"Fine Dining" & Coffee

New York Times coffee columnist Oliver Strand just posted this interesting article about coffee in high-end restaurants:

http://sprudge.com/oliver.html

I don't think Strand has ever worked in the coffee business, and I have no idea whether he's ever worked in a restaurant, but having spent extensive time working in both worlds I'd like to share a few thoughts. 

The first and most obvious point, that doesn't seem to get made nearly often enough, is that coffee is for the most part (and probably from a health point of view should only be) a morning beverage. Breakfast places, be they the neighborhood coffeehouse or a greasy spoon, are the restaurants that do the volume in coffee and have the opportunity to offer high quality while also taking full advantage of commercial brewing equipment such as the urn and satellite brewers that yield coffee of superior quality in meaningful quantities. 

From a business perspective, any wholesale roaster knows that one high-volume coffeehouse or diner is worth a couple of dozen high-end dinner places, not only for the volume they do but for the huge pleasure of not having to deal with a dozen pain-in-the-ass egomanical chefs who think they know something about coffee, must have a custom blend or single-farm coffee chosen and roasted just for them, etc. while almost invariably not being willing to invest in the equipment and dedicated staff required to deliver exquisite coffee in what is, at the end of the day, a setting so ill-suited to coffee that home brewing methods are really the best solution to the non-existent "need" for caffeine at 10 or 11 p.m., after a complex meal accompanied by lavish quantities of wines and spirits. 

For those customers who do want coffee after an epic meal, what's appropriate? It's going to take a lot of depth and intensity of flavor to register, given what's come before, so the last thing you'd want is a thin, acid, under-extracted and tepid cup of coffee like the light-roasted Kenya in a Hario that Noma takes pride in serving. 

Strand says:

It seems the ones who are going to get the most out of Noma’s coffee are Noma’s waiters and cooks. The customers might be the immediate beneficiaries of the new program, but the legacy will be the culinary professionals who will go on to start their own restaurants, and carry this expertise with them.

But I think the reality is more like this: Noma's staff are pretty much the only ones who are going to get anything out of learning how to prepare and serve coffee so utterly at odds with both the time of day and cuisine on offer, and what they'll take with them is not expertise but a narcissistic focus on what pleases them rather than what delivers pleasure and is appropriate. Those are ideal qualifications for a barista job at any number of today's 3rd wave coffeehouses, but they're lousy qualities for a chef or other food professional. 

That kind of boneheaded choice only comes about when chefs or staff are choosing what pleases them, rather than thinking about what would please the customer or work with the sequence of courses and time of day. 

One would think given the time of day that a savvy chef's first thought (or that of his or her coffee supplier) would be about how to provide as deep and rich a cup of decaffeinated coffee as possible, yet this is hardly mentioned, despite the fact that custom decaffeination of small lots by methods that retain nearly all of a coffee's flavors has long been possible. 

Regarding coffee varieties and brewing methods, the obvious need is for rich, complex coffees with fruity, herbal and/or earthy flavors and a great deal of body. Examples: Yemen Mocha Ismaili or Mattari; a choice lot of Vienna-roasted (or darker) dry-processed Ethiopian redolent with blueberry fruit and bittersweet chocolate; an Aged Sumatra taken well into the full city roast range. Brewing methods of choice: the Aeropress for individual servings, a French Press for the table. 

What about espresso? Well, quoting one famous coffee expert who probably should remain nameless, "there's only one problem with an espresso machine [from a coffee appreciation perspective]: espresso comes out of it." By design it's a brewing method that trades power and concentration for finesse and nuance - it's 100 proof spirits vs. the fine wine of an ideal drip-strength cup. 

Now there's no denying that late in the evening after a large meal such power in the cup is not only welcome, but arguably may be the only coffee that really registers with some diners. That fact and the consistent quality and ease of service are the exact reasons why it makes all of the sense in the world that such a high percentage of Michelin-starred restaurants are using the Nespresso system. And it's not just a question of convenience or consistency: Nestlés top blends are elegant and subtle, and the ratio of grounds to water and final yield are classically Northern Italian - a welcome respite from the undrinkable bitterness and blazing acidity of the under-roasted, massively-dosed über-ristretto espressos found at most of today's supposedly cutting-edge boutique coffeehouse chains. 

This should be even less surprising given that Nestlé, like Illy and unlike the typical local microroaster, understands the occasion and realities of high end dining. Meanwhile, the kinds of coffees, appropriate degrees of roasts for them and the brewing methods that showcase their qualities that I listed above are not even on the radar screen of today's leading boutique roasters, who with few exceptions offer a monochromatic menu of lightly-roasted, manicured washed-processed coffees that leave the consumer and restaurants alike with a range of choices that if we were talking wine would amount to all whites, no reds and forget the fortified wines for after dinner. No wonder Nespresso and Keurig are kicking ass. 

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