When pulling teeth for a living got to be too much for Matthew Jung-Quillen, the former dentist flipped a 180 and made a place for himself in the world of specialty coffee. After winning a contest that would see him spending hours cupping and sample roasting with barista champion and Blue Bottle Coffee green coffee buyer Charlie Habegger, Quillen would soon be inspired enough to end up in opposite parts of the world chasing his new passion—from Rwanda’s coffee washing stations to the 2016 United States Barista Championship in Atlanta to, currently, the sprawled out urban jungle of Los Angeles.
Fueled by caffeine and a simple, honest passion for learning coffee, the humble, busy Jung-Quillen is currently the owner of Cameo Coffee Brewers, a traveling pop-up pour-over station for LA’s local retail boutiques, the Director of Coffee at LA’s fine dining masterpiece Destroyer, and “Master of Projects” for Coffee Manufactory. Quillen craves the act of juggling projects and somehow found time to sit down with Sprudge before hosting yet another Cameo pop-up at the Tanner Goods leather boutique in Downtown Los Angeles.
Matthew, thank you for taking a moment to speak with us. Let’s go to the beginning: how did you get your start in coffee?
Matthew Jung-Quillen: Oh man, I have kind of a weird story. I’m not the typical coffee professional that started off as a barista when they were a teenager. I actually grew up in South Brooklyn, New York and moved into the city after high school. I drank a lot of coffee in college and I’m actually a trained dentist and I practiced dentistry out here [in LA] for about seven and a half years. I learned a little bit about coffee through the route of necessity. After I moved to LA in 2008, I used to hang out with some friends that were working in food and beverage and we used to do coffee things on the weekends. One of the first things, kind of inspirational personalities, was Charlie Habegger. He would invite me to do cuppings and sample roasting on the weekends. Second was probably Devin Chapman, who I met a few years ago, and met and connected based on a mutual love for a band in Portland called Pure Bathing Culture. I started helping him out with some coffee stuff, which is when he first transitioned from Portland to LA for Verve. Long story short, I ended up being his competition coach in 2015.
How did you go from helping Charlie out to suddenly being a coach in 2015?
I think it was a matter of sticking my nose into a lot of places. I was really blessed that people were open to having someone that’s kind of a stranger to specialty coffee kind of hang out and teach. I think they knew I was approaching it in a real way and my life didn’t depend on specialty coffee. That year was huge in just my personal training. It was really rigorous but I loved it. We were up till one or two in the morning, five or six days a week at the Verve training lab. That really opened my eyes to specialty coffee. Meeting everyone from around the country and realizing it was a tight-knit group that knew specialty coffee. It’s just led me on this path of exploration but really pushing boundaries/opportunities that presented themselves.
What is Cameo Coffee Brewers and how did you come up with the idea?
I knew I wanted to have a coffee family, and I ended up just doing this coffee pop-up. A lot of my friends that I’ve met that work for different roasters are always sending me coffee. It’s really gracious of them. But I found that I would have too much coffee—I would cup or brew some of the coffee and have too much left over. Cameo kind of evolved from this idea and it was meant to just be cameo pop-ups at different locations that aren’t food-related, and also bring in my friends’ coffee to brew with me, thus the Cameo name. I reached out to a few brands that I really love here in LA that I knew didn’t have beverages inside just to see what they thought, and got some really great responses from companies like Shinola and Poketo. Long story short, I put the pop-up in a few places that I frequented or shopped myself and ended up doing it at Pine & Crane, and then Tanner Goods, that’s why we’re here today, is because they’ve been super, overwhelmingly supportive. It [serves] to engage with these brands but also present coffee in a way that’s really approachable to people that just might be shopping that day. I try not to get into these crazy tasting notes and origins, and really keep it simple. Just introduce them to coffees that they might not see otherwise around LA.
How did you get involved with your current projects with Tartine and Destroyer, and how the heck are you doing three jobs at the same time?
I’m just so passionate about it. It’s easy to work hard when you’re pursuing something you really enjoy with people that you respect and enjoy being with. That’s probably the difference between dentistry and what I’m doing now. I loved my staff and I loved the people I work with, but for me personally it wasn’t expanding all of my areas and all that interests me. Destroyer evolved from a relationship. This summer, as Destroyer was becoming a real thing they were about to open, [owner] Jordan Kahn, a friend, just approached our team and asked me if I would be able to help with this project going on. As soon as I heard it was Jordan’s project I was like, “Absolutely. I’ll work three different jobs at the same time. It’s fine. It’s not a big deal.” For me, it was an opportunity to work with someone that I think truly is going to change the culinary scene in Los Angeles.
Tartine Coffee Manufactory evolved when I came back from [a coffee trip to] Rwanda. I was doing a pop-up and looking for the next step in what I was gonna do with coffee. As Coffee Manufactory formed, they reached out this summer and were like, “Hey, we’d love to have you as part of the team.” I was honored. They are people I would sweep floors with because they’re good friends.
What makes you most passionate about coffee?
I think it’s wonderful that coffee as a product really connects the world in an amazing way. I think it has stories that are never-ending, and the people on our end of it are really amazing and talented. I think the people here in Los Angeles, no matter what their role is, no matter what company, have a common ground. We’re all working to produce something that can change someone’s day. It’s already changed other people’s lives around the world and I think that’s an important connection.