Barista – chef or sommelier?

February 14th, 2006

Where or what are we? Do we take a side with the above or do we sit in the middle?

Let me explain…

When I first became really serious about being a barista and started to get responses from people I was greedy and egotistical. People would say “this is great, what coffee do you use?” which would drive me insane because the coffee wasn’t great (it really wasn’t) and the only reason they were having a good cup is that I had done a halfway decent job of making it. Now I’ve kind of swung the other way. I don’t want to be seen as part of the process – I am trying to present a cup of coffee, not trying to present a cup of coffee made by my good self. I find it a little frustrating when people say I make a great cup of coffee because more often than not they are inclined to miss the fact that it is the coffee I am using that tastes so great.

So – does this mean the barista’s goal is to become invisible? To remove the barrier between coffee and customer that has existed for so long in this, and other, countries? The problem with all that is that we buy our coffee from people. I was talking to a barista in Wales (who is actually from London) all about customer service and interaction, and how he feels so let down when he buys coffee in London because baristas are disinterested and almost anti-social.

Either side of the barista I see the sommelier and the chef. The sommelier is fortunate, playing no part in the process of wine to customer, in terms of taste. It is all customer service, interaction, education. The chef is different – hidden I guess. The problem is that the cult of the chef sucks us so deeply into the process that more often than not we are more consumed by that than the ingredients we use (British supermarkets, celebrity chef endorsed or not, bear testament to this). However, I don’t know enough about cheffing. Is there satisfaction in hearing someone in raptures of pleasure over the quality of meat rather than the way it is cooked?

I suppose this all links in with the “rockstar” barista term which I so deeply despise. The ego involved in that term is frightening and I doubt very much I’d enjoy being served by one, regardless of the quality of the drink. This however, is for another post….

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