Wednesday, October 18, 2006
AT THE BLUE BOTTLE WITH EMILY
Earlier this week I had the immense pleasure of getting a cappuccino at the Blue Bottle with my best friend, neighbor and all-around partner-in-crime, Emily Dixon. Emily and I have been going out for coffee together on a very regular basis since about the early 90’s, so the Blue Bottle in Hayes Valley is still kind of “new” for us, as it opened in 2005. But it has very quickly become one of my favorite cappuccinos in San Francisco. This is partly because they do the drink right – not too hot, 6-ounce(ish) porcelain cup, delicious, caramel-y espresso, and exceedingly lovely crema del latte on most days.
But the Blue Bottle has also become one of my favorites because I love the atmosphere. It isn’t really a coffee shop. It’s more like an espresso speakeasy - just a garage with an espresso machine in it and a teeny little bar protruding from the counter, so you pretty much have to stand up to drink your coffee. As a result, the Blue Bottle has that feel of conviviality and human warmth that makes coffee bars in Italy so charming. I always wind up chatting with someone new there, or at least enjoying the human spectacle. And yet the Blue Bottle is utterly without the irritating pretension of coffee shops that go out of their way to try to be “authentically Italian.” A number of espresso joints in the states try to achieve that Italian feel by putting Italian words on the menu, photos of Tuscan hillsides on the walls, Andrea Bocelli on the stereo (ack), and calling out “ciao” instead of “hello.” Which always feels a little funny to me. It just calls attention to where we AREN’T. But the Blue Bottle seems to have captured some of the best of Italian culture without even trying, and that just tickles me. Sipping coffee there is just like being in Italy, only I can wear flip-flops or drink a cappuccino in the afternoon without catching disdainful stares from the passersby.
(OK, I recognize that my bellyaching about “irritating pretension” is totally hypocritical when here I am calling it crema del latte instead of microfoam. Maybe it’s time for me to give in to the dark side and just call it microfoam, for pete’s sake. I think I’m really turning myself around here. But can I just go on the record one last time and say that “microfoam” is one of those words that just makes me HATE us English-speakers for being so literal and pragmatic?)
Even better than going to the Blue Bottle, though, is going to the Blue Bottle with Emily. Emily has been my close friend since the first day of 8th grade, almost 20 years ago, and it’s hard for me to put into words what an outstanding, stupendous, hilarious person she is. But – sticking to the ostensible reason for this blog’s existence – Emily is as interested in the minutiae of cappuccino quality and variation as I am. We have been constant companions on many travels to Italy and in years of exploration of what makes a good cappuccino good. Emily inspires me, eggs me on, and keeps me honest. I often suspect that my documentary would have died a slow death from self-doubt if Emily were not around.
So the other day when we were at the Blue Bottle – doing our usual dorky photo shoot and enjoying our cappuccinos – we met a 20 year-old girl who was about to take her first trip to Rome, at which point we kind of attacked her with unsolicited advice and reminiscences about living in Rome. And it got me thinking about the sheer longevity of our friendship. Emily and I started taking Italian together in 9th grade at Lowell High School (Miss Nicora’s class. “Adriana! Adriana! Telefono! E’Gianni! Gianni, ecco Adriana.”) We took our first trip to Italy together with that class when we were 16, during which time we spent 3 days in Rome and vowed to live there together someday. I am still a little surprised to be able to report that 12 years later we actually DID live together in Rome. In 2002 - after both of us had lived in Italy at various times and after we both spent our college years studying Italian literature and culture in spite of its apparent lack of utility in the job market - I got a grant to live in Rome for a year, to start work on the cappuccino documentary. Emily was living in Washington, D.C. at the time, working for a software company. As soon as she heard that I’d be moving to Rome for a year, she determined to find a way to move there with me. And after a good deal of haggling, she not only talked her employers into letting her set up shop in Rome, she ended her year there by addressing Italian parliament on her employers’ behalf (on issues of internet usability for the disabled. Very smart girl, Emily.) So… Emily is that kind of friend. Dogged, loyal, and very adventurous.
I guess my point is that something truly amazing happens when you manage to stay close friends with someone for so long. When Emily and I were 16 and taking goofy pictures of each other in front of the Vatican and chit-chatting about how cool it would be to live there someday, I don’t think I really believed it would happen. Or at any rate, I couldn’t foresee HOW it would happen. But then when the opportunity arose, there was Emily, ready to make good on a 12 year-old wish, ready to remind me of a hope I had uttered a very long time ago.
We live in such a mobile culture; my family and “closest” friends are literally scattered all over the country; places like the Blue Bottle that actually encourage one to talk to one’s neighbors are very, very few. So I am all the more grateful for Emily. Having someone around to gently remind you of the person you’ve been all your life and the person you’ve supposedly wanted to become is no small thing. And now, at age 32, I’ve found that I feel a sense of possibility that I just didn’t feel when I was younger and wondering and fearful, and I think that’s partly because of having seen, over time, that some of the things I wished for myself have actually come to fruition. Emily’s presence in my life encourages me not only to believe in the positive visions I might idly have for my future but to run toward them with all of my might.
So as Emily and I spent a half-hour chatting over our ONE ZILLIONTH pair of cappuccinos, I felt really grateful for her continued presence in my life. And I didn’t even have to point out how much the Blue Bottle reminds me of Italy; she got it immediately.
Wednesday, October 04, 2006
Goodbye Los Angeles, Hello San Francisco
This week finds me back home in San Francisco, my latest foray into reality television finally over. (Ahhhhhh!) The thing that I’ve been reflecting on these past couple weeks is what a difference the barista makes. This may sound obvious to some of you. And others of you are probably scratching your heads, wondering what a barista is. (The barista is the person who makes your espresso drinks. Yes, it’s a word that we borrowed from Italian. But they borrowed “bar” from English in the first place, so… it’s an international hybrid!)
So for starters, a couple weeks ago, I trekked out to San Dimas, California – along with the still-curious Aldo Velasco – to visit a place called the Coffee Klatch. For those of you unfamiliar with Southern California, San Dimas is inland from L.A. It’s hot as hell. It’s got a great view of the mountains. It was the setting of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. (The 14 year-old in me kept looking for a Circle K, but I didn’t see one.) And Coffee Klatch has a GREAT reputation. Earlier this year, esteemed coffee reviewer Ken Davids gave one of their espresso blends his highest rating ever. So Aldo and I made the trip out there partly just to taste the coffee but also because I was preparing to shoot an interview there - with former US barista champion Heather Perry - and I needed to do a little location scout.
In any case, we arrived with great expectations and well… we were pretty disappointed. The flavor of our cappuccinos was excellent, but in all other ways, they were forgettable. Mine was scalding hot – literally boiling – and the foam had that stiff, big-bubble texture that just makes me think that maybe life IS suffering after all. And they accidentally gave it to me in a paper cup. To soothe our disappointment, Aldo and I trooped across the parking lot to Target and stocked up on underwear.
OK, now cut to four days later. I return to Coffee Klatch to conduct an interview with Heather Perry. I have seen Heather compete at a couple barista competitions in the past year, and I know she is serious. I mean, VERY SERIOUS. In spite of her sweet smile and twinkly blue eyes, this girl gets her game face on when it’s time to compete. (I’m not gonna lie to you. She can be a little intimidating.) So Heather proceeds to make one of the best cappuccinos I have ever tasted. And she makes it over and over and over again. Perfectly. (In hindsight, I can’t figure out why I only took one sip. I guess I was there more as a filmmaker than as a blogger. I get so scattered when I’m filming, and I inevitably do stupid shit. On the other hand, I got to taste their straight espresso a number of times, in a couple different ways. Wow. Incredible.) We also had a great interview – about coffee, about cappuccino foam, about the nature of being American – and I was pleased to note that Heather and the entire SCAA/barista-competition-establishment frown on stiff peaks. Music to my ears.
So all of this made me think a lot about the fact that over the course of a few days, I’d had a pretty forgettable cappuccino and an incredible cappuccino prepared with the same raw materials on the same equipment in the same spot. The only difference was the human hand that made them. I’m inclined to hope that the bad cappuccino was a fluke, because Heather is the trainer of all Coffee Klatch’s baristas, and in the few hours I spent barraging her with silly questions, I could see that she’s a very knowledgeable and engaging instructor. So I’m having a hard time believing that the boiling cappuccino I got would be the norm. And honestly, if I were still in southern California, the compulsive part of my personality would force me to make semi-regular trips out to San Dimas just to gather more data before ruling one way or the other on Coffee Klatch’s cappuccino.
But, like I mentioned, I’m no longer in SoCal. I’m back home in San Francisco, sitting in my kitchen/office, sifting through hours and hours of footage of people like Heather talking about the coffee business. But I’ve continued to reflect on the whole barista thing. I live right off of Chestnut Street, in the Marina (no, I’ve never been in a sorority), and there are five coffee shops within a two block radius of my apartment – three independents, a Starbucks, and a Peet’s. And more often than not, I wind up going to Peet’s. Partly, this is because I’m a fan of the atmosphere there. But it’s also because the baristas at this particular Peet’s really get it about the milk. Peet’s is not my favorite coffee in the world, but they really do an amazing job with the milk – dense, creamy, velvety, you know the drill. So I add some sugar, chit-chat with some strangers, and I’m pretty happy. But one day I was in there, and the woman at the bar did a particularly good job, so I went and thanked her and told her how much I liked it. And her reply to me was, “It’s not me. It’s the recipe.” Which is total malarkey. If it were the recipe, then I could get this amazing crema del latte at every Peet’s everywhere. I can’t. Peet’s might have good trainers. They might do a better-than-average job at inspiring their baristas and offering them a work environment that is attractive enough that they stay on the job long enough to get really good at it. I suspect this is particularly true in the bay area, where, from what I can tell, there are a few Peet’s baristas who are lifers. Career baristas. Almost unheard of in America. The likelihood of getting a good cappuccino at Peet’s might be higher than getting one at a number of other places. But it’s not a certainty.
I think this question of certainty is at the heart of why I am interested in the cappuccino at all. It’s like, when you’re trying to train a dog, they tell you that the best way to do it is to use intermittent positive reinforcement. When the dog fetches the ball, you give her a treat. But if you want the best overall ball-fetching results, you don’t give her a treat EVERY SINGLE TIME. That way, the dog stays interested. Am I gonna get a treat? Or am I not gonna get a treat? Guess I better fetch the ball and find out. From what I understand, this system of unpredictable rewards works well in dating, at least if you subscribe to The Rules. It’s also a favored method of sadistic prison guards. So… I guess I’m kind of the dog in this scenario, kept endlessly curious because of the system’s inherent unpredictability. (And wooed into throwing away my hard-earned money one three-dollar cappuccino at a time…)
Of course, this brings up the BIG S. The company that has tried (and is still trying) to standardize something that is more-or-less inherently un-standardizable. But that’s a discussion for another time. Or you can watch my movie when I’m done with it. Meanwhile, it feels good to be home.
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