Chef Ryan Hardy is a certified espresso geek. A gear head, a machine dabbler, an at-home shot puller with a Peruvian walnut custom Slayer on his kitchen counter, and when he travels, a lever machine in the passenger seat. A veteran of restaurants from San Francisco (Rubicon) to Martha’s Vineyard (Coach House) to Aspen’s famed Little Nell hotel, the four-time James Beard Award nominee chef now runs Charlie Bird in Manhattan’s SoHo. A collaboration with noted somm Robert Bohr, Charlie Bird serves locavore Italian food in a mood GQ’s Alan Richman called “stylish and exciting.” True to the trifecta of food, wine, and conversation that bounces round the room, Hardy & Bohr are also serving some of New York City’s best restaurant espresso.
As part of our ongoing quest to interview every chef who gives a damn about coffee, we sat down with Hardy before service on a busy Thursday afternoon. Whether he’s popping up Charlie Bird in Aspen or hosting Bey & Jay in Manhattan (believe it), Ryan Hardy’s as espresso-fueled as they come in chefs’ whites, and that’s saying something. “I don’t drink enough water,” he tells Sprudge co-founder Jordan Michelman in this candid interview with the chef. “But I make sure to drink enough coffee.” We can dig it.
I was told you just got back to New York from being on vacation in Italy. Drinking coffee everywhere?
Yeah, we try and spend August in Italy every year when we have the funds to do so. Coffee is everywhere there, but you know, it’s different. I came back and went to a cafe in Brooklyn, and was talking to one of the baristas and he said, “You were just in Italy, I bet it was amazing!”—but the coffee is so different there from what we do here. The espresso culture in the US over the last several years has grown so much, and it’s become quite technical. If you go to Italy looking for well-thought-out coffee, well…you might think Italian coffee is horrible, but it’s not meant to be the same. It’s different from the technical espresso we see in this country, just as different as drip coffee is from espresso, but I love it.
I love how in Italy sometimes you get a silky espresso, but sometimes it tastes like the machine hasn’t been cleaned forever…it’s part of culture when you’re there. You get such short ristrettos, you just throw it back with little or no abandon. It’s a different culture, and when I’m there I embrace it by drinking like 7 coffees a day. I love that walk-up culture.
Talk to us about espresso as a choice in your restaurants. What gear do you use? Which coffee?
We’re working on a second shop now in Little Italy, but for our original location we have two La Marzocco GB5 machines. I’m a total geek when it comes to espresso equipment, and we’ve really found a home with La Marzocco in terms of what we use in our restaurants. I think their durability and craftmanship and consistency, even the temperature of the group heads, it’s just great. We’ll stick with them for a long time.
We have the two 2-group machines, and we pair those with Mazzer grinders, although at our new place we’ll have a Mahlkönig EK43. We pour almost exclusively Counter Culture Coffee espresso, with occasional cameos by other brands here the city, including Blue Bottle and Stumptown and other folks. But for the most part, we’re serving the blends that Counter Culture offers. In a restaurant setting, consistency is really what we go after—to operate at a high level but do it consistently.
We’ve used Counter Culture for a decade now and I’ve been a huge fan for a long time. Their training, services, consistency, it’s all terrific.
Are you just serving espresso? No drip?
It’s all espresso in the restaurant. Someone said to me the other day, “Eventually you’re going to wake up and find that the stuff you’re making is in the past, and the future is all about drip coffee and pour over and iced coffee.” That may be true, but for me that’s a different product—that’s not what we do. We specialize in espresso.
We focus on small drinks, ristrettos, and we serve almost all straight espresso, with just the occasional milk drink on weekends. In our style of restaurant people are drinking wine, eating pasta, and then they want to throw back an espresso with that style of food. It’s about understanding that language and being able to adapt easily to the person who doesn’t get it. And if somebody wants “just a coffee”, well…we serve them an Americano and they’re happy.
Talk to me about how the coffee service in your restaurant relates to staff. Do you have a specific barista position on the floor, or have you trained bar staff to handle barista duties, or…?
This is one of the hardest parts of having a medium-sized restaurant. If we were bigger, say, the size of Maialino or something, then we could have a barista captain position and a full-time program. For a medium-sized restaurant like us that wants to focus on a product that costs 20 or 25 thousand dollars to get into the game, and can only be sold it at $3 a pop, it’s hard to get your money back—so you can’t have a full-time barista. There’s not the demand for that. We probably sell 40 to 70 coffee drinks a day, but that’s out of 500 covers a day on a weekend day. That’s not enough to employ a full-time barista.
But we hire staff with barista experience whenever possible. Our wine director has barista experience in espresso-driven restaurants, and we have staff members who have stepped up and do training with our team. We’re fortunate that Counter Culture has that training center down here, right around the corner from our restaurant space. We go there once a month with all our staff—chefs, wine, servers—we go there and we talk about coffee. We talk about the details of all of ours service so everyone knows what it should take like.
To me, that’s different from just one barista controlling everything. If that person is off, and you gotta cover it, you’re stuck. We preach more of a whole staff philosophy to learning coffee service and being able to keep it at a high level for every drink.
I understand you are something of an espresso machine enthusiast in your own daily life.
Yes, I have two machines at home. One is an Elektra lever machine that I’ve had for like 15 years, and that’s my travel machine for the weekend. I take it everywhere. For instance, I got pulled over by the cops for speeding once, and I had the machine in the passenger seat next to me. The cop was so enamored that he let me off. He said, “I’m Italian, where did you get that? Maybe have a little less espresso next time.” And he let me off without a ticket! It’s my get out of jail free card.
I like the manual nature of that machine. Is it ever going to make espresso like a tuned, controlled machine? No, it won’t, but I love the the by-hand nature of it. There’s always something to correct; it’s too hot, the grind is off, it might explode…it’s kind of fun.
And then I also have a single group Slayer espresso machine that I just started playing around with. It’s really a lot of fun. You gotta trick a machine like that out, and mine is white with Peruvian walnut.
Where have you had really good restaurant coffee? Where have you had really bad restaurant coffee?
I think Danny Meyer’s restaurants, they operate at a very high margin and high level, and the coffee programs in those restaurants are delicious. Maialino is the benchmark by which other restaurants should pay attention and deliver their coffee. I think there may be people that are doing a more interesting job, but at Maialino their program is pretty great when you think about pulling off a coffee service, especially a larger volume restaurant. That’s tough.
I won’t answer the second part of your question because I don’t want to piss anybody off. But I will say this: when I go eat pizza some place where the pizza is written about as the best in the country, and both the wine and the coffee programs are meh, and you’re stuck having a beer and a pizza and there’s nothing else, no espresso, no nothing…I think there’s many examples of bad programs, and only just a very few restaurants that have great coffee programs. That’s changing and getting better, thank God, because I value that part of my meal. On a bad day, I drink 2 coffee drinks. On a great day, 5 coffee drinks—it’s how I hydrate myself. I don’t drink enough water, but I make sure to drink enough coffee.
Many famous restaurateurs and chefs use Nespresso products in their restaurants. Why don’t you?
For me, everything we consume in our restaurants is well-thought-out and curated. We drink as much coffee as a staff as we sell to our customers in our restaurants; it’s a matter of lifestyle and pride. And those choices…it’s simply what we like to do. I have family who love Nespresso but for us we would never, ever go that route. It’s not a cost issue, it’s a quality issue. They’re offering a totally different product.
It’s not to rip on them; what they’ve done to do consistency across the world is great. But it’s not true to the traditions of how to employ coffee, or tea for that matter. If you put a tea into a capsule…it’s not the same deal. Not the same texture. And that’s a big deal. The enjoyment is not just the flavor, it’s the cup it goes in, it’s the way it served, all of that.
Do you bring along coffee for your Aspen pop-ups? Maybe check that Elektra on the plane as your carry-on? [laughs] We haven’t elevated ourselves to that level yet. Maybe we’ll bring the custom lever with us next time, but we’re not that sophisticated yet. We are working on kind of elevating our coffee program in different spaces so we can expand our sphere of influence, and involve a cafe counter at our restaurants. Maybe someday we’ll have more staff that can travel; that’s part of it too. But right now it’s just a couple of restaurants. We’re not there yet.
Jordan Michelman is a co-founder and editor at Sprudge. Read more Jordan Michelman on Sprudge.
Photos by Liz Clayton.