Coffee Chef

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[C]reating a great custom blend for a chef is often less about coffee and more about psychology. Ego is the number one challenge in any great collaboration. The chef understands flavor and nuance. He is also used to commanding a team to do his bidding. As a roaster you understand coffee but may not feel as comfortable in the kitchen or communicating about your palate to a non-coffee professional.

When the James Beard award winning restaurant Vetri asked me to develop a custom blend to match their cuisine and authentic Italian atmosphere, I was excited and nervous all at once. I had created custom blends before, however this was a great honor. I was already a huge fan of the restaurant and held great reverence for the quality of the food and skill of the chefs in its kitchen. On the other hand I knew the chef was very determined, willful, and not very delicate in his words.

So where to begin in finding a blend they would love and I would be proud of?

When working with restaurants, first things first: always start with the food. If you are going to create a blend for a chef you must have a meal. A chef will never feel you understand her or where she’s coming from until you have experienced what she’s trying to communicate in the kitchen.

Engaging with the restaurant and the experience they are trying to create can give you great insight. Observe the service style. Is it stiff and formal, casual and fast, or insightful, anticipatory without being overwhelming? Then the cuisine: is it classical and heavy, fresh and health-conscious, finicky and presentation-heavy, or flavor-forward and balanced? I always take a lot from the beer list. I find that people’s tastes for beer are a pretty good indicator for what they enjoy in a coffee.

What this process is ultimately contributing to is your understanding of the chef’s palate, boundaries, and goals for both her restaurant and the coffee it offers.

Once you have had a meal, take the chef out for a coffee. Go to a café you like or, even better, a quality café with coffee you do not agree with. For example: if you’re a traditional Italian-style roaster, perhaps go to a shop like Intelligentsia, the antithesis of your philosophy. Have an espresso and a coffee with the chef and ask pointed questions about the flavor profile, the body, and finish. What does she like about it? What doesn’t she like? If she likes the coffee you hate, this may not be a great fit.

What this process is ultimately contributing to is your understanding of the chef’s palate, boundaries, and goals for both her restaurant and the coffee it offers. This will ultimately save you time. If you just show up with two or three blends, you will find a frustrated chef and you will be forced to go back and roast sample after sample before getting to the point you could have gotten by learning her taste first.

I already knew Vetri’s cuisine and I had a feel for the chef, so I started with a creative conversation discussing the feeling he wanted to convey with his blend. Is it a showpiece or a nice complement to the meal? What type of coffees do you normally enjoy? Regarding roast, light-and-bright or dark-and-bold?

Each question earned a terse reply. “Of course it’s a complement, the food is the showcase! I enjoy good coffees. It should be strong and smooth.” And then the kicker, “We want it to taste like gas station coffee in Italy.”

Just what every roaster wants to hear. Granted, I had been to Italy a few times and the coffee at the gas station was pretty good. It was gas station coffee. At least I had my starting point.

More next week.

Jake Leonti is a writer and food and beverage advisor in New York City.

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