Restaurants en Specialty Coffee

Op het web verschenen de afgelopen week twee mooie posts over de (on)mogelijkheid van kwaliteitskoffie in een restaurant. Oliver Strand en James Hoffman publiceerden beiden een blog over dit onderwerp. Allereerst Strand:

Oliver Strand is bekend door zijn artikelen voor de New York Times, Bon Appétit and Vogue. Zijn boek over koffie verschijnt later dit jaar (uitgever HarperCollins).

Illustration by Z.Carlsen

According to a recent report by GrubStreet, both Heston Blumenthal and Paul Liebrandt use Nespresso Pod Machines in their high-end Michelin-starred restaurants.

First, Noma deserves to be praised, but it should be noted that until the restaurant made the change it brewed Estate Coffee in a French press – coffee was already treated with respect. But by bringing in Tim Wendelboe, V60s and handmade glass vessels, Mads and the staff are knitting together a coffee service that’s unique to Noma, an institution so creative that it’s as much an ideas lab as a restaurant – now the coffee is a seamless part of a meal that challenges your expectations while seducing your palate, the final stage of an hours-long pageant of fried lichen, and beach herbs, and shortbread cheese cookies blanketed with lemony stems, and new potatoes you dredge through cultured butter with a sharpened twig, a shallow bowl of rose hip salt on the side.

Yesterday, I spoke with René Redzepi, the chef at Noma, and he said that after accounting for the all of the costs – the equipment and the beans, the hours of training and the extra staffing: an additional waiter will work each meal and do nothing but prepare coffee – the new service isn’t going to help the bottom line. But, he said, it’s worth it. René told me that his staff is now fascinated with coffee – they’re geeking out.

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.

Second, Michelin-starred restaurants should be held accountable for selling pushbutton coffee, although not because pushbutton coffee is somehow evil. Setting aside concerns over aesthetics (how the coffee tastes), and the environment (if Néstle’s recycling program is effective), the Nespresso pods are ingenious, a near-foolproof system that allows for the clumsiest among us to make espresso, a drink that all but the more skilled baristas can get wrong. There’s a reason why Nespresso made $3.9 billion in global sales in 2011.

But in the context of fine dining, that uniformity and ubiquity is the problem. As long as you push the right button, coffee from a capsule will be almost identical to every other version of that coffee on the face of the earth. Nespresso has created such a consistent product that the purple pod will make purple pod coffee whether you’re in the airport lounge in Bogota, an office in Phoenix, a hotel in Tbilisi or the Fat Duck in Bray.

Pod coffee runs directly counter to what makes a Michelin-starred restaurant so magnificent: you jump through Michelin-starred hoops to get a reservation and set aside a Michelin-starred block of time – while bracing yourself for Michelin-starred prices – to experience Michelin-starred artistry, imagination and dedication to ingredients, not to be served something that your hairdresser can make for you, if you go to the kind of hairdresser who offers you coffee. (Mine asks if I want a soda.)

Although if I’m to be honest, I never order coffee at the end of a knockdown meal. Not after all of those courses and all of those wines. By then I’m usually enjoying myself too much, nursing a tall glass of something bubbly or a small glass of something lethal and feeling the warm, lazy emotions of the just-pampered: that everybody is so nice, that this chair is so comfortable, that the light is so pretty.

I don’t want that spell to end. But for those who choose to ease back into the world, it should be with a handblown carafe of Kapsokisio, not a demitasse from the purple pod.

Tot zover Strand. Ook James Hoffman heeft een mening over de problemen waar een restaurateur mee worstelt wanneer hij aan zijn gasten een goede koffie wil serveren:

I know there are all sorts of conversations swirling around restaurant coffee kicked off by Oliver Strand and then intensified/exacerbated by Kevin Knox. I don’t really want to dive into that particular discussion head on, instead hoping to run parallel to this.

I try not to post too much about the specific experiences I have in my working life on here, because this isn’t really a blog about my business. I must confess, however, that after nearly 5 years of wholesale coffee roasting and working with businesses across London and the UK I feel no closer to “solving” the restaurant coffee problem.

As an industry we’re pretty resentful of how restaurants treat coffee. I still cringe at the memory of the NBC audience ganging up to pick on someone from a restaurant who dared to think they weren’t doing that bad of a job.

Let’s look at this from a difficult angle, perhaps one that isn’t our own. Coffee isn’t important to restaurants. It doesn’t have a great cash margin, and there are other items that might be ordered. A brandy makes more money, has near zero wastage and my staff training is pretty minimal.

Restaurants treat coffee that way because it simply isn’t important to them. People are booking tables because of the coffee service. The fact that, on the one hand, the coffee industry often complains that restaurants don’t take a culinary approach to coffee while, on the other hand, we’re slinging out our best tasting products in paper cups…

Restaurants serve coffee because they are expected to. “Get rid of espresso!” we tell them. In the USA this may actually be viable but in cultures where espresso was used to make coffee expensive and desirable that is more difficult. I once got incredibly excited because a restaurant here got rid of espresso. They did french presses. The staff trainings were incredibly enjoyable because it was just tasting and conversation. The presentation was beautiful and the coffee tasty. For their customers, who visited relatively rarely, this was an oddity in a dining world that still proclaimed espresso to be the best. The restaurant eventually felt that the risk reward ratio wasn’t working and added espresso back to it menu. I don’t blame them at all.

This restaurant had previously recognised that espresso was really hard. Staff training for a restaurant poses a challenge. Consistency is difficult. Execution is hard. Even businesses who basically just work with coffee struggle to execute consistently to a high standard, and yet we’re incredulous that a restaurant – that deals with so many ingredients and preparations – might struggle to brew a good cup.

This is where Nespresso comes in. They turn up, and they understand that espresso brewing is difficult. The difference is they come with a solution. We might argue that the product quality isn’t there, but it is still a better solution than one we have.

So we continue to berate the restaurant industry. We mock them for taking free equipment, instead of laying down thousands upon thousands to brew a relatively small number of low margin products. We mock them for doing a bad job with a setup that most of us already struggle on. We continue to offer the same solution to their problem, despite the fact that all and sundry can see that this solution doesn’t work. It simply doesn’t work. No matter what we do most espresso in most restaurants brewed on traditional equipment will have quality issues.

How much work have we done on looking at a solution that bridges some of the challenges around ease, while retaining the characteristics of the coffees we are so excited about?

None.

Perhaps we ought to start…

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