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Da Lin By Sam Low: A Barista In The Kitchen

Da Lin By Sam Low: A Barista In The Kitchen

You discover the funniest things on social media these days. Your colleague’s racist uncle, for example, or your ex’s many odd life choices. It’s a rich tapestry of questionable shares and overshares that make opening up Facebook and Instagram a form of risk-reward emotional roulette. It’s all a little extra, frankly.

But then sometimes you discover something cool that makes it worth it.

New Zealand barista champion (2016) and latte art champion (2013 & 2015) Sam Low is not just a barista and latte art champion—he also creates some of the most beautiful food I’ve ever seen on Instagram, from anyone, and that includes roving Broadsheet reporters and Condé Nast types. Low’s passion for cooking has led him to create thoughtful, flawlessly executed works of food art, documented regularly through his social media presence.

I’ve long hoped to talk with Low about his second life in food, and happily he’s got a new project that affords just such an opportunity.

That would be Da Lin, Low’s forthcoming pop-up dining experience in Melbourne, to be hosted at Code Black Coffee Roasters, where Low is a barista trainer. While the project itself isn’t explicitly coffee focused, it will be staffed mostly by moonlighting coffee pros, hosted (at least to start) at a coffee bar, and shows the stunning versatility of the world-class coffee scene in Melbourne. Even the dinner’s name is a coffee pun, coming from the coffee phrase “dialing in”. The first service is Monday, March 13th, and tickets are completely sold out. Future services will be announced via Da Lin’s Instagram.

To learn more I spoke with Sam Low digitally from Melbourne.

Sam Low, thank you for speaking with me. I have so much to ask you about this gorgeous food! For starters—how did you get started with cooking?

It’s just something I’ve always been passionate with. It’s a passion that’s been with me longer than coffee, in fact, but I’ve only recently started to further dial in with it. Coffee has helped me realize so much about cooking—striving for flavor, believing in a product, trying to educate those enjoying that product while breaking stigmas…it’s intertwined.

Will Da Lin be your first proper pop-up?

Yes—this is my first official one. I’ve done trial ones with friends, etc, but this is a proper one, and I’ll document it with friends taking photos. I’m developing a portfolio with the hopes it’ll be something I can do more frequently.

Tell me about your choice to host this dinner at the Code Black space—is this necessity driving aesthetic, or are you trying to say something about coffee bars?

I think it’s more necessity. Because of the connections I have, at least to start Da Lin is going to done as takeovers in Melbourne cafes that don’t use their space at night. That’s my target in the beginning, to build momentum, and because resources are already there. The first one will be at Code Black Coffee’s North Melbourne store, and then I’m hoping with some traction I’ll be able to prove to people that this could work and be beneficial to both parties

The name for your dinner is a glorious pun. 

It’s a funny story actually—when I do training (I’m the trainer at Code Black) the term “dial in” is used quite often—you know, I’ll train people and say, “Oh, can you dial in?”

And so one day, one of the other other baristas—who is also a first generation Asian barista, from Vietnam but raised in Melbourne—every time I say “dial in” she’s saying “da-lin”, like it’s a word from another language. It really sounds like a phrase from another language. But it got me thinking, you know, dialing in is what we’re striving for, just trying to fine tune what we serve—whether it’s cheese making, wine making, creating dishes, or serving coffee. This is my reason for naming the dinners Da Lin. I’m not 100% fluent in another language—if I named it something Chinese it wouldn’t work. This is more true to myself.

How do you think coffee skills inform your cooking? And vice versa?

I think being in coffee has taught me to objectify flavor, and to understand how different cultures and backgrounds express flavor in different ways. The same coffee can be interpreted by different cultures to have very different flavors. Coffee has helped me think about food in a different way, and that’s the main thing for me: objectifying flavor.

When you do that, you’re able to educate consmers in a different light, and it helps you forget preconceived notions. When you say “Chinese food”, that concept comes with so many preconceptions, and can mean such different things depending on where you’re from, your culture’s understanding of what that means. It’s the same thing with coffee. For both things, the more you understand it the more open you are.

How are you making use of the coffee community as a resource to launch these dinners? And will you continue working as a trainer throughout the events? 

Yes—at the moment Da Lin is a part time project for me, and these dinners at Code Black will be very important as a kind of test run, with the first one focused on setting up systems and implementation. If it does catch on that’ll be awesome, but for now I will still continue my work as a trainer.

All of the volunteers I have, the collaborators I have for this first pop up, 80% of them are baristas, and they’re talented in other fields as well—music, cooking, videography, so it’s a way to bring all that in and show these varied talents. 3 of my server volunteers for the first pop-up are head baristas, senior baristas at Code Black, and we’ll have some other folks from outside the company joining us as well.

I’m curious to know, if you don’t mind me asking, if you’re aware of any similar barista-chef dinners like this one in Melbourne? 

I haven’t seen any other baristas pursuing this model. Hopefully I can be someone who is pushing for it as a concept to inspire others. But there are certainly plenty of pop-ups going on here in Melbourne, where people are trying to educate and promote a certain style of cuisine they believe in. But it helps, I think, being from the coffee industry where there are certain followers, and the language of artisan is very similar. I think it helps that I have experience as a coffee trainer, being able to communicate information to other people, vs. people who are trained as chefs first, which is a very different experience.

In my experience it’s usually the other way around, actually. I’ve seen a lot of chefs wanting to become baristas as well, because of the lifestyle of it, but I’ve yet to see a barista move into the food world in the same way.

What dish are you perhaps most excited to serve at Da Lin?

All the dishes I will be serving are from different parts of China, representing a different specialty. Each different dish might focus on vinegar flavors, or textural qualities, or aromatics. The most exciting dish is probably jellyfish. It’s a very bland but uniquely textured item that requires flavoring to really enhance its natural qualities, and it’s not something that’s common in Western culture, to use a dish just for its texture. It’s similar to other kinds of cooking in China where you use sea cucumber, or other gelatinous textures as a base for flavor.

Last question: you’re a barista champion and a latte art champion. Are you going to compete this year?

I’ll probably give it a rest this year, but I’m volunteering time around the competitions. I will be MC’ing the championships in New Zealand, and I’m helping to coach baristas for the Australian championships here at Code Black. I’m taking a back seat this year and trying to encourage other people to compete.

It sounds like you’ll be quite busy all the same. Thank you Sam!

Thank you.

Da Lin launches Monday, March 13th at Code Black Coffee in North Melbourne. Tickets are sold out. Future services will be announced shortly, follow Da Lin on Instagram for updates. Follow Sam Low on Instagram for more food photography.

Jordan Michelman (@suitcasewine) is a co-founder and editor at Sprudge Media Network, based in Portland, Oregon. Read more Jordan Michelman on Sprudge

Top photo from the 2015 New Zealand Latte Art Championship courtesy Michael CY Park, used with permission. 


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