Supposedly the coffee chapter of the upcoming megacookbook Modernist Cuisine is particularly mind-blowing; curious, we asked to speak to one of its authors, Chris Young. The man is certainly passionate about his coffee; so passionate, in fact, that we had to break the interview into two chunks. Today's portion: why great restaurants have bad coffee, exactly how nerdy we can expect Modernist Cuisine to be, and how it got to be that way.
How does one approach a single subject chapter for a broad, sweeping project like Modernist Cuisine?
In a book like this, every chapter was a little bit different, partly dependent on the nature of how much we were really already up to speed on all the relevant science and current thinking on a particular topic. Given the six volumes, we had to sometimes do more homework for some chapters than others.
When we actually sat down to write [the coffee] chapter, it was a very iterative process. The original goal was, we're not trying to write a chapter that was going to teach really great baristas stuff they don't already know. Our real ambition was we wanted to create a chapter that would open the eyes of a lot of chefs to what coffee could be. Because so often, even at the very best restaurants in the world, coffee is a total afterthought. [Co-author] Nathan [Myhrvold] likes to say the coffee in the average three star restaurant wouldn't be up to the standards of the average street cart in Seattle, and I think he's right about that.
Why do you think that is?
It's funny, in the kitchen, especially at sort of modernist restaurants with a lot of ambition, it's very accurate cooking. Things are weighed, things are very carefully done the same way every time to ensure consistency. There's lots of effort put into finding the best technique and sort of refining it. And then none of that happens with the coffee.
Just things as simple as learning to weigh your shots, weigh your dose, both when you're dosing how much grinds you put in the coffee, and weighing how much the shot weighs after you pull it to make sure — and judging also how long it takes to pull that shot — but also judging the ratio between the amount of coffee grounds you start with and the amount of liquid you end up with. That is sort of the biggest control factor in terms of how good the coffee will be. Way too often that's just totally guessed at by people pulling shots in restaurants.
So what can we expect from the final version of the chapter?
We really sat down and wrote out the steps of "This is step one, step two, step three." And tried to explain the science of each relevant step of espresso. But then we also realized that espresso — there's a large number of areas where you can go wrong with espresso in a very busy restaurant. Sometimes it's too much of a challenge to really put the effort into producing great espresso. So we decided we really needed to sit down and talk about brewed coffee as well, because that actually can also be as good as a good espresso shot but is often given short shrift. It's probably easier for restaurants to produce in really high quality than a great latte or a great cappuccino or a great espresso beverage.
And then along the way, because Nathan and I are kind of big nerds, we tended to add little side bars. Interesting science aspects that maybe aren't directly relevant to producing a great cup of coffee but that we thought were interesting. They might be on the history of espresso, it's sort of a modern invention. A 20th century invention. The idea of why sometimes your milk doesn't want to foam, or why high fat milk or low fat milk won't foam, talking about the science of foams. Those kind of things.
We originally thought this would be a 20-page chapter. It ended up becoming — the final page count is I think closer to 50. I would say it's certainly up there with the very best books on coffee even meant for professionals, because we just kept packing more in, and along the way we were asking people at Victrola [in Seattle], 2007 World Barista Champion James Hoffman, Tim Wendelboe, 2004 World Barista Champion out of Norway to give us feedback. And they'd be like, oh, it's really great! You should also talk about X, you should also talk about Y. And we'd end up adding that. And the chapter kind of got huge and out of hand.
That sounds to me like what I've heard about a lot of the book. You start asking people who are experts in a given field questions I feel like haven't been asked before and the information just comes pouring in.
Oh, absolutely, and that goes to the core of what's incredibly fun about this book, and rewarding but also the reason it got just completely out of hand in terms of size and how long we spent doing it. It's one of those things where you think you know a lot about the subject already, and then you go and talk to somebody who has been thinking really deeply about it for say ten years, and there's just all these interesting things you had no idea about. They're fascinating. And if it's really that fascinating to us, I think we can make it fascinating to people who want to read our book and so there's really no reason not to include it.
We didn't have the constraint that a lot of writers have. We didn't have a publisher sitting there going, no, you have to finish. We didn't have adult supervision I think is the easiest way to put it. There's not really anyone saying, no you have to stop. You only have 28 pages in this chapter, it can't been coming in at twice that, that's just unacceptable. So it was the combination of us being unrestrained in terms of practical considerations and that every time we would scratch the surface of some subject we wanted to talk about we would really seek out people who were just experts on the subject and try to learn as much from them as possible. That's one of the things I think is unique about is just how open and collaborative it's been with the broader culinary community.
So what's going on with restaurant coffee programs? Who is doing a good job?
In my experience, the restaurants that really do a great job with coffee and really take it seriously may be totally unremarkable in every other respect. It might be a really good restaurant, it could be a great neighborhood restaurant. It isn't expensive or particularly difficult to do great coffee, you just have to make the decision that you're going to do so and really make the effort. We all think of well, someone like a Thomas Keller must do great coffee, and maybe they do, maybe they don't. But there's no reason that the restaurant right up the street from my house couldn't be doing great coffee as well and nobody ever hears about it, they just do great coffee.
My experience is that restaurants at the really high end do mediocre coffee and the general reason is those are very chef driven restaurants and I think a lot of chefs are unaware of how good a great cup of coffee can be and how much attention to detail has to go into it.
So why aren't more restaurants producing quality coffee?
It's one of these things, it's an unknown that's sort of relegated to the least experienced member of the waiter team. It's not at all uncommon that you have the newest waiter comes in, he's back on the pass, he helps with the coffee, he does all that kind of stuff. He gets some amount of training but not necessarily by someone who's really an expert in coffee, and then if he's any good at all, in three weeks they're promoted and you have somebody new doing the coffee. So you would never do that with a station in the kitchen, it would never have that lack of focus and attention where nobody that really understands the standards involved is keeping an eye on it.
Tomorrow, Chris Young talks to us about how to make a decent cup of coffee, the blue collar history of espresso, and whether all those ridiculously expensive machines are actually worth the fuss.