipes and enhance the customer experience. I've been re-thinking our approach and our methods. Even the drink we developed in February for competition has gone under multiple changes and revisions. Nothing has been sacred lately.

That said, I'm not hating on competitions. I love the environment. The camaraderie amongst passionate baristas is worth the price of admission alone. It is the one saving grace of the competition. It is the part I enjoy the most. Perhaps it's because the times spent with friends old and new are about happiness than anything else.

1 comment:

Anthony said...

Can I get an AMEN!!!

So right on and inline with what I started feeling after competing last year.