Oliver Strand On Specialty Coffee’s Restaurant Gap
This feature originally ran on March 27th, 2013.
Last week, Mads Kleppe, the sommelier at Noma, wrote a post for the restaurant’s blog introducing a new coffee program: as of this month, Noma serves Tim Wendelboe coffee, brewed to order in a V60 and decanted into a carafe made by the Copenhagen glassblower Nina Nørgaard. That same day, a post on Grub Street reported that thirty percent of the world’s Michelin-starred restaurants offer pushbutton espresso made with Nespresso capsules. Point, counterpoint.
Both stories ricocheted around the twitternet with strong reactions tacked to the front of the MTs, usually cheers for Noma and hisses for the thirty percent. I basically agree, although not for the obvious reasons.
First, Noma deserves to be praised, but it should be noted that until the restaurant made the change it brewed Estate Coffee in a French press – coffee was already treated with respect. But by bringing in Tim Wendelboe, V60s and handmade glass vessels, Mads and the staff are knitting together a coffee service that’s unique to Noma, an institution so creative that it’s as much an ideas lab as a restaurant – now the coffee is a seamless part of a meal that challenges your expectations while seducing your palate, the final stage of an hours-long pageant of fried lichen, and beach herbs, and shortbread cheese cookies blanketed with lemony stems, and new potatoes you dredge through cultured butter with a sharpened twig, a shallow bowl of rose hip salt on the side.
Yesterday, I spoke with René Redzepi, the chef at Noma, and he said that after accounting for the all of the costs – the equipment and the beans, the hours of training and the extra staffing: an additional waiter will work each meal and do nothing but prepare coffee – the new service isn’t going to help the bottom line. But, he said, it’s worth it. René told me that his staff is now fascinated with coffee – they’re geeking out.
It seems the ones who are going to get the most out of Noma’s coffee are Noma’s waiters and cooks. The customers might be the immediate beneficiaries of the new program, but the legacy will be the culinary professionals who will go on to start their own restaurants, and carry this expertise with them.
Second, Michelin-starred restaurants should be held accountable for selling pushbutton coffee, although not because pushbutton coffee is somehow evil. Setting aside concerns over aesthetics (how the coffee tastes), and the environment (if Néstle’s recycling program is effective), the Nespresso pods are ingenious, a near-foolproof system that allows for the clumsiest among us to make espresso, a drink that all but the more skilled baristas can get wrong. There’s a reason why Nespresso made $3.9 billion in global sales in 2011.
But in the context of fine dining, that uniformity and ubiquity is the problem. As long as you push the right button, coffee from a capsule will be almost identical to every other version of that coffee on the face of the earth. Nespresso has created such a consistent product that the purple pod will make purple pod coffee whether you’re in the airport lounge in Bogota, an office in Phoenix, a hotel in Tbilisi or the Fat Duck in Bray.
Pod coffee runs directly counter to what makes a Michelin-starred restaurant so magnificent: you jump through Michelin-starred hoops to get a reservation and set aside a Michelin-starred block of time – while bracing yourself for Michelin-starred prices – to experience Michelin-starred artistry, imagination and dedication to ingredients, not to be served something that your hairdresser can make for you, if you go to the kind of hairdresser who offers you coffee. (Mine asks if I want a soda.)
Although if I’m to be honest, I never order coffee at the end of a knockdown meal. Not after all of those courses and all of those wines. By then I’m usually enjoying myself too much, nursing a tall glass of something bubbly or a small glass of something lethal and feeling the warm, lazy emotions of the just-pampered: that everybody is so nice, that this chair is so comfortable, that the light is so pretty.
I don’t want that spell to end. But for those who choose to ease back into the world, it should be with a handblown carafe of Kapsokisio, not a demitasse from the purple pod.
Oliver Strand writes about food for the New York Times, Bon Appétit and Vogue. His book on coffee will be published by HarperCollins later this year. Illustrations by Zachary Carlsen.