Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Modernist Conundrum

Oh, my! 46.3 pounds...

A couple of weeks ago, I come home to find a large and heavy box downstairs at Spro Hampden. It's big and nearly fifty pounds. Goodness. Then I noticed the label. It's the book I've been waiting for since 2009.

The Modernist Cuisine

During the 2009 StarChefs Conference, I attended a presentation by Nathan Myrhvold and Chris Young that was out of this world. These were some crazy guys talking about some crazy things. They were working on what must be the seminal tome on cooking in the 21st Century. As Escoffier was to the 19th Century, Myrhvold is to the 21st. And it's massive.

Getting into the packaging.

For two weeks, the box has been sitting on a chair downstairs at Spro. It didn't move. Too darn heavy. I wanted to figure out where to put it. How to transport it. Really, I didn't want to carry it up the stairs. Then it started to rain. Lazy. I'm not going to carry that in the rain. Why? Because I knew that I had to get the thing out of its box.

The box is something else. First of all, there are five tomes placed in a clear acrylic slide cover that is wrapped in heavy paper. The wrapped tomes and case are held in a corrugated padded box with a separately cardboard covered sixth volume, the bound and waterproof recipe book. These are all corrugated padded and then that box is placed in a larger box that is suspended within. Just like the books themselves, the packaging is off the hook.

At home with the PolyScience circulator for scale.

Finally today I brought the tomes home. Took them out of their box like the Ark of the Covenant, huffed them up the stairs and into the kitchen at home. Then, more conundrums: where to put the darn thing.

Nothing short of massive can accurately describe these tomes. Until now, the largest culinary book I own is the first edition of Heston Blumenthal's The Big Fat Duck Cookbook, along with Gordon Ramsay's ***Chef and Gisslen's Professional Cooking, Second Edition. Now, those pale in comparison.

Alongside Blumenthal, Ramsay and Gisslen.

Since I've only just gotten the tomes home, I haven't had the opportunity to really get into them. But the first flip throughs are exciting. Illustrations galore. And lots of information without being too technical or too geeky. My first thought: accessible.

From my understanding, the first run is sold out. Hopefully, there will be additional runs because I hear from some friends that they are unable to obtain copies. The font size is pretty large so I'm guessing that it's scaled to shrink into a smaller format size. I ordered my copy from Amazon back in December and I waited four months so your mileage may vary.

But, if you can score yourself a copy, it's going to be worth every penny.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Coffee Obsessive

I'm currently stuck in Mexico City after a mechanical problem with the airplane forced a two-hour delay, missing my window to connect on a flight back home to Baltimore. Granted, if I'm going to be "stuck" anywhere, Mexico City is about as ideal as it gets.

To my own surprise, this blog was mentioned in the article about me and my little company, Spro Coffee, in Baltimore. For those of you visiting us from the Washington Post: welcome.

I first was introduced to Martha Thomas about nine months ago in June 2010 where I received a phone call during my trip to London for the World Barista Championship. That's where the article you read in the Post all started. Over the next nine months, Martha and I would chat on a regular basis regarding the article and she came in several times to see just how we do what we do in our little shop in Hampden.

Martha joined us for a cupping with Joan & Ralph Gaston of Rusty's Hawaiian Ka'u Coffee where we sampled a range of coffees, including samples grown by Lorie Obra (Joan's Mom) - who is an amazing scientist turned coffee farmer on the Big Island. Martha later joined us in a demonstration on how we select a brewing method that "pairs" with a particular coffee. It seems that in the translation of the article, a little bit of both events were mixed together.

As with any article written over a long period of time, some details may have been a little jumbled with the passage of time. I wanted to take a moment to clarify some of the details:

- A visit to Anthony Rue's Volta Coffee & Tea in July 2009 was instrumental to the direction we decided to take Spro Hampden. Had it not been for Anthony, our approach of multiple brew methods throughout the day might not have happened. If anything, we might have ended up "cheating" like many shops in the country by batch brewing coffee during the morning "rush" instead of taking the time to prepare each cup by hand.

- Much of what we do is inspired by others. Almost nothing is truly original. From Ichiro Sekuguchi of Tokyo's Cafe de L'ambre to John Sanders of Origins Organic Coffee, Spike Gjerde of Woodberry Kitchen, Aki & Alex from Ideas In Food, and fellow baristas like John Lewis - all and more have had an impact on me and the way we approach and present our coffees.

- In the article I'm quoted as saying: "We have no loyalty to any one roaster." Honestly, I don't think I ever said that - especially since loyalty is something central to what we do and own approach to doing things. As a company, we're very loyal to our vendors. We maintain long-term relationships with all our vendors. A great example of this is Origins Organic Coffee. We've been buying their coffee since 2004.

What I did say is that we do not maintain roaster exclusivity with any one roaster. In the coffee business, the typical model is for a retail shop (like Spro) to purchase all their coffees from one coffee roaster. It's a limited way of doing business that is slowly eroding in these modern times (although one of our original six roasters, Counter Culture Coffee of Durham, NC recently told us that they would no longer sell to Spro for three reasons, one of which was that they were returning to the roaster exclusivity model).

Roaster exclusivity is simply ludicrous. It's akin to walking into your local pub and only finding one brand of beer or alcohol. We are unable to do business with companies that insist on roaster exclusivity and we're very appreciative of the companies who started with us and believed in supporting our approach - and those companies are:

Origins Organic Coffee - Vancouver, BC
Barefoot Coffee - San Jose, CA
Ecco Caffe - Santa Rosa, CA
Stumptown Coffee - Portland, OR & New York City
Intelligentsia Coffee - Chicago, IL

- In the article, Ryan Jensen (owner of Peregrine Espresso in Washington DC) cautions about claims of singularity. While our model of multiple roasters, multiple coffees paired to multiple brewing methods, made by hand, day-in and day-out, is still the only one in the industry, I certainly hope that this anomaly is short-lived.

Seriously, Spro Hampden can only make so many coffees per day and we can only impact a small segment of the coffee drinking public. For our notion of quality coffee prepared without compromise to be tasted by the larger public, more shops have to take our approach. We cannot and do not want to be the only kid on the block serving our kind of coffee.

However, to do what we do takes a certain level of commitment and skill. Ryan Jensen has both of those and with his opening of a second Peregrine in the coming months, I'm hoping we'll see a more in-depth approach to their coffee program - because I think he's the best coffee operator in The District.

- The article mentions my judging experience. While I have judged barista competitions across North America, Central & South America, as well as Africa, I have not judged a competition in England. My visit to London last summer ended up with me as a spokesperson for Reg Barber Enterprises during the World Barista Championship.

From 2004-2007, I served as a volunteer director on the Executive Council of the Barista Guild of America. I have also served as a volunteer for the United States Barista Championship regional competitions and as a volunteer trainer for the Specialty Coffee Association of America. And in three weeks, I will serve again as a volunteer panelist speaking on multiple brewing methods in a cafe environment at the SCAA's annual trade show in Houston. I will be one on a panel with Anthony Rue (Volta), John Piquet (Caffe D'Bolla), Kyle Glanville (Intelligentsia) and Tracy Allen (moderator).

So, despite my criticism of the SCAA, I'm still willing to support and help out when I feel that I can lend something of value.

Well, that's about all I have. It's humbling to be written about in the Washington Post and I'm truly honored, but much of the credit goes to the people around me. My staff of baristas are some of the best baristas I've ever known and worked with, they ply our craft with humility and honesty in an unassuming manner absent of pretense and condescension. My non-coffee friends and family keep me grounded. My mentor, John Sanders, who has been instrumental in my learning of coffee and sense of duty to get involved in our industry. And many thanks to my friends in and around the business, without whom I never would have done what we do.

And of course, thanks to Martha Thomas for noticing and taking interest in what we do to take it to the Post. She's been fun and easy to work with and I wish her the best in her writing career. Same goes to the editors, staff and Marvin the photographer from the Post. Always professional and always easy to work with.

Thanks to all of them and thanks also to you for reading the Washington Post article and then this lengthy blog post (btw, I write about more than just coffee here). I hope you'll find your way to visit our little shop in Baltimore (or at least your local specialty coffee purveyor) where we look forward to making you a cup of coffee in a manner we hope you will enjoy.

Best regards,

Mexico City
6 Abril 2011

Saturday, April 02, 2011

El Vilsito

Don't let the signs fool you. This is THE place for Al Pastor.

It's been about three and a half years since my first and last visit to El Vipsito (now called "El Vilsito" but I don't know why). Quite simply, if you're looking for Tacos El Pastor in the DF, this is the place to go.

Nearly twice as expensive as other places, El Vilsito is rockin' when we arrive around 11pm. By 2am this place will be jammed. Right now, it's pretty busy but nowhere near capacity.


Located outside an automotive repair shop, you wonder just how can this place best all of Mexico. Somehow, it does. And I've dreamed of the Al Pastor here since the first (and last) time I ate here.

The menu is simple and features Volcans (like little sopes with pork and lots of cheese) and Gorditas (something massive and scary) but the Al Pastor is the winner. When I was here last, they only had one Pastor spit running. Three years later and they have three stations with the guys spinning and slicing as fast as possible to satisfy the needs of this hungry city.

Tacos Al Pastor.

While everything here is good. Save yourself the trouble of thinking too much and just order ten Tacos Al Pastor. Position yourself in front of the tubs of guacamole, salsa and limon and just go to town. Wash it down with Coke or whatever Agua Fresca they have available. It will be ice cold and brilliant.

I'm thinking a second visit before I go home is only proper!

El Glorioso!

Tacos Campechanos.

With toppings.

Volcan de Cerdo.

Ana and the Horchata.

If only I had one of these.

Costco: Wholesale

iCostco, therefore, iAm.

Mexico City. Just mentioning the name conjures all sorts of imagery. Old castles, sunken lake beds, ancient Aztec civilizations, tacos, quesadillas, Bella Artes, just to name a few.

The strange reality of my visits to Mexico City: Costco.

Yes, THAT Costco. The one of large warehouses stacked with all your home goods. In bulk. And whenever I'm here, I always seem to be at Costco.

Woah, Kirkland has a Chateauneuf!

Costco in Mexico City is pretty much like Costco at home. The same products. In the same quantities. Need plates? Here's 300. Need a croissant? Here's two dozen.

But what they have here that we don't have in Maryland Costco's (because of our draconian, socialist/democratic government) is alcohol. In mass quantities. Curiously, they even have Kirkland Signature (Costco's house brand) Chateauneuf du Pape. Seems like a sacrilege but I'm willing to commit a sin.

And the price isn't that bad. Not cheap, but not bad.

Overall, there's little to differentiate the Mexican Costco from the American Costco (aside from the whole language thing). If you're used to your home Costco layout, chances are you'll find whatever you desire pretty much where you expect it to be.

One Hundred Dollars.

Riding the down escalator.

These specials wheels prevent runaway disaster.

Even for Haagen Dazs - that's expensive.

La Marquesa

Where to eat.

Somewhere to the west, about 35 minutes outside of Mexico City is a recreation area known as La Marquesa. Different "Valles" offer a range of outdoorsy things to do, like horseback riding, ATV racing, water slides and quite a bit more. There's even this thing they call Gotcha that looks suspiciously like paintball.

Of course, things outdoors would not be complete without the great pastimes of eating and drinking and all of the Valles offer plenty in that arena as well. The weather is bright, sunny and cool, making for the ideal conditions to cover yourself in dust from the trails or track and then sit down for some serious eating.

Bienvenidos a Valle de Potrero.

Oliver saddles up!

Melanie and Oliver ready to hit the dusty trail.

Ana and the Wild Horse.

Momma Mylene prepares to lead her kids.

Whatever happened to riding sidesaddle???

Some kind of candy surprise. I think it's a gusano.

Oliver Spins.

Hector fishes for Truchas (trout).

We call this lunch.

Hector and Adriana.

Sylvia and Adriana - I don't know what is going on.


Sopa de Hongos.

Sopa Azteca.

Sopa de Hongos and Consome de Pollo.

Sides for my Sopa Azteca.

Tacos Cecina Natural.

Oliver llorar.

Table condiments.

Oliver llorar, parte dos.


Chorizo and cecina.

Chorizo Verde Tacos.

Chicharron Tlacoyos with nopal, avocado and cheese.

Hector and the Blue Corn Tortilla.

Trucha Suiza.

Inside the Chicharron Tlacoyo.

Hector entertains.

The women are not amused.

Trucha Empapelada.

Caffe de Olla.

Fried plantains with evaporated milk and cream.

Melanie and Alvaro.