by Amy Parker
For most of us, nothing ends a perfect meal like a cup of coffee or a smooth cappuccino. The problem is, not many restaurants invest the same amount of thought into this final step as they do into the meal itself. And what a colossal mistake that is. After all, it’s the last impression they leave us with. Shouldn’t it be equally as wonderful as the meal we just enjoyed?
Christopher Flett, Bar Manager at Chow Restaurant on Granville, couldn’t agree more. When he and the team at Chow designed their bar program, they put a lot of thought into the coffee. They wanted the beans to be organic, the roasters to be local, the philosophy had to match that of the kitchen. It also had to be great. They settled on 49th Parallel. Great beans, agreeable philosophy and a thorough training program. As a kid, Christopher remembers always liking the smell of coffee but the first time he recalls actually drinking a cup and appreciating it was towards the end of high school.
Back then, he used to take his own cup into Pagliacci’s Restaurant in Victoria and ask them to fill it up. He says the owner didn’t do take-away coffee but he seemed pleased that someone appreciated his coffee enough to bring their own take-away cup. Already a connoisseur.
In 1993, Christopher worked for Starbucks for a year. He feels that their coffee culture was different then – more emphasis on quality, heavy training and education, regarding coffee and life in general. This is where he created the foundation for his knowledge and passion for coffee. Since Starbucks, he has worked at several restaurants and bars, each time, taking an interest in their coffee program.
Before Chow, he worked at Subeez Cafe where they served americano coffee only, no drip, so that every
cup was fresh. At Chow, Christopher and his team have raised the coffee bar once again. If you were to order a cappuccino tonight, a work of art would soon be delivered to your table. I am not just referring to the picture “drawn” into your foam. I mean the experience of the cappuccino itself. I suggest you savour every sip and consider the work and expertise that went into the cup. They pair approximately 5 oz. of milk with 1 1/2 – 2 oz. of espresso. The barista begins with a clean and dry portafilter. He grinds only what he will be using immediately, never more, so the grinds are always fresh. Once the small filter is full, he uses a tamper to pack the grinds down firmly. Then, he attaches the portafilter to the espresso machine and presses the button for a single or double shot, depending. He watches the espresso carefully. So-called bad espresso will appear blond or pale, meaning that was poorly packed. It will taste watery or bitter and this means that he must start again. If it looks good, he then begins to foam the milk. The instruments are important. The right pitcher for foaming milk has tapered sides and a straight lip. Christopher is also fond of the new two-hole restricted tip for the steam wand. Depending on your machine, this small investment can make a world of difference. (see photos)
The team at Chow uses small milk pitchers and 5 oz. of fresh, cold, whole milk for every cappuccino. The more cream in the milk, the more working time one has. Skim milk must be used immediately, to avoid separation, and therefore, the look and texture of the milk, let alone the art, is not as controllable. If you are looking to save calories, save that for another time. This cappuccino is a masterpiece and should be enjoyed as such. The barista starts the foaming of the milk by ‘stretching’ it. He places the steam wand just below the surface of the milk and activates the steam. TZAT, TZAT, TZAT… With his hand on the side of the pitcher, he waits until he detects a small change in temperature. Done! He now submerges the steam wand to the bottom of the pitcher and begins to ‘whip’ the milk, watching it churn. He is waiting for ‘microfoam’ – the perfect velvety texture. When this is reached he turns off the steam and taps the pitcher on the counter ‘working’ the milk to remove any bubbles. Tilting the cappuccino cup towards him, he gently rocks the pitcher of milk into the espresso… gently … gently … gradually leveling the cup as it fills. The artwork just takes practice – a flick of the wrist here and jerk of the wrist there. A heart is the easiest, a leaf is the most challenging. Try an apple perhaps. The better the foam, the easier it is to bring an illustration to the surface. The artistic design is the final touch, a message that says, “Your cappuccino was made with great care and thought.” It is the ultimate end to a wonderful meal.
When asked what tip he would offer to home-baristas, Christopher replied, “Don’t try it at home. Go to the cafe.” Espresso machines built and priced for home use will not deliver the quality that a commercial machine can. Even a ‘Sylvia’ machine will run about $600 and once you add the $300 temperature control device and a $12 – $50 steam tip, you’ve made a big investment and you still might not be able to match the care and quality of a professional.
Christopher trusts his daily caffeine fix to a few select professionals in town. He frequents Caffe Artigiano, since it is only a few steps from his home but he cites, like many coffee aficionados in Vancouver, the Elysium Room at 5th and Burrard as his favourite. His current fix of choice – an americano misto in a small cup. Very Strong. “The barista there hates it when I order that!” “Coffee will definitely be around in the future. It’s a legal, social drug.” Christopher says. And that’s a good thing for him since he plans to open his own coffee shop sometime in the next year.
He has a fueled drive. The plan is to open a great cafe with high quality coffee, a local culture and a cool, hip atmosphere. Not surprisingly, he’s given the details a lot of thought. “I want the regulars, the people in the neighbourhood, to feel like it’s THEIR place.” Judging from this interview and the cappuccino at Chow, Christopher’s next venture is sure to be a work of art.