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Coffee as Art?

January 6, 2011

People are more precious about food and drink in the Bay Area than perhaps anywhere else in the country. The artisanal, locally-harvested, sustainably-grown approach to dining and drinking that was started by chefs like Alice Waters at Chez Panisse decades ago is now reaching a point where soup isn't soup unless its ingredients have been culled by the light of the moon from hedgerows in Golden Gate Park and bar tenders are arguing about whether cocktail recipes should be copyrighted.

Have things gone too far? Should the making and serving of our daily sustenance be treated as an art form in the same way as, say, dance, drama and sculpture?

On the whole, I think, why not? After all, our senses of taste and smell are no less refined than our ability to see, hear and touch. And I've had culinary experiences in this part of the world that are on a par with my most memorable trips to theatres and museums.

On the other hand, a recent trip to a new coffee bar around the corner from my apartment made me question whether the artistry involved in preparing and serving the things we eat and drink might be reaching a level of pretension that's way over the top.

At the new coffee place, which looked more like a swank cocktail lounge with its high, ornate ceilings, dark wood booths, mid-century modern armchairs and huge paintings swathed in contemporary splashings of color, I ordered a decaf Americano. It was the middle of the afternoon. The barista, who was dressed in a tidy black waistcoat (that's vest to my American readers out there), a white shirt, bow-tie and smart black trousers (pants!), then proceeded to spend 10 minutes making my drink.

First, he found a small cylindrical steel cup and peered into it while turning it around slowly in his hands as if checking for grubs. Then he put the cup on a counter-top scale with old-fashioned brass parts that belied the modernity of the digital reader. He carefully measured out the right number of whole coffee beans (harvested from a large jar with a scoop), adding and removing beans a couple of times in order to reach the precise weight. Then he ground the beans, timing the action using his wrist watch. Then he messed about with a shiny coffee machine for what seemed like an interminable amount of time, pulling levers and fussing with dials. The machine made pleasing swooshing and gurgling noises. Eventually, he barista handed me a plain paper cup with dark brown liquid in it, and said, without smiling: "That'll be $2.50 please."

The beverage was fine, but not exceptional. I prefer the quality of the same drink at my regular morning hang, which takes the barista about 30 seconds to make and costs $1.75.

But if coffee-making can be viewed as a form of performance art, then I certainly got my money's worth.

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