We’ve been lamenting the sorry state of restaurant coffee in these pages since 2005. But let it be known that, as of this moment forward, we have officially given up on the possibility of ever being reliably served good coffee in American restaurants.
Sure, there have been a few successes and battles won along the way. There has even been the occasional restaurant that made us think about what’s possible. But reliably good coffee — the way you can safely expect at any restaurant in, say, Portugal — is a pipe dream. We’ve finally come to the stark realization that the war is effectively unwinnable … a lost cause. To deny this is to blindly ignore an overwhelming display of evidence.
Oddly, the bit of news that finally killed the dream for us — what finally broke the camel’s back — was a post in the New York Times about Nathan Myhrvold’s Modernist Cuisine five-volume encyclopedia set and Mark Prince’s review of its coffee chapter on CoffeeGeek.com. We’ll explain in a moment.
Restaurants’ running coffee joke
Bad restaurant coffee has been the norm long, long before many of us were even born. There are even front-page references to this topic in the San Francisco Chronicle going back to 1963. Among long-anticipated social revolutions that ain’t never gonna happen, this places reliably good restaurant coffee somewhere between professional soccer making it big in the U.S. and the coming of the Jewish Messiah.
So what about those two articles triggered such absolute futility about restaurant coffee? Both pieces were written with a kind of presumptuous expectation that quality coffee somehow deserves a place in the discussion of “modernist cuisine.” As much as we love coffee, the idea is both audacious and completely misplaced. Located in Volume 4 of the series (“Ingredients and Preparation”), the coffee chapter follows a roughly equivalent chapter on wine. And that’s where the comparisons begin to fall apart.
When wine, beer, cheese, and even salt have a lot more to do with cuisine than coffee
It is not even a question that coffee is far less relevant to cuisine than wine. Coffee may have far more aromatic and flavor components than wine, but it can never be paired to complement food the way wine can. The world is steeped with centuries-old culinary traditions of pairing local wines with the food of the region. And yet in the many centuries that coffee cultures have had to pair coffee with cuisine, to this date the combination simply does not exist the world over — despite the many failed, recent attempts to shoehorn them together. This is not by accident.
Beer pairings, for example, are far more relevant to cuisine; we received no fewer than two beer pairings as part of a recent tasting menu at Atelier Crenn. And yet there’s no beer chapter in Modernist Cuisine. The same is even true for the modern phenomenon of pairing food with different varieties of salt. Thus this leaves coffee no more relevant and integral to the science of actual cuisine than, say, tea, after-dinner cordials, or even cigars or tobacco. None of which either have chapters in Modernist Cuisine, by the way.
We can make all sorts of excuses about the coffee in restaurants — such as how the “last mile” in the serving chain for coffee is far more technical and sensitive than that for serving tea or wine. But even if you solve that last mile problem, that doesn’t change coffee’s very limited relevance to cuisine overall. And the less relevant coffee is to cuisine, the less relevant good coffee becomes to the overall restaurant experience.
And the award for best supporting culinary actor again goes to … wine!
This might come as a slap in the face to a number of coffee professionals who are riding a revolutionary wave in coffee consumerism. (Note that we deliberately didn’t call it a revolution in coffee.) In the past decade, some have even envisioned the role of the barista on the same pedestal that food television bestows upon celebrity chefs — or at least the expectation of rivaling the wine sommelier.
This belief is fed by a steady stream of people selling coffee technology and pitching media stories inspired by the major changes in coffee consumerism. All of which has given modern coffee a little bit of an egotistical head case — an occasional sense of entitlement to a rightful place in the pantheon of restaurant gods alongside pedestals for wine pairings, cheese courses, and dessert menus.
But baristas aren’t at all like chefs, and that’s a good thing. (If anything, they’re a bit more like line cooks.) Baristas aren’t like sommeliers either, and that’s also probably a good thing. Specialization exists in a modern society for good reason: we don’t want our mixologists making our pork belly, and we really don’t want waiters and host/esses pulling our espresso shots. And just as head chefs rely on sommeliers and pastry chefs, we honestly don’t want our chefs obsessing over our coffee service.
Either play by coffee’s rules, or we don’t play at all
The SCAA conference’s “Culinary Track” is one of the better examples of how distorted the coffee industry views itself within the culinary world’s hierarchy of needs. The SCAA might partner with the Texas Restaurant Association for its annual conference in Houston at the end of this month, but it is still as if the SCAA expects Mohammad to come to the mountain — not the other way around (i.e., establishing a coffee track at a restaurateur conference, such as done at Fancy Food shows).
For each annual industry conference for tea, aperitifs, cordials, cheese, and salumi, does the SCAA expect that restaurateurs will take time out from their relentless schedules to attend a restaurateur-dedicated culinary track at each of these events? Is coffee so egotistical as to believe that it is entitled to a role more prominent than any of its sister components to an overall restaurant meal?
The future fate of restaurant coffee
CoffeeGeek’s legendary Mark Prince may have gotten excited by reading Modernist Cuisine‘s slagging of restaurant coffee standards, but there is absolutely nothing modern about this phenomenon. General consumer standards for coffee may have improved over the past decade, but restaurants on this continent are forever doomed to be laggards for the reasons outlined above. It’s a pattern that has persisted for decades.
Why it has taken us this long to write off restaurant coffee as a second-class culinary citizen is a bit of a mystery. But like everyone else, it’s time to get over it. Reliably good restaurant coffee will never happen. Not in our lifetimes. And probably not ever. And the sooner we can stop pretending that coffee is some elite offshoot of the culinary arts, the better.
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