Sunday, June 28, 2009

Reading The Soul

"But by Certified Master Chef (CMC) standards - those set primarily by the Culinary Institute of America, an institution that did not attempt to teach soul or happiness, but rather technique and knowledge and theory and practice - many CMC candidates did succeed. Perhaps the ones who succeeded, then, not only were technically gifted but also had never cooked to make people happy in the first place and therefore did not have that particular cord bound up in their standards. Maybe they'd cooked for money, as a job only, and happened to be really good at it. Good reason to cook: a job, a paycheck. Maybe they cooked because it pleased them personally and they were content to ride this one out. Maybe they cooked for the sport, the adrenaline rush of working a line, the way some people lifted weights or became compulsive joggers. if they had begun cooking for these reasons, cooked their whole lives this way, had never needed to make people happy to justify their work, their existence - and how many professions did? - then this absence built into the CMC test would never bother those chefs; that kind of chef would not feel its absence and would just cook as he or she always did."

- Michael Ruhlman, The Soul of a Chef, page 324

There are several books I return to and read every year or two, Ruhlman's The Soul of a Chef is one of those books and each time I read it, I can't help but create a parallel between the CIA's Certified Master Chef program and the Specialty Coffee Association of America's United States Barista Championship. I've competed in the USBC six times and have never found satisfaction participating. Sure, there's the camaraderie amongst baristas and the joy of spending time with friends across the world, but I've always found it lacking. Personally un-fulfilling. Disappointing. And, at times, outright corrupt.

As I was re-reading The Soul of a Chef this week, I ran across the above quote and found the parallel to the barista world unmistakable. Substitute "USBC" for "CMC" and "SCAA" for "CIA" and "barista" for "chef" and I think it's 100% applicable. In the barista world, there are those who do it to win at competition. They claim to "love" coffee and even put on affectations to make you think they have that level of care but really they're in it for the accolades. The accolades of winning, the accolades of being loved. For many baristas, it's about slinging coffee as fast at they can while combating the line dragon forming in front of them. Never mind the mound of wasted ground coffee that's piling up in front of the grinder, they're busy slaying the dragon.

Maybe I'm just a malcontent but I've never found satisfaction in the competitions or much of the barista world. There's a certain level of disconnect for me. A wondering where the craft meets the care. Too many baristas are too concerned about being "right" and being "hardcore" for no other reason than maybe to mask the fact that they haven't showered recently.

I read and re-read Soul, and it's sequel Reach of a Chef mainly because I want to study more on Keller. I'm fascinated by the man. Not in some fanboy stalker kind of way but rather I'm amazed at the level of finesse, pursuit of perfection and adherence to standards the man possesses. I want to hone that level of standard and finesse, and maybe that's why I find the whole barista world not very satisfying.

Why, I wonder, buy commercial syrups when you can make them better in-house? It seems everywhere I turn there's a laziness to craft. Commercial this, commercial that. Claims that an automated brewer is "better" and "cleaner." Absurd rationalizations that a timer stepped grinder that doses straight down is, somehow, more accurate than an infinitely adjustable grinder. "Signature" drinks that demonstrate a near lack of understanding of cuisine: I'm adding cocoa to highlight the cocoa character of the coffee" or "Have a sip of grapefruit juice to complement the citrus-y grapefruit note in the coffee.

Never mind contrasting flavors or complimentary flavors, let's just add more of the flavor already in there. It's so mind-numbing I might as well bash my skull against a concrete wall.

At least I have The Spro where I can practice our form of coffee pursuit to my standards. I can't imagine being a barista for someone else in any of the shops across America - I imagine it would be worse than being back in the movie business.

" Keller combined extraordinary technique and knowledge with humor, imagination and intelligence, and he did so in a setting straight out of a Monet painting. It was the perfect combination, and Keller never underestimated the important of the place he had found.

This was how he saw the world, and this was how he understood cooking, with a Zenlike spirituality but with his feet firmly grounded. Cooking had never been a means to an end for Keller. That was why he never got sidetracked by money or the lack of it. The first thing was care for food.

He loved this. He loved to wipe a counter clean. Because this was where perfection began. At this clean counter was where we learned not to waste anything and not to err, because when you made a mistake or when you didn't care, or you didn't appreciate that carrot that you were peeling, it was a waste of life itself."

- Michael Ruhlman, The Soul of a Chef, page 329


James Hoffmann said...

Every time I leave a comment somewhere about barista competition I always have a nagging feeling that it looks like I am just defending an institution because I have benefited so much because of it.

But then I had benefited massively from it before I had won anything.

What draws you to compete each time?

I loved the Soul of a Chef. It made me feel like we set the bar for ourselves very low. It made me want to change the way the hierachy behind the bar works, it made me want to serve some old sig drinks as well as make new ones (I have about half a dozen ideas still simmering). It made me ask more of myself when I step up to a machine, and still does.

Every day I come across places doing mediocre things and I have to wonder who made the decision. Every product/item I would sell I would want absolute faith in - from the coffee to the pastries. No compromise, no 'good enough'.

It also helped confirm my desire for simplicity. Simple, clear menus. Limited choices, but each choice exceptional.

I'm ranting. Still prefer my Anfim to my Compak though.....

onocoffee said...


I challenge your assertion that you benefitted "massively" before you had won anything.

From what I've seen and in my experiences, the desire to pursue a craft to its' fullest extent goes beyond any mere standard set by an institution. Perhaps I'm wrong but I don't think that it was the World Barista Championship (and by extension the SCAA and SCAE) that ignited a desire in you to pursue excellence. I doubt that it was the WBC that pushed you in your explorations within The Fat Duck kitchens.

As Soul explored, the CMC (or USBC/WBC) is not the be-all, end-all in our craft. To attain the title of Certified Master Chef (or Barista Champion) is an admirable feat and a great accomplishment, but is it truly what we (or you or I) desire? Somehow I don't think that is the case.

The WBC (and all its' iterations) is a challenging task that sets the tone for many baristas worldwide and I don't discredit that. It's done wonders for raising the bar across the board and introducing baristas to novel concepts such as cleanliness and getting them to think about the details.

I agree that we as a community set the bar pretty darn low. I think it's absolutely possible to change the hierarchy of behind the bar (assuming I know what you're talking about) because we can take control by operating our own places.

But I also think that other baristas can read Soul and not be effected in the ways that you have been. There will always be those who think that approach is just "too much" and "ridiculous." That's to be expected.

You asked what draws me to compete each time - I think it's a lack of coverage. How else can we share our ideas on craftsmanship with others? I see competition more as testing grounds where we can push the limits of our craft and the way our own community sees that craft.

Where else can we push tobacco, lobster or pureed donuts as contrasting or complimenting ingredients to coffee in front of a community of skeptics?

I really don't have a problem with the Anfim. I think it's a decent enough grinder. What I find appalling is the blatantly ridiculous "white paper" that was published to the Internet not too long ago explaining how the stepped adjustment (compensated by grind time and dosage) was superior to infinitely adjustable grinders. That's just complete and utter crap.

Why some people can't accept the fact that there is always some level of compromise in a grinder that must be accommodated for is beyond me. The Anfim is a fine grinder that's handicapped by its' stepped adjustment. The K30 is a fine grinder handicapped (before) by its' clumping. There's always a compromise - it's our job as craftspeople to overcome those compromises to create something delicious.

Anonymous said...

Fucking lame. Great work pissing on the competition just because you suck at them and you just use them to get attention. If your so worried with all the shit you blog about then you should shut the fuck up and work on making your shop better. Ive been to your shop and youre all talk.

onocoffee said...

Hey Anonymous person-
I'm posting my response to you here in case you don't see the post I wrote above.

Oh come on, REALLY???. I'm game for being called "lame" or an "asshole" or whatever descriptive you might want to hurl my way (it's probably true anyway), but you want to act macho and hide anonymously? Come on, show some balls. Gordon Ramsay has the balls to call someone a "fucking donkey" without hiding.

Truth is, I suck at the USBC Competitions. Have you seen my scores? They're terrible. I can't win. Hell, I can't even place. I can't even get a 6 in creativity. It's really sad and if winning the USBC was everything, I'd be lost.

But really, it's good that you're pissed. Maybe that means you care about your craft (or something). Maybe you're some hipster barista with tight jeans and you're ready for a shower. Good for you! Your customers will be grateful.

Deferio said...

As I am on my 3rd time through -Soul- I have to agree with you in the parallels between the CMC and the USBC...heck...certification in general. Tests of a persons skills are all well and good...but life is the true test.
We have seemed to develop such a short attention span that we can only recognize achievement, quality, and skill in 15 minute increments.
Maybe we need some specialty Coffee specific Ritalin.
I don't think James Beard would win Iron Chef or earn a CMC but Iron Chefs and CMCs alike pee there chef pants when they win his award.
-Chris Deferio

onocoffee said...

I don't know if it really is that we simply have short attention spans or if it is more a problem of our own community coming up short in delivering excellence. And I agree with you that I would prefer to follow the path of someone like Keller who is respected rather than that of the last Top Chef winner.

If we correlate our barista world to that of the chef world then I think we can draw some parallels. Currently, Intelligentsia Venice Beach is, arguably, the most cutting edge coffee joint in the world. It's industrial-looking design and multiple brewing concepts are certainly cutting edge but based on the photos I've seen, it still looks very much a casual, hipster joint.

Drawing a trouble-prone parallel to Soul of a Chef perhaps we can equate Intelligentsia Venice Beach to Michael Simon's Lola in Cleveland. But can we draw a parallel to Keller's French Laundry in the barista world? Is there a shop (and barista) that is performing at such a level of refinement and finesse? If there is, I'm not currently aware.

I've come to the thinking that our barista craft is much like that of the chef twenty years ago. Obscure, misunderstood and unexplored. Even though I tend to seem critical and skeptical of our "Third Wave" (yes, I am rolling my eyes and gagging myself with a spoon) community, I also think that we are coming of age at a very exciting time for our craft.

To my mind, the stage and the opportunities are wide open for the barista willing to risk and take a chance on pushing the envelope of what we do. I do think that there is the barista's equivalent of Thomas Keller, Heston Blumenthal, Ferran Adria and Grant Achatz lurking in the wings somewhere trying to learn their craft, find their wings and figure things out.

At least I hope they're out there developing their chops - because I'm looking forward to seeing (and drinking) their work.