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Espresso and Haute Cuisine

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In "Kitchen Confidential", Tony Bourdain mentioned that in Les Halles, the busboy makes the espresso. Is this common practice in finer restaurants? If it is, I find it surprising that a place that is noted for the quality of its food would relegate the espresso to the busboy.

On a related topic, why is it that a restaurant that would never, ever think of using anything less than the freshest of ingredients would use canned, preground coffee (i.e. Illy, Lavazza)? Would a fine restaurant have Boone's Farm on the wine list? Then why do they serve Folger's?

With as many small-batch specialty coffee roasters as there are, it just doesn't make sense.

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Personnaly I like Lavazza!

I find it is consistantly well roasted and has a full bodied taste and smell. It is also much better than most specialty shop high end coffees out there. It is also a lot less expensive.

Yes the grind is not perfect but I regrind the pre-ground or buy beans by the Kilo.

If you have a recomendation for a brand that competes let me know.

As for the busboys seving esspresso, Why not. All but a few coffee places is the coffee that good. A lot of restaurants are also using automatic machines that do a good job depending on what is put in and the settings. Really if you have everything set up correctly it is not that hard with professional equipment to make a good esspresso/cappucino. Training should take 10 minutes.

By the way, I would find a nice thing to say about busboys before drinking anything at your next restaurant meal.

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usually tastes like bitter percolated overextracted ass.

I don't have the experience to argue with that. :laugh:

I assume this thread is about espresso, whether the poster writes "coffee" or "espresso." Espresso doesn't get it's due in New York and even, or maybe especially, in fine restaurants, it's very poor value and not worth ordering except by addicts. Even a mediocre espresso serves to finish a meal for me, but I often feel cheated by what I get, especially when I check the price. I suspect coffee quality is not that important to most restaurateurs or diners. I"m as guilty as the next person but more and more, we will forgo espresso and have some at home. This is a shame as most restaurants have machines that cost a multiple of what ours cost.

In Italy, I remember using a restaurant guide that gave separate ratings for food and wine celar among other things. One of those other things was coffee. Imagine Zagat with a separate column for espresso quality.

In Spain I find some better restaurants are now serving Italian brands of espresso such as Illy or Danesi. I think it's a pity as I prefer the Spanish coffee I get in bars and cafes to what is served in these restaurants. It seems there is a misguided attempt to buy into the international standard.

At home we are using Danesi which we prefer to Illy. We used the Gold until we tried some of the new Black Doppio espresso at a trade show. It was sensational at the show, but at home we have not been getting better coffee than with the Gold. We will probably be trying them alternately for a while until we make up our mind. DiPalo is our source.

Robert Buxbaum


Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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Kenk--I hear what your saying, I really do. But there is a difference between what "should" happen and what does happen. I find my experience dining out supports slkinsey's observation. I think servers prepare espresso far more often than busboys--and frankly, I couldn't care less who makes my espresso as long as it is good. Hell, I'd be happy if my espresso in restaurants didn't actively suck, let alone just wasn't good.

I know what should happen. I also know what does happen. I know how many espressos I've received in restaurants without crema.

To a few of your points--in my experiences, and I go into a lot of kitchens but by no means am I a coffee industry pro, "most" fine dining restaurants don't have fully-automatic machines--someone still has to measure out the grounds, tamp, and pull. I have a Rocky/Sylvia setup at home so I at least know enough to know how variable this can be in unskilled, rushed, uncaring hands. It's never just two clicks out of the grinder, it's never tamped properly--even if some of the rest of the process is automated like fineness of grind and water temp/timing.

I always thought a solution which would work better in restaurants given the rushed nature of servers pulling shots was pod machines. Pop a premeasured pod in and pull. Perfectly acceptable--though not great or God--every time. I'd settle for pod "acceptable." Except pods are much more expensive compared to buying and grinding beans--twice as expensive according to the Illy or La Colombe folks. Tell that to a chef or owner and that's it. No pods.

Which goes back to the original post and the seeming hypocrisy of the best chefs, the best ingredients, and shit espresso. I agree with that observation.

Another factor--even in a house with good training and caring staff--you'll find dirty machines, abused equipment, settings changed, fallen out of calibration, etc--which undermines a good shot even with a staff devoted to preparing one.

As far as a brand that competes, I'm using Espresso Vivace these days, and sometimes Graffeo. I find it better than the stuff we use in the restaurants, which are various La Colombe roasts.


Steve Klc

Pastry chef-Restaurant Consultant

Oyamel : Zaytinya : Cafe Atlantico : Jaleo


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Good espresso at high-end restaurants is a rarity, and only a few come to mind. The variables involved present too great a challenge for most restaurants. As I've said before, I'm friends with a two-time national barista champion and premier roaster, and even his shots are mediocre most of the time. Proper training just doesn't exist, even at serious cafes. I've had scalded milk at Alain Ducasse, acrid shots at Charlie Trotter's, spent grounds at Daniel, and on and on. I have roughly eight years of barista experience, have scoured volumes of books, and tinkered away hours trying to hone my coffee abilities. Rarely do people understand how milk temperature or fattiness affect foam, or how the angle or dipping motions with the steam wand can ruin froth. Like other deceptively simple crafts (but really aren't, like sushi or pizza-making), it takes years and years of training to understand many of the nuances involved. Just as a good chef can tell if oil is too hot just by the sound of the sizzle in the pan, the same applies to milk in a pitcher, which is just the beginning of the longer equation to produce good espresso-based drinks. I agree with everybody's sentiments, and I look forward to the day when I can get an even decent cappuccino at most of the great restaurants in this country, which will only happen if it ever makes economic sense for a restaurant.

Much peace,

Ian Lowe


Edited by ballast_regime (log)

"Get yourself in trouble."

--Chuck Close

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Good comments by all.

Kenk – No knock against the busboys but I think that espresso should be prepared with the same level of care as anything else the patrons consume. It’s not that hard to pour a glass of wine, would you be taken aback if they were to do that also?

While there’s no arguing taste, I’ve never had an espresso from a super-automatic that was worth a shit. I used to like Lavazza too – until I tried a freshly-roasted specialty coffee. There really isn’t any comparison. I’ll second Steve’s recommendation of Vivace and can also vouch for Intelligentsia’s Black Cat blend. Give’em a try, you might be pleasantly surprised!

I have to respectfully disagree about the pods though, I’ve never had pod espresso that I liked. The thing is: espresso is coffee essence. Every nuance in the coffee is amplified, be it good or bad, and it doesn’t take much going wrong to make it bad.

Ballast – which barista champion are you referring to?

I’m somewhat espresso-obsessed so you’ll have to forgive me if I come across as overly critical. I know that it’s possible to produce top-quality espresso drinks, the commitment just needs to be there.

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I am very upset that people think it bad that "a busboy" should be entrusted to making the espresso. In places where I've cooked, there was only one who had that responsibility, plus a backup for his day off, and that person WAS well-trained in the cleaning and maintenance of the machine (which are far more important than how to turn a pressure control) and the actual coffee-making. To imply that a busboy cannot be trained to do the task properly, or may not prepare espresso "with the same level of care as anything else the patrons consume" is discriminatory. Who the hell are you to say that a busser doesn't care about the satisfaction of the customers? If anything, bussers care MORE, because if they keep customers happy, they are more likely to move up to more lucrative waiter positions.

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As a former busboy, believe me when I say that I'm not passing judgment on the capabilities or aptitudes of someone who happens to be bussing tables. What I'm saying is that if neither the kitchen staff nor the bartender receive adequate training on proper espresso preparation, do you think that the bussers are? Let’s face it, in the hierarchy of a restaurant, the busboy sits at the bottom. That isn’t a reflection on him as a person but the level of training that they have.

So what we have is a case of the person with the least amount of training preparing a product that requires a fair amount of specialized training. Which gets back to my original point (did I have one?):

High-level restaurants routinely serve bad espresso, why doesn’t espresso get the respect that it deserves?

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  • 2 weeks later...
High-level restaurants routinely serve bad espresso, why doesn’t espresso get the respect that it deserves?

considering how much we get charged for the stuff. The quality could be a bit better than it is over all.

I now have one of the super machines to work with, a Capresso Impressa S9. I have found that I prefer to do the steaming myself, I get a much better froth for cappuccino's. I need to find a quality decaf espresso roast. My family only does decaf after dinner. Right now, I am using CBI swiss water process columbian supremo.

It is good to be a BBQ Judge.  And now it is even gooder to be a Steak Cookoff Association Judge.  Life just got even better.  Woo Hoo!!!

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  • 1 month later...

Another former busboy weighing in here. I think the point is now well established that there is no slight intended against busboys or anyone else who is preparing the espresso. The responsibility lies with ownership/management. The notion that they can save money by using cheaper products is ludicrous when carefully examined. The best (and even the average) restaurants, are supposed to be food AND beverage establishments. A high end restaurant won't save money by using crappy tomatoes when heirlooms are available but it seems that they won't hesitate to use cheaper coffee or skimp on the training and machine maintenance necessary.

Today's generation of superauto mahcines are capable of producing remarkably god results on the espresso side but proper steaming for cappas and lattes is an art accompl;ished only by those wiling to invest the time to learn. Keep in mind that the superauto's I refer to are about $15 - $20 K and found only in newer Starbucks for the most part.

What about pods? There are pods availabel from folks other than Illy that are cheaper but still have top quality espresso in them. A properly produced pod is produced in a nitrogen enriched environment (i.e. none of that nasty oxygenpresent) - ground from fresh roasted beans and then sealed airtight in individual wrapers. Pods will never produce the same results as properly ground and tamped fresh beans but in many places they really are the best choice but don't get used because they "cost too much". Instead, folks think they're doing us a favor by buying giant cans of Illy or LaVazza, roasted who knows when and then the vacuum sealed can is opened and it takes weeks before all the beans are used. Yuch. Give me pods in that scenario - they're not great but they are consistent.

I still maintain that there are those of us who really appreciate good coffee and especially good espresso who would line up on a regular basis to dine at places that address our desires. I really don't relish the idea of going out to dinner and havign to go hoem to get sa good espresso but that's what happens.

By the way.... the best cappuccino I ever had in a restaurant was at a little Italian place on Caye Caulker, a small island with a fishing village off the coast of Belize. The owner was a native of Milan Italy - he used an old la Pavoni manual lever machine and the beans were single varietal Gutemalan of unknown origin (he just used whatever his wholesale supplier in Belize City had available at the time). The point is that a fancy machine and the snazziest blend of beans still doesn't produce a great result without the right operator.

I also happen to think that the average busboy would likely make a better barista than the average waiter due to motivation. When the profession of barista becomes a more respected career path in the USit may change many things but in the meantime we struggle in the search for good restaurant coffee.

Steve Klc - have you tried Stumptown Roasters Hairbender blend yet? I'm hearing really good things about it.

Edited by phaelon56 (log)
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I think the plastic pod system used on Nespresso and similar systems is better than the paper filter enclosed pods used in Illy's ESE sytems and its equivalents but does the Nespresso system produce good espresso or is it targeted at the cafe crema market? Philips has a system that has been a huge success in the netherlands and elsewhere - a single serving pod system similar to this that producs truly excellent cafe cremas. I believe they are now launching it in the states through Williams-Sonoma. Not to nit pick and I could be wrong but I suspect the crema it produces is to some extent due to a crema enhancing filter. This typ of crema looks great but doesn't have the buttery mouthfeel of a true crema that comes form fresh ground freshly roasted beans, proper brew temps etc.

That said, I do agree tha many high end restaurants could benefit greatly by adopting a good pod based system for both their coffee by the cup and their espresso based drinks.

When I was in Ireland earlier this year, the only good coffee I had was that which I purchased in grocery or convenience stores. The rectangular pods (they look like a squared off and flatter version of the nespresso pod) are purchased at the register by the each and the customer then sticks it in the machine. The coffee was just about as god as I can get in the typical cafe in the US and IMHO better than the average Starbucks cup.

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I still maintain that there are those of us who really appreciate good coffee and especially good espresso who would line up on a regular basis to dine at places that address our desires. I really don't relish the idea of going out to dinner and havign to go hoem to get sa good espresso but that's what happens.

The real problem is that there really AREN"T that many American consumers who truly recognize, understand and appreciate a good espresso. Accordingly, even the best chefs have little to no motivation (other than pride --- which IS enough for some) to stress the importance of good espresso/espresso drinks.

I have to stress that I'm talking specifically about espresso/espresso drinks as opposed to coffee --- it seems much easier to find a decent cup of american-style coffee in a US restaurant. Why? Because Starbucks --- no matter what your feelings about them --- has educated the US masses about quality american-style coffee (but not espresso, which I generally find rancid at Starbucks), and people now demand that quality wherever they go.

No so for espresso. The average US coffee-drinker, who orders an espresso as an occasional sign of his/her sophistication, has no idea about the proper consistency, flavor and crema of a well-made espresso. They are much more likely to complain that their $2.00 espresso is "too small" (even though it should be small; most times (one of) the reason(s) the crema is so bad in a US espresso is that the barista or the automatic machine puts too much water through the coffee to the cup), than to gripe about the real quality issues.

Don't believe this? I am a regular customer of a Boston-area restaurant that prides itself on serving authentic regional Italian cooking with a focus on Piedmont and Friuli. Before I was "known" there, I was dumbfounded by the fact that the after-meal espresso experience was so pathetic, given the authenticity and quality of the dining experience. As the waitstaff got to know me, and learned that I'd lived in Italy for an extended period, my espresso experiences improved greatly. They explained that they purposely make the espresso wrong --- that is "over-poured" as I call it --- because that's what the average customer expects. They want volume for their $2. To serve a true Italian-style "caffe" just wouldn't work.

Any wonder chefs don't care? Sorry fellow espresso addicts, we are the minority. At least for the time being.

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It seems to me that there is a real opportunity here for a restauranteur who is savvy enough to position good espresso properly and not alienate those who are accustomed to the Americanized version. At the bottom of the dessert carte, offer Espresso for $3 and "Caffe Espresso D'Italia" for $4 (adjust prices to meet local market conditions and restaurant niche). The description of the latter coffee would be along the lines of, "A bolder espresso, concentrated flavor and rich smooth crema, reminiscent of the finest Italian coffee service." It would appeal to both the status seekers and the afficianados. Servers would be instructed to explain that the serving is smaller, but the same amount of coffee is used, as opposed to saying that the extra dollar is for shutting off the steam valve before the coffee becomes a bitter overextracted mess.

Chief Scientist / Amateur Cook

MadVal, Seattle, WA

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The day the espresso stops being made by the busboy is the day it'll cost $20. I think I'll just have a calva instead. :biggrin:

I think the average Starbucks barista probably makes more than most busboys do. The issue (to me) seems to be less a matter of labor cost than it is one of priorities on the part of management and ownership.

There are a number of pioneering restarauteurs in the US who led the way in using the freshest regional and local ingredients in their cooking in addition to having a staff swize adequate to ensure proper preparation and presentation. The practice has become far more widespread and consumers gladly pay the higher cost to eat in such establishments. Production of proper espresso is sooooo easy to control if one has the desire. It's also easy to train anyone in the process and practice if proper mentoring and motivation (both financial and advancement opportunities) is provided.

I would gladly pay $4 for a properly made doppio ristretto or cappuccino in a restaurant if I could actually find one where it was available. Regrettably, I remain confined to my own kitchen when I want a really good drink. There's now way that it could or should cost more than $4 - $5 for a double espresso even in a fine dining restaurant.

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  • 2 weeks later...

A little anecdote. I was in NYC a few weeks ago for the marathon and a group of Italian runners was staying at my hotel. One morning I asked a group of them if they had found a good espresso anywhere, and they just shrugged.

Later that day, I went to the premarathon expo at the Convention Center. One of the many booths was manned by an Italian representing some marathon in Italy. I asked him the same question. His response: "In America, I drink American coffee."

I won't tell you what the Italians at the hotel said about the pre-race pasta dinner...

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His response: "In America, I drink American coffee."

The sad thing is that if he gets Starbucks coffee or a Starbucks wannabe it won't be any more representative of what good "American" coffee can be than bad diner coffee is. I'm not knocking Starbucks per se - they're betetr than diner coffee and they've done much to elevate standards in general but the overroasting and overly strong brewing ratio don't do justice to decent beans.

These Italians are likely to go back to Italy assuming that mediocre coffee is the norm in the US. It may be the case in some places but there are many exceptions.

Right now we're in a catch-22 situation. The restarauteurs believe (rightly) that people won't appreciate or be willig to pay for the difference and therefore don't invest the time or money to serve a better product. IMHO it's a Field of Dreams situation. If you build it they will come - people are open and willing given the oportunity and also if the concept of a true espresso bar coffee is presented to them in a friendly and not elite manner. I look forward to the day when stopping off at a bar after work with friends to downa few shots means espresso shots :biggrin:

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  • 2 weeks later...

I also agree with some people on this site about the high-end resto's not taking espresso seriously

The last thing you put in your mouth in a great resto is the cafe

Now you just finished having an outstanding dinner every thing top notch but the espresso was bitter and awful.

I find the coffe should be just as important as the Wine and Dinner

As for the busboy doing the espresso's in an up-scale resto, that resto isn't that up scale.

In the kitchen you have a Chef

On the floor you have a Maitre-D

For the wine you have a Sommelire

For the Espresso you must have a Barista

A place in Montreal already started doing that He has person just doing cafe's

with 6 different grinders and in each a different type of bean this person makes sure the espresso's go out right :biggrin:

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My Nonno Vincenzo 1921-1994

I'm craving the perfct Gateau Foret Noire .

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The real problem is that there really AREN"T that many American consumers who truly recognize, understand and appreciate a good espresso.

I think this is a cart before the horse phenomonen. Are these restarauteurs just planning to wait indefinitely until enough of the population tries good espresso by chance in the US or perhaps travels to Italy and tastes the real deal? How will the average American consumer develop the ability to recognize good espresso and espresso based drinks unless someone exposes them to it? I think it's Marketing 101 that if you want people to buy espresso after dinner, it may be necessary to give some away gratis or cheap on a REAL special so that people will try it.

A place in Montreal already started doing that He has person just doing cafe's with 6 different grinders and in each a different type of bean this person makes sure the espresso's go out right

What restaurant is this?

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