Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Dos Double-Odd Seven

I've been waiting three months to write this:

Two Thousand Seven.

As I alluded to in Portafilter.net Podcast #74, this past year was a tremendous one for me. A time of both personal and professional development and discovery.

It's hard to recap a years' worth of living in a few words. So many highlights. So many experiences. It really overwhelms the mind. Perhaps the best way is just to go through my year chronographically. Oddly enough, much of what's transpired has been documented on these pages so I can't make any of it up.

The New Year started off in Toronto, around friends, and a bit differently than we anticipated. The usual formal, sit-down, plated multi-course meal with just a few had turned into a New Year's House Party with chips, dip, buffet and a large group of friends. Soon after, I would find myself in Montreal staying at the posh Hotel Gault, visiting Nathalie, eating serious French, getting schooled in the markets and waltzing around old Montreal seeking Provencale soaps in balmy 50 degree weather.

From there it was down to Vermont to visit Ben & Jerry's, that old playground in Burlington, Mane Alves in Waterbury, Ray & Gesine at their new confectionery market, and shop for serious Vermont dairy products at the co-op in Montpelier then trying to drive it all the way home in the still balmy 50 degree weather.

While Valentine's Day is the holiday I usually spend alone, I was glad to be away in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to attend the East African Fine Coffee Conference and serve as a judge for the first Ethiopian National Barista Championship. Visiting Africa was an amazing experience. A land filled with juxtapositions and conundrums floating on a layer of a bright and hopeful populace. A definitive Third World country but one where I felt comfortable. It's perplexing and mind-boggling. So much so that It's nearly impossible to put it into words.

It was in February that The Spro began its' long and slow march towards refinement and improvement - without me really knowing it. It was the month that we eliminated the 20 ounce paper cup from our offerings. It was also the month that Daryn Berlin introduced me to Spike Gjerde. Towards the end of the month was CoffeeFest Chicago. An exciting trip not because of the trade show or the Great Lakes Barista Competition but, more importantly, because I was finally getting out to see "the best" strut their stuff by dining at both Charlie Trotter's and Alinea on consecutive nights.

The month of March was a relatively quiet one for me with no real travel except a trip to Macungie, Pennsylvania for the Mid-Atlantic Regional Barista Competition where I took Third Place. A step down from 2006's Second Place finish but I guess not too bad for someone who didn't practice and came up with a signature drink at the last minute. And pretty good for someone who copped out in the Finals Round with an old signature drink that took absolutely no creativity whatsoever. Of course, the drink I wanted to use, a roasted corn gelee-based drink, I held back on because, in a flash moment of desire to win, I went with an old standard: the definition of Lame.

My trip to Alinea also inspired me to order the AntiGriddle from PolyScience. It was expensive but they said it would take a month to make it so I had time to save. Or so I thought.

On the Spro front, my new friendship with Spike was beginning to take shape in the form of my resistance to his "sourcing local" trend. Sure I cast myself as a "lover of food" and pretended to have a knowledge of food to my friends but the reality is that I was and am still a Charlatan. A Quack. Why should I spent $5.50 a gallon for this local milk when Shenandoah's Pride is $3.15, is rock-solid consistent and I can order it on demand any day of the week? Plus, we make our own syrups using some of the best flavorings available - why change? If Cho's (of murky coffee fame) isn't changing - why should I???

My birthday is on April 1st and the girl I had been seeing had been promising me a dinner at L'Auberge Chez Francois in Great Falls, Virginia. I had been hearing many nice things about the restaurant and was really looking forward to it. One thing I don't like to do is be too demanding about "gifts" like this, so I didn't mention much about it while waiting for her to set the date and book a reservation. Of course, over the past month, she was getting back into her church (a Christian one) that proceeded to reiterate that she was a sinner, which meant that our relationship was coming to an end. So much for the dinner at L'Auberge...

April also marked the arrival of the AntiGriddle and its' resultant implosion of the bank accounts. The AntiGriddle would go on to become my professional nemesis: great invention or white elephant? I still haven't decided. It's racked my brain. I want to implement it in the daily menu but I'm not developing anything that I'm super-excited about. Just another example that the more steps I try to take forwad, the more I realize I'm still a Charlatan.

By this time, Spike's Artifact Coffee was in full-swing. Finally, a place where I can go to hang out and hide out from my staff. Coffee as good as The Spro. But what's this??? An approach better than The Spro??? Handmade chocolate sauce and syrups made by hand and flavored with actual ingredients instead of extracts and flavorings??? This is an approach better than The Spro and this is intolerable!!! And so the march towards improving and refining continues but I'm still not sold on the local milk being more advantageous than Shenanoah's Pride (even though I can't seem to locate a website for Shenandoah's Pride).

Springtime in the coffee business means only one thing: the Specialty Coffee Association of America's Annual Conference and Exhibition. The time when the industry gets together to see just what's going on in the world. It's also the United States Barista Championships and I make quite a splash with my heavy metal and hip hop presentation that, quite literally, rocks the house and of which I'm promptly eliminated. I haven't missed the Semi-Finals since my first time in 2004. It's embarrassing - especially since it's the only time anyone from my family has been there to watch (my brother and sister-in-law are in the audience and get to watch me be eliminated).

Of course, I'm not overtly concerned with winning but I do hope that it's memorable. The problem is that Tatiana Becker's Sorority Ruch presentation has caused such a furor that everyone's attention is on her (she is more attractive than me) performance. This also means that my signature drink (of which I'm quite proud) has been overlooked as well. It's a bit of a buzzkill but I've accepted that I've been beaten.

But to add insult to injury, I notice a certain Mexican girl volunteering for the USBC and attempt to make small talk with her. She promptly blows me off. Does she not know who I am??? Who I'm with??? Before starting my presentation, I'm hoping she's in the audience watching because I'm sure she'll think I'm some sort of "Rock Star Barista" and want to chat with me later (or at least be open to chatting with me). It wouldn't be until months later that she would tell me that she hated my presentation. Ouch. I really am a Charlatan.

I'm also off to Chicago for the National Restaurant Association Show. It's an immense show and I'm bummed to be a day late and now have missed meeting Thomas Keller and Grant Achatz personally at the PolyScience booth. Otherwise, it's a great show. I spy the new glass-fronted undercounter refrigerators I'm going to have for my new shop (whenever that happens). During my trip I get a chance to re-acquaint myself with Chicago Chop House and Doug of Hot Doug's.

May also meant the demise of The Nail Salon Project. It's probably a good thing because the landlord would later show his true colors when a local cabbie I know tells me that one of his fares just told him that he's opening a coffee shop in that same space.

My resolve is finally starting to crack in the face of Baltimore's Philosopher King continuing dialogue on why local is better. If improvement is a continuing process, where does that leave myself and The Spro? The time for walking the talk has come and I start tasting and exploring a new world.

The rest of June is pretty quiet. I sit at home. I work at The Spro. I have no idea of the adventure to come. The year has been progressing smoothly and I'm starting to think more about food and the ingredients we use. My first venture with fried chicken was an interesting one. One filled with flavors not found in commercial chicken. I'm teetering on revelation. I'm also dreaming of a return visit to Honolulu but realize that it's still pretty far off yet.

We really start getting into things in July. I do something that I haven't done in over ten years: I host a proper party. This time, it's a Fourth of July party and order up a whole pig to make Lechon over an open flame. It turns out pretty well but we need to refine our technique. Fresh french fries are on hand and I've set up an outdoor kitchen to make it happen. Everyone brings a potlock item and pretty soon we're up to our gills in food. Some of the guys break out their arsenals and stage a fireworks display to rival that of the neighboring Oregon Ridge Park's professional show.

Once again, we wage an annual battle known as Artscape with some of Jay's Shave Ice old strong arms and some new restaurant mercenaries who have come for the weekend to wage a war of ice and flavors under the hot, July sun in front of weekend of two million visitors. It's comforting and amazing to watch and I'm proud of each one of them.

July is also filled with visits to Trickling Springs Creamery, Mount Airy Meat Locker and Locust Point Farm, where I'm covered in a haze of death and flesh - and I like it.

It's also the month where I decide that, indeed, The Spro will switch to local milk from Trickling Springs and begin making handmade syrups in earnest. Just before jumping on a flight to Tokyo for the World Barista Championship.

I've returned to one of my favorite cities on Earth. At a time when the U.S. dollar is at an all time low. But it was a helluva time. Lots of friends: old and new. It was reinvigorating for me as a barista competitor because I had developed a low opinion about competitions since my dismal performance in Long Beach. Disillusioned with competitions, meeting people like Nik Orosi from Croatia, Salvador Benitez from Mexico, John Muli from Kenya and Ish from South Africa reminded me what the competitions were all about: camaraderie. It's something I had forgotten in the rush to win that is the United States Barista Championship. Like any competition, there were those at the WBC who were there for the wrong reasons: ego, belitting and beating others. I came to realize again that I don't have the time or energy for that kind of thinking. The baristas I ended up hanging with weren't the favorites of the competition, but they possessed soul and passion that other competitors lacked.

And who was that attractive girl translating for Salvador? Gosh, she looked familiar. Oh, wasn't she the same girl who blew me off in Long Beach this past May? Wasn't I just talking with those other girls? Which ones? I can't remember now that my attention has been diverted once again. Maybe this time she won't blow me off like last time.

Back on the home front I'm experimenting with more food ideas: smokin', grillin' and chillin'. Some of it turns out great. Some of it doesn't. The milk from Trickling Springs is flowing and it's an immediate improvement in our beverages. Of course, the greater cost means that, at some point, we're going to have to adjust our prices accordingly but I'm holding off on doing that to see how the new milk performs.

I spend the remainder of the month at The Spro trying out different flavorings and ingredients from Mexico in an attempt to develop something interesting for the impending Mexican Barista Championship.

If it's September, it must mean Mexico. Okay, maybe not but I found myself in Mexico City for the first time and loving every minute of it. One month I'm in the world's largest metropolitan center and the next, I'm in the second largest. Before leaving, one hears lots of stories about crime, muggings and murder in the Mexican Capital, but I found it to be similar to Baltimore - one of America's most violent and dangerous cities: it's usually limited to certain areas.

The food, the people, the architecture, even the traffic - all wonderful. Of course, there's always the chance that I'm viewing it all with rose-colored glasses and I probably am. Five days with this deep, confusing and magically-flawed girl and I'm ready to shut it all down at home and move (it's really not that hard to shut it all down where you're really just a Charlatan).

The trip was challenging on a multitude of fronts. Working with equipment that we would typically dismiss as "substandard" and within very strict parameters, she's able to wrestle beautiful shots of espresso out of these machines that I struggle with. There's no room for "up dosing" here. The machines are very unforgiving - which means that your technique has to be "on the money" otherwise you end up with crap. Myself and my friends, who are here from around the world for the Mexican Barista Championship, struggle to make it work. She makes it look effortless. Without a doubt, she's a better barista than I am. To make me seem even more like a Charlatan, her company is bigger than mine.

The most surprising, and also the hardest, part of the trip is my realization that her and I are very similar in many ways. It's a good and bad thing because I know how hard-headed, tempestuous and cold-hearted that I can be. I've always been someone that shied away from serious relationships. They were "too hard" and "too much work." I've always kept the girls at a distance. A "long term" relationship in my world was four months - and that was a stretch. Six months? Unheard of. One year? A life sentence.

Suddenly, things were different. A year? That would be a drop in the bucket. A lifetime couldn't be enough. Billy Crystal, in the movie When Harry Met Sally stated: "When you realize that you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible." My intense, immature, megalomaniacal, impatient self wanted to get the rest of our life started yesterday. She, on the other hand, isn't in much of a rush, which is just how I used to be. Poetic justice, perhaps?

But September wasn't all about Mexico (okay, it really was), I did manage to visit Toronto and serve as a judge for the Canadian National Barista Championship. That was a good trip where I learned more about competitions as a judge than I ever did competing in them. Not to mention meeting some great and passionate coffee people and finally checking out Michael Empacher's One Red Chair Coffeehouse and Matt Lee's Manic Coffee. The lowpoint of the trip was that I ate some of the worst meals of the year in Toronto.

On the Spro Front, one of the perils of local milk was finally coming into view. Seems to me that the folks at Trickling Springs are a bit, shall we say optimistic about their "use by" dates. If the "use by" date is September 29th, chances are that the milk is turning on the 27th. Not a good thing. And not something that's solved by "turning down" the temperature in the refrigerators. Any colder and the milk starts to freeze.

For the second month of 2007, October was a travel-less month. A month spent on the home front. No trips to Mexico. No trips anywhere. Just a time to stay at home and refocus our efforts and refine our methodology. It's the month I decided to eliminate the tap from my espresso tamping: a refinement. A time to focus on our syrup-making. A time to review our ingredients. A time to review our costs and pricing structure. A time to prepare a new menu.

October was also the month that I started to roast coffee on the Petroncini The Crumb 3 kilo roaster that Marty Curtis had prepped for service for me back in July. Roasting is a whole new world of discovery and while I think I may have roasted something nice in one batch, I screwed it up completely in the next. How roasters achieve roast consistency from batch to batch is a mystery. In spite of my intention to learn with cheap coffees, I've ended up with the Rancho San Francisco from Chiapas, Mexico and the Idido Misty Valley from Ethiopia - both tasty and exciting coffees in the hands of a craftsman. In my hands? Maybe just piles of burt charcoal...

During this month, things on the food front really started to get frenetic. With Spike, Amy and Nelson about to open Woodberry Kitchen things were really rolling and lots of experimentation were at hand. I even got to try my hand at smoking chipotle chiles for the restaurant - a decidedly exciting event for me.

Then finally, on October 27th, I got to attend my very first Friends & Family dinner at Woodberry. I had always wanted to go to a F&F dinner at a new restaurant but had never known any restauranteurs. This was truly a personal highlight. Thanks guys.

The penultimate month of the year rolled in with a continued exploration of food. Mexican and local food had been at the forefront of my mind lately and I had explored some amazing ingredients. Somehow this would translate back to our approach to coffee. The arrival of November also meant that my traveling was about to start again. First with a trip to the Pacific Northwest and then later with visits to Las Vegas and Thanksgiving in Los Angeles.

On November 1st, The Spro eliminated the 16 ounce paper cup to much hatred from our customers. In spite of a brief test run several months ago, the fallout from this move was a major one. One that affected our revenue. The sixteen ounce cup would return late in the month as an off-menu, under-the-counter, for those "in the know" cup for press coffee, and if they really demanded it: a latte for $6.25.

Along with the cup change, we introduced a new, streamlined menu that brought coffee to the forefront, brought our prices in line with our costs and rounded everything to the quarter (including tax) to maximize efficiency. This would be challenged at the beginning of 2008 when the State of Maryland would increase the sales tax to six percent. Bastards.

I would spend most of November on the road visiting friends, family and seeing just how the other great coffeehouses of America "did their thing." It was also a trip to determine how the highly-touted brewing device known as "Clover" could fit into the operations of The Spro and the yet-to-be-named 2008 Joint Coffee Project. After visiting places like 49th Parallel and Elysian Room in Vancouver, Intelligentsia Los Angeles, and a long chat with former Spro barista Glenn McCumber now at Stumptown Annex in Portland, I decided that there was a viable way to implement a Clover (or two) into the approach of the 2008 Joint Coffee Project. Sadly, an unfortunate "conversation" with the founder of the company (that I documented in Portafilter.net Podcast #73) undermined that research and I have decided that the current relationship precludes any of my companies from utilizing the Clover.

The final month of the year was a relatively quiet one. I finally was able to dine at Thomas Keller's per se in New York City - and it was everything I hoped for, and more. Easily, one of the finest restaurant experiences I've ever enjoyed. I'm ready to go again.

Otherwise, it was a nice month. My thoughts on food, service and our approach to coffee continues and I can't believe how differently I look at the world and our industry than I did a year ago. My tastes and standards have increased and risen to new levels. What was once satisfying is no longer. I want more. I want better. I want to refine and develop. The pursuit of finesse is no longer just an abstract word tossed about by a Charlatan who wants to look good for the masses, it is part of who we are today.

Part of me is no longer satisfied by "good enough." I want it to be beautiful as well. Take a knife, for example. A Henkels Five Star or Dexter Russell are nice knives. They cut well enough, are balanced and do a wonderful job. But is that enough? Where's the beauty? That beauty is in the Togiharu knive that I recently acquired. It cuts beautifully and looks equally as sexy. Craftsmanship and artistry. The same goes for the top end of the Reg Barber espresso tampers. Beautiful, exquisite woods paired with steel. Now if I can only get Reg to make a piston out of the hand-hammered, layered Damascus...

The final moments of 2007 brought reflection. How thankful I am for my family and my friends. They've challenged me and I hope I've challenged them. 2007 brought me many challenges and changes. It was an amazing year. I feel as though I stepped out of the box many times to see if I could handle. Thrown into the deep end, could I swim? I hope I have. I learned in 2007 that I can, indeed, want more than just a light, casual fling. That I want something deep and long-term (in the real sense, not the "Jay sense") - and that is probably the most revelatory thing that's happened to me in my lifetime.

Though, as much as I feel I've learned, I've only learned that I'm still a Charlatan: that I have so much to learn. That the swimming will have to continue, against the tide. I'm excited by this because I want to refine and develop. I see it in our approach at The Spro. It's such a different espresso bar than it was a year ago. The approach has been refined, our ingredients are better, our techniques have changed, our understanding of our ingredients has vastly improved, but we're not done yet.

I won't know for sure until that final moment at the end of my life when they say you see your life play before you like a private movie, but Two Thousand Seven will have to be amongst one of the best. It was an amazing year. A year of both personal and professional development. Each of us learns from our experiences every year but I never imagined a year ago that I would have learned and experienced this much. It's been a wonderful and incredible time and I can only wonder what 2008 has in store.

It's now 2008 and the year ahead is both exciting and intimidating. Intimidating because I don't know where it's going to lead. It's a big mystery. My personal development will continue. The Spro will continue to refine and we're going to create our 2008 Joint Coffee Project that's going to go beyond peoples' expectations for a coffee experience. Heck, it's going to go beyond our own expectations because I still don't have a firm grasp of exactly what it means when we say "a coffee as cuisine experience."

Whatever the course, there's better things to come. Better approaches, more development, better food, better relationships, new friendships and (I'm hoping) more trips to Mexico...