This Guy

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Native son to the American Deep South - now living in Portland, OR. Lover of people, sustainability, justice, culture, writing, history, cuisine and coffee.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

cafe work. [and why it's addictive to be a barista]

I never knew coffee culture to be so interesting or have so much power in a city.
As I moved to Portland, I was gratefully given a job at a certain cafe [which I help manage today] with no prior coffee knowledge and a very short lived history of food and beverage service. (Well, minus the Wendy's stint that I talked about a while ago and that I wrote about a while back.)

When I mention to folks in other places that I manage a cafe, more or less, am a barista in the PNW, it's met with, "Oh..that's cool.."
But, I feel sometimes that description is inadequate.
No, it's not some Starbucks or coffee joint that names their sugar filled espresso drinks after movie stars or weather systems.

This is the life of a professional barista.
And this is why I'm addicted to making coffee.

We don't just made damn good coffee...we wake up early in the morning because we know what we make comes from East Africa and South America and Indonesia.
We know that what we make can only damage or mess up the beautiful product of the green coffee plants.
What we do, is find ways to make our products with the least error possible...and this isn't easy.

There are factors.
Temperature. Pressure. Technique. Clean water. Good milk. Passion. Experience.

So goes the ebb and flow of a barista in PNW.

The newspapers wait outside our locked doors. Usually it's news on the economy or well, more news that's somehow related to our hurting economy. I don't read them much. Usually too depressing. But I'm glad we sell newspapers. It's generally nice to see people still reading them....sifting through the garbage that pays the printers bills in order to get to a good piece of writing.

I check around the store and look to see if things are out of place...or dirty. Usually, it's fine.
I hear the espresso machine clicking and hissing and filling itself constantly with water.
I turn on some music. Generally starting out with some slower like Bon Iver, Jose Gonzalez and The Album Leaf...cranking it up mid-day to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Arcade Fire. [Also depends on who's working...]

Music is important to cafe life. I don't like making coffee or food if there's no music. It feels awkward. Like having to dance to something with no rhythm. I believe it goes the same for customers. Customers are more comfortable when there's a little more noise...something to chat with so they don't have to whisper to their friend, business partner, lover, blind date or some combination of the two.

You do your random assortment of tasks...putting away pastries...making eggs...putting on the soups.
If you're on "bar", which means pulling shots and making drinks, you season the espresso machine.
Before you do that, you gather your "mise en place" of barista work - a few for wiping away moisture and grinds from the previous coffee puck and the other two you keep wet for wiping off your steam wand and cleaning off your tamping area.
Our machine has three groupheads (aka, where the portafilters tighten into) and I pull shots on each grouphead two times to season the spouts. Once I get around to the third 'go' at seasoning the machine, I test my shots.

I taste to check bitterness...overextraction, underextraction.
With our Hairbender espresso blend, we're looking for sweet chocolate, caramel and jasmine. Once I'm satisfied, I move on.

I fill milk pitchers. Nonfat. Whole. Half&Half.
Our customers drink Half&Half like it's goin' out of style.
Can't blame them, it's good.
Damn good.

If you do like a bit of milk in your coffee, I'm right there with you. A little splash of half&half in a hot cup of coffee is next to perfect after not having any milk in a good cup of french press.

I move on to making our drip coffee, which is our Hairbender well, ground for drip.
Then, me grind our single origin coffee (which right now is from a small farm in Guatemala.) for French press.
French press obviously requires more time and more attention.
Grind 7oz for a 12cup press [and we make two presses per airpot]
Fill with hot water [nearly 200F] a little above halfway, and set timer for four minutes.
We give the coffee one minute to bloom, which it will bloom quite a bit if it's freshly roasted releasing those good gases that show us it's fresh.
Fill it to the nozzle and let it sit for the remaining three minutes.
Timer goes off, press the pots, dump into bigger airports and there ya have it.

I crack the doors open, place our sandwich board near a lonely fire hydrant and wait for those first few customers to come in for the coffee...and maybe a bagel with cream cheese. Nothing that takes too long.

And so it goes, as we see the regulars and start making their goods before they tell us what they want...
I catch up with the vendors like Doug, my boy from Sunshine Dairy.
I poke fun at his inability to park his huge delivery truck and it goes back and forth.
I made him toffee nut mocha because he has a sweet tooth and it's common courtesy to treat your vendors well.

You treat your vendors well, and they'll do the same for you.
If your vendors start missing deliveries and are late, you gotta stay on their ass.
I can't be havin' late bagels or messy orders.

A rush comes about 8:30 when all the 9am workers have to be at their desks...
Then we get the folks who do business at our cafe. Constantly walking outside on their cell phones and picking away at their keyboards.

Then you get the few socially awkward customers that force conversation down your throat like some bitter pill.
I hate this.
I know it's good to know your regulars, but some folks...I try to hide in the stock room.

After a while come the folks that hug the counter and look at their watches as you make their drink. You feel their stare and it doesn't help me your drink any faster. You look at me like it's my fault you're going to be late. I know how to do my job quick and right.

And one of the most important things...
Don't mess with folks that make your food.
No we don't spit or feed you things off the floor..but it doesn't make us want to serve you our best.

The customer is NOT always right. The employee knows when they messed up.

If you can afford to be a regular or eat out - TIP!
I can usually correlate tips by how much the ticket is.
Higher tickets tip less.
Some people drop 24 bucks on cafe fare and leave 50 cents.
Some people drop 2 dollars and leave a dollar tip.

For those of you who tip your waiters and cafe workers well, thankyou.
I think I'd like to call it bad attitude tax.
We take a lot of mean attitudes because most cafe workers are young and not always at their best.
This is no reason to be angry. If we're working hard and there's a line, you should probably relax and notice we're doing all we can.

If you yell at one of our employees for no good reason, I'm not gonna give you the benefit of the doubt. I know my employees and I know they're all sweethearts.
If I get fired for it, I'm goin' down with the ship.
It's an injustice to treat customers like they're kings if they treat you like garbage.

All of this aside...all the crap you take from people...the heated rushes and crazy comes down to the love of doing what you're doing. Making food. Making coffee.
Making people feel comfortable and known.

Even when you've had a bad day, you can always rely on a consistently good cup of coffee.

And this is what I do.
Day in and day out.
I love it.
Well, most of the time.
I love the rants with fellow employees that makes the day go by quicker...and legitimize that yes, that person was an asshole.

Oh, the world of hospitality and customer service. A never ending battle of ups and downs.

And always, with everything we do, we give thanks to people who support us and grow our food and teach us how to be better.

Yes. Thankful...

and way over-caffeinated.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

"FrosTop" [most guilty pleasure of the South]

Cheeseburger + chili + dripping roast beef + "fixins'" = Frostop's infamous, Eli Special.

I came across the Eli Special somewhere near my junior year in high school.
It's found at one of the best greasy, little po'dunk joints in my hometown of Picayune, Mississippi called, "Frostop" [Pronounced: Frost-top/Or as my wife has been known to say, "Fro-Stop"]

Whatever you call it, it's damn good.

I had the distinct pleasure of getting one of these babies a few days ago as I visited my native land for a friend's wedding.
Attempt to eat with your hands, but I prefer using the oh so convenient plastic knife and fork. (and plenty of napkins)

What I also noticed was their prices - like, ridiculously cheap. $1.10 for a single burger, .90 for an ice cream cone and a couple of bucks for a hotdog po'boy.
Yeah, you heard me.
Hotdog poboy.
Po'boy bread (generally a more airy french bread - hard to find unless you leave in the deep down south, or find somewhere that makes it legit)
Roast beef gravy
and of course, those cheap red hot dogs bursting at the seams.

Most folks don't come here for a hot dog poboy, but for that infamous Roast Beef Poboy.
It's similar to the Debris Po'boy but not as ripped to shreds.
The juice runs down to your elbows as the bread is soaked to bits.
And there's the usual barrage of po'boy love like shrimp, catfish, crab, and cheeseburger. [Cue saliva glands..]

These are sandwiches that make the gods angry for not being human.

They have some epic french fries too.
I love fries...especially if they're done right. Crispy on the outside, soft and mushy on the inside. Perfect. (and cheap as well..)
They most likely have this stuff down to a science.
I've always noticed this one older woman who does all the grill work. When the line is out of control...she always seems calm and collected. I'm sure she's been doing it for over 30 years - nothing much has changed accept her hair-do, which she keeps so tightly bound in her hair net...which I'm sure isn't so necessary these days.

Great sodas with crushed ice.
I'm convinced crushed ice like they have makes things taste better. Maybe it's colder. Maybe it's texture...maybe it's awesome.

This place is sentimental for me. It's a place I went to with my family for junkfood binges and high school excursions. It is dear to my heart and I hope they stay where they are for some time to come. It's not often you can feed three people for 13 dollars. Maybe that's not a good thing...

But there's something in that food [besides fat] that keeps me happy.
Maybe it's the memories...the warm and fuzzies of comfort food..

Or probably...because it just tastes...really...really good.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

A Conviction [in a bowl of Vegetable Soup]

My wife and I have been on a kick of sorts... watching Jamie Oliver's: "Food Revolution".
Jamie is an English chef who is more so an advocate than famous TV chef personality.
But, it is what it is.

Jamie completely revolutionized the school lunch menu in England. This show, he sets out to do the same here, in the US.
I absolutely love this show and without a doubt, support what he's doing.
His current "revolution" is taking place in Huntington, West Virginia. The nation's most overweight city. [As they correlate Gov't statistics to death by heart disease, diabetes, etc..]

And, it is, absolutely heartbreaking. Hearing children's stories of their parents dying due to weight related issues. It is, most definitely, a silent killer.
Now, I'm not one to always advocate for healthy foods or alternatives.
I love starches. Pork fat is amazing and Coca-Cola may be the nectar of the gods.
But, these things are generally not so good. Nothing new there.

Also I want to say, it's good to eat starches and some fats in good moderation. Our bodies need what the earth produces. [They just don't need it all.]
I'm writing all this to express my own convictions of our food culture...especially in our schools and what we don't know is feeding our kids.

There are strict rules and regulations school cafeterias have to follow. There has to be a certain amount of veggies and fruit and bread. Most often, these veggies are french fries and terrible looking salad creations we all know, we won't eat.
Milk is generally chosen in its most chocolate flavored form, which tends to have the same or more sugar than soda!

And understandably so, we cook food for those kiddies out of convenience with what's easy to cook and easy to serve. But, this "stuff" is killing younger generations -- it's killing our generation. I mean, who doesn't want to stand in the french fry line?
Kids are not being taught what food is and where it comes from. I wasn't taught in school - I didn't know the difference between a potato and a tomato when I was in first grade.
Teachers these days have such strict material matter they can teach in order to make high on those state tests - no wonder they don't have the freedom to teach kiddies about food and how it helps them to grow. (Or, if you're a teacher and you are doing this, thankyou, thankyou, thankyou.)

I am becoming an advocate for food knowledge. As my palate shifts from salty and greasy, to bright greens, reds and earthy browns, I sense a shift in our view of food culture.
I recently took a culinary knife skills class - just cutting up veggies in different ways and at the end, we made a veggie soup out of our hacked up goodness.

Now, maybe it had just been a while since I had veggie soup, but it hit my soul [real good]. Simple, delicious and so good for you.
And there, as I was slurping up that heavenly broth and soft vegetation, I understood what it meant.
It's about outlook.
Veggies are like...the math of the food world. It's great and necessary and all, but most of the time, intimidating and we tend to see them as...not very good. [At least in US culture.]

At least, I did. And, still do, most of the time.
But, I'm learning.
Learning to uh, "Eat those vegetables!"

Because something needs to change. Somehow...we need to shift how we grow up eating food. And I do know that some economic and lifestyle circumstances hinder us from eating fresh food, but not if we all demanded it. The people in those big white buildings make a living off of us and will shift towards what we buy and demand.

If we want crap food, that's what we're going to get...and boy, are we getting it.
Limit choices. I feel like, if you put a piece of pizza or a piece of baked chicken in front of a little kid, they're probably going to go for the pizza.
If only we knew how privileged we were to have more than one choice.

As I learn more and more about what food does to my body, the more my views shift on what food means to me. It changes the way I cook food...and my thirst to learn more.
This food we're pumping into our bodies is important. And I speak more so to myself, than anyone else, that something needs to change in our diets. Or else, we're going to be seeing a lot less life...and it may be yours.

So, here's to a good conviction, in a bowl of soup...that we work for that change. May we stand in our kitchens and cook our own food and give a deep thanks to this earth that gives it to us; the farmers that nurtured them and the folks of many miles who handled them. Eat more local. Think more sustainable.

And uh,