The Coffee Part of Things

I’m typing, rather painfully, on a cement surface that is so rough and new it leaves little powdery stains on my jeans. Still, there’s no place I’d rather sit, and not just because I’m wearing traveling pants that are made for the glamour of getting adventurous. No, I’m sitting on the unfinished rooftop of a restaurant that will soon be in business in the Philippines, and the flat, unfurnished cement patch I’m calling my desk will one day, with luck, be our coffee shop.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

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Let me rewind to six months ago, when I announced to everyone (including my boss) that I would be taking a three-week trip to the Philippines. Everyone asked the same question: why? (Equally importantly, why are you missing three weeks of work to visit some beautiful islands?) And I guiltily had only the faintest whisp of an answer.

“My boyfriend’s family lives over there,” I would reply. “We’re visiting them. And we’re helping with the missions work they’re doing.”

All of these things were true, Isaac’s family does live here, and we’re helping with the restaurant they’re building. But mostly we were going to scout out our own missions field, to reclaim the land that once belonged to Isaac’s ancestors and turn it into a full-fledged missions base that not only benefits the people here, but the land and lives of everyone involved. Oh, and we want to do it sustainably, economically and in a way that provides everyone involved with quality income. No more begging for missions funds to go overseas!

But all of these things sounded far-fetched. And to my largely secular group of friends, just saying, “I feel called” simply would not do. So I squeaked out an answer about helping Isaac’s parents do missions work and I prayed on my own that God would light the path for the reason we were here. Up until the very moment I got on the plane, all I could do was trust that God was going to bring to fruition whatever He wanted us here for.

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Which brings me to today. Our month in the Philippines is almost up, and now that I have seen the land and met the people firsthand, I am excited to know the path is foggy no further. The land is ripe an available and currently unused for nothing other than my dearest love — coffee. For anyone that knows me, I am a coffee fiend. The love I find in a warm, welcoming coffee shop is what I live for. The deeper I got into coffee, particularly specialty third-wave coffee, the more I became aware of how important the process is and how many lives are affected each time you serve a single cup.

As a barista, I am painfully aware of how ignorant the consumer can be when it comes to their drink. I have to fight daily the stereotype of being a snobby barista that turns up her nose at the uneducated customer and re-center my life and worldview of coffee once again around Jesus. Instead of demanding that a customer listen to my speech about our natural-processed Yigracheffe, I have begun to realize that coffee is just like any other commodity. It came from somewhere and has to be handled responsibly to be good. It is the customers job, should they choose to be aware, to know what it is they’re consuming.

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coffee drying on one of the local farms

Because even though I am really, really excited about fruit-forward espresso that came from a three hectare farm in Costa Rica, me standing around preaching the coffee gospel does nothing for anyone. It only adds, in fact, to my own prejudice. I serve quality coffee and I care where it comes from, I think to myself. I love coffee and the people behind it. I’ll pay $12 for a delicious, well-sourced drink made with care. But truly, how much good does it do to preach at people, or pay someone else for their direct-trade beans? It does nothing. It spreads awareness. I myself am doing nothing more than standing on a pedestal behind a gleaming espresso machine, begging people to understand that their drink matters.

No. I can’t do that anymore. Coffee is my life and I want to use it to change other people’s lives, too.

So today we followed up with one of our newfound connections here in the Philippines and will hopefully have our farm up and running within the next year. It has happened so unbelievably fast! Of course, we are growing a particular varietal of Arabica and will have room to process and roast here, as well as eventually serve. The dream goes as far as to extend to a shop in the United States, serving our own coffee. I kept running into the question, but is it good? Is the coffee good? Do only the best people have their hands in our process? The answer to this question is yes, although it has taken some good old-fashioned, nose-the-ground detective work to find what we need.

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With the ability to oversee the full-circle process of coffee production and handle in a way that is not only niche coffee (specialty coffee) but in a way that provides jobs for others (hopefully rescued women looking for work after freedom from human trafficking). This is all just a big dream, but one with connections and tangible possibilities.

As I sit on this rooftop, typing, the local kids are pulling out their matchboxes and releasing the spiders they keep inside for fights. They laugh and shout in a language I don’t understand, and they try to sneak up behind me to dangle the spiders in my face.

The quality of life here is different. The coffee farmers here may never even know that their beans are being inhaled deeply in a specialty shop hundreds of miles away, then served with a graceful swan on top to a customer who paid for a $6 latte. But hopefully, with some prayer and good old-fashioned digging, we can make a difference with coffee here that has nothing to do with us and everything to do with being stewards of our God-given talents. Hopefully these kids can be well fed and educated.

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But, all that said, Isaac and I will need prayer to get this dream off the ground. We have the land, the people, the seedlings — we just need to get started! The dream goes beyond just opening a coffee shop, it extends into the lives of those that farm, process and roast this coffee. Our goal is to provide them good wages, a place to live and education and discipleship.

There are other facets to this dream, like the restaurant, a skateshop, leather goods and other needs that need to be met here in the Philippines and in the US. Lord willing, we’re able to do what we were called to do simply by using our trades. So, if you get a moment to pray, we’d be super stoked. And this mindlessly rambling blog post is simply the tip of the iceberg when it comes to logistics, planning and ideas, so feel free to ask away if you’re interested in learning more or wondering if you can help. It’s going to be so rad.
(Also, if you were wondering, the kids did manage to get a spider on my head during this blog post. I did freak out.)
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Entertaining Angels

 Forget not to show love unto strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. – Hebrews 13:2

For those that know me, I am the most awkward of houseguests. I literally lived in the basement of my best friend’s house for three months and still managed to make it as awkward as possible. And yet, for some reason as of late, I’ve found myself as an unexpected guest in many, many homes.

So now that my awkwardness has been established, I can share with you my past week in New Jersey.

I have never before spent time on the East Coast and hadn’t even given Jersey a second thought. When I learned I was flying into Newark to meet my fella, Isaac, upon his return from a missions trip to Philippines, I figured there was no better time to learn about Jersey than now.

I was supposed to meet him in the airport, but flights from overseas can be as finicky as wifi-based phone calls. His flight, it turned out, would arrive a day later than mine.

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“My parents will pick you up,” Isaac said over the phone, sounding underwater and far away. (Actually, he sounded a little like those killers in movies who mask their voices.) “It’s not worth waiting in the airport. You wouldn’t last ten minutes in Newark.”

And then he laughed, like it was no big deal, while I sat on the other end of the phone line thinking, Ah, excellent, we can put my social ineptitude to the test in a strange and scary new city.

So there I was. A lonely, backpacked 5’2″ white girl standing outside of the Newark airport, waiting for a family I had met only once.

But, to my pleasant surprise, the whole family pulled up in their big, black Hummer, scooped me up and welcomed me like a long-lost relative. Over the phone, Isaac confirmed they had received me.

“You’re there, right?” he asked.

“I’m here,” I said from the warm light of the kitchen glow. “Your mom is giving me tea right now.”

You know the verse in Hebrews about entertaining angels? (Of course you do. I typed it right up there for you.) That verse kept replaying all week, in and out of my thoughts. I have never received sweeter hospitality. This family can entertain anyone, and I’m certain they’ve entertained angels.

But this is a food blog. And my favorite part about food is the community that it brings, so let me tie this all in together with the best food moments of the week.

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(And can I just say any trip starting out with a stop at a local cheese stand is a good one? Because I think that makes a huge difference.)

This was my first time as a girlfriend being brought anywhere, so I was introduced to so many people I can’t believe I remember all their names. Out of the multitude, I got to know the family best. And where there was family, there was food.

The first home-cooked meal I’ve had in a while was made by Isaac’s dad, a pro baker with an easygoing laugh. (I should mention the family is all Filipino, which may be important to the context of these food stories.) He made salmon cooked so incredibly well it would fit into the nicest of seafood restaurants.

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“Oh man,” said Jake, another character I got to know. Isaac, it seems, has many friends as loyal as brothers, and they’re all so familiar with the house and all the cooking that goes on inside it that they welcome themselves over even though Isaac has long left town. “Mr. T made you guys dinner? I bet that was so nice.”

Isaac nudged me. “This guy eats anything,” he said. “Yo, he’d walk right into my house and head straight to the rice cooker. And this fool doesn’t even eat rice!”

Later, I would get a taste for some of this infamous rice. We had a breakfast consisting of fried rice, fried eggs and spam. The fried rice was incredible. (I made sure to keep careful watch from my spot at the counter. I watched Isaac’s mom carefully smash and fry garlic in hot oil before adding the rice over medium flame and letting it cook until completely fragrant.)

What really made the meal, though, also made me smile — Isaac’s aunt, a completely adorable Filipino woman with enough spunk to out-sass the entire state walked in to join us, opened the fridge and pulled out a coconut, stabbing it through with a straw and drinking the whole thing for breakfast. She finished by scooping out the flesh with a spoon.

“Here,” she said, putting a coconut in front of us. “You have one, but eat it all. This costs five dollars.”

“Auntie,” Isaac asked. “Did you cut this?”

She nodded, motioning towards the garage. Suddenly the setup I’d seen earlier (a mallet and cleaver on a stool) made sense.

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Out of all the meals I enjoyed, I don’t think I could pick a favorite. There was a bonfire with the whole old-school Jersey crew, which was a fairly overwhelming experience eased slightly by the presence of a really, really nice cabernet. (Which was provided by one of the old homies who works at a liquor store as a party gift, something Auntie told me later in the kitchen, “they would never do before, so this must prove how grown up they are.”)

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We also spent an evening in Brooklyn eating at a hip seasonal restaurant and spent the twilight walking in between the two massive bridges, marveling at the skyline.

What the heck am I doing in New York City? I thought to myself. How on earth did I get to a place in my life where I can just pop on over to Brooklyn for dinner?

I mean really. I’m just a little Wyoming girl.

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As the week draws to a close and I return to the foodie haven I will soon call home, I find myself counting my blessings. This family may never know how greatly their hospitality affected me, but it reminds me just how important showing hospitality is.

I will go many places in the world and stay with many people, but I can already tell this is one of the kindest and most thoughtful stays I’ll encounter. The career I’m throwing myself into is about nothing but hospitality, and this is the best example yet. And that’s saying something.

 

A (Late) Manifesto Of Sorts

It sometimes occurs to me that I am pursuing the weirdest career ever.

Essentially, I love writing and food and culture and community and coffee. I want a job that lets me love all of these things, preferably at the same time.

I want to write about food. I want to use food to bring communities together. I want to study the way we interact on common ground: the love of coffee, the love of mama’s cookin’. I want to share that with everyone.

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Even more importantly, I want to combine a career and a lifestyle all in one fell swoop. I want a life full of intention in every aspect, from the food I eat to the people I talk to at the coffee bar.

I know. I want a lot of things.

So why would I bother to type these things on the internet? Aren’t these the kind of dreams and things that someone should keep to themselves?

Maybe.

But writing here, on this blog, and in a few other locations (like the killer pravasana.com) has prompted me to realize that the love of food, coffee and culture begin right here.

Sure, maybe this is a bunch of ‘dream big’ fluff marketed by Disney. (Which would makes sense, actually, considering I worked there for the past two years.)

Still, this will hold me accountable as some kind of manifesto to stay true to all the intentions I have not just for a career but for a lifestyle.

People are really important to me. Community means the world to me. When I think about how I can contribute to the community, I know that food is what I bring to the table. (See what I did there? Haha.)

I suppose I just want to love the whole world and I want to do it with a pen in one hand and a fork in the other.

Idealistic? Probably. Uncomfortable? Maybe.

Impossible?

Certainly not.

Things No One Tells You About Culinary School

Before I committed to attending culinary school, I scoured the internet for advice, tips, recommendations and flat-out help. I was typing phrases like, is culinary school worth it? into Google and finding no useful information.

Let’s face it: culinary school is a huge commitment. It’s a financial mountain to climb (it is insanely pricy) and you find out very quickly if this is the industry for you or not. If not, it can feel like waste of time, effort and money. Besides, I found myself wondering if I couldn’t just learn all that technique stuff from Food Network and my collection of food magazines.

Because I guarantee there are other people out there asking the same questions, I’m going to compile a list of things I didn’t know I would face in culinary school. Hopefully this is useful for those who are frantically typing into Google, culinary school advice and CIA vs Johnson and Wales.

I’ve been there. I feel you.

1. This is not home cooking.

I’ll tell you right now: culinary school is not for people who ‘just want to learn how to cook.’ There are optional classes open the public for that, classes that are funny and charming and teach useful advice and tricks for home kitchens. Culinary school, however, is trained to educate future chefs. The students are being launched into the industry with all the information needed to kickstart a culinary career. If you just kinda want to learn how to cook to impress the neighbors at your next dinner party, don’t invest all that time and money into culinary school. Trust me.

2. Classes are 90% cleaning, 10% cooking.

This is not a bad thing! You learn how to cook, sure, but once the demos and the practical kitchen days are over, you have to clean top to bottom. And by “clean” I am referring to using bowl-you-over asphyxiating oven cleaner, potent degreaser and plenty of sudsy water. Every dish you dirty has to be scrubbed. Every surface you use has to shine. And every move you make has to be efficient–don’t waste time cleaning. Just get it done.

You’ll get to know how to clean and store industrial equipment, how to scrub the tiniest nooks and crannies and the proper way to clean your pots and pans.

(This becomes useful in home life, as you will find yourself doing dishes with gusto and knocking out equipment with ease.)

3. Say goodbye to your forearms.

And your fingers, while you’re at it. Cooks start to develop superhuman hands after a while simply from being around all that hot, sharp equipment. You will burn your forearms countless times, and they’ll scar. You’ll also be proud of those scars because they show you beat that screaming hot oven or pan. You will compare them to others and talk about your battle scars like they’re medals.

(You will not share stories of stupid things you did to get burned, like grabbing a hot pan with a wet towel–heat travels faster through a wet towel, turning to steam and burning the shenangians out of your hands–or learning how to use a knife without looking at your cutting board. That’s common sense. Keep your dumb mistake stories to yourself.)

4. You’ll develop a Kitchen Voice.

A kitchen voice is loud, concise, urgent and practical. Even if you’re small and quiet, you will learn quickly to fight for your voice.

Terminology will start to come easily to you, phrases like, “Hot behind!” “Sharp!” “Behind you!” will merge into your everyday life. “Heard!” will become a popular response, even outside the kitchen.

It becomes apparently very quickly that if you don’t tell someone–loudly– that you’re coming behind with something hot, sharp or potentially easy to drop, someone could get hurt or yelled at, and you don’t want it to be you.

5. The classmates are weirdos.

The best possible weirdos, of course. (And maybe some of the worst, you can never really tell.) Culinary is an art, and like all arts, the people can be a tad bit off-kilter. There are the young and ambitious fresh-out-of-high school students ready to take the culinary world by a storm, the vocational-school types who never really aced (or passed) high school but can work with their hands, and there are the career changers who want a fresh career and are willing to work hard at their second chance.

They might be strange. They might be all ages and come from all backgrounds, but everyone has the same thing in common: food. You can learn a lot about people by their styles of cooking, and that variety will help your own cooking grow. They’re some of the best people you will ever meet.

6. The Freshman Fifteen is more like the Freshman… Thirty.

When you make food the focus of your life and education, it starts to show. At my school, it hits everyone right around Baking and Pastry class. French cuisine is nearly all butter and wine, and as you can imagine, it takes a toll. I’m warning you now: you can’t go to culinary school and not gain weight. It just doesn’t work like that.

7. Dining out will never be the same.

Restaurants become places of interest. The staff suddenly becomes interesting, swinging kitchen doors start to catch your eye. And, probably most significantly, you can look at a menu and think, I’m paying HOW MUCH for THAT? You start thinking in terms of food cost and value for what you’re ordering. It can’t be helped. And you’ll be terribly conscious of safety and sanitation after learning exactly how terribly the results of poor sanitation can be.

On the flip side, you start to appreciate food so much it changes the whole dining experience. You can appreciate a fresh loaf of bread when it hits the table. You can beam with glee over a perfectly-cooked steak. You can eye a meal and think, “I can make that, easy,” or “Wow, what genius came up with that?”

8. You become a darn good cook.

A mostly-empty refrigerator becomes a Chopped challenge. Once the basic techniques are engrained in your subconscious and muscle memory, you can master pretty much anything in your kitchen.

People will also want you to cook for them.

They will be embarrassed to cook for you, thinking you’ll judge their food. (In reality, you’ll just think it’s nice someone cooked for you for a change.)

Torwards the end of school you’ll be able to look back and think, I remember when I was learning how to make a brown roux. How quaint to think I didn’t know how.

9. The school you choose depends on your preferences.

The Culinary Institute of America is the top culinary school in the US, and it has so many celebrity chefs in the industry it is unreal. They teach everything you need to know and it looks fantastic to have graduated from the CIA. But it is insanely, tremendously pricy. Essentially, you’re paying for the name. Cooking is cooking across the board, the same techniques apply no matter where you are. The CIA just looks bright and shiny and has lots of impressive grads.

Johnson and Wales (affectionately referred to as J-Wu) is along the same lines. It looks nice to have graduated from their university, but you’re learning the same information you can get anywhere else. They offer other programs as well, so they’re not strictly culinary. There are quite a few scholarships available for them, but the price tag is still high.

Le Cordon Bleu, unlike J-Wu, is strictly culinary and pastry, also offering hospitality programs. I myself am a Le Cordon Bleu student, and I absolutely adore the school. Their Career Services department alone is phenomenal–they place students in jobs even after graduation. The door is always open. And again, it’s the same information that is available at the CIA or J-Wu, but the price tag is significantly lower.

(Although they do tend to market to the extreme–lots of phone calls, lots of flyers. It was a turn-off for me at first, but it worked out in the end! They have wonderful enrollment advisors.)

I hemmed and hawed and wracked my brain for the answer on where I should attend school. Since attending Le Cordon Bleu, there is no doubt in my mind I made the right choice. It may not be the right fit for you– I’m not trying to push LCB on anyone. But I have never had an issue with them, and I have gotten a great education. I love my chefs to death.

Side note: a lot of this depends on your goals. My goal was to work at Disney World in a culinary position, so I chose the Le Cordon Bleu Orlando campus. I was hired a month after starting school with Disney, who recruits directly out of the school. I’ve been at Disney over a year, and I met a lot of students that were working on Externship from other schools that were in the same position that I was–a position that was my springboard, rather than my final destination.

Instead of reaching Disney on externship as my final goal, it was my first culinary job right off the bat. Attending LCB Orlando was, for me, the right thing to do.

10. This might not be the industry for you.

The culinary underworld is full of artists, but it’s also full of knives and fire. It requires the ability to lift heavy things, have great endurance and not mind endless hours on your feet. Working on weekends and holidays is part of the job. There’s not a lot of sunlight or free time in the kitchen, it’s a hot den full of shouting people. Chefs are not always friendly people, and this is a territorial and cutthroat industry where you have to earn your way to the next stop. Don’t expect to slack off and get anywhere. It requires plain, old-fashioned work. It’s not easy. But many thrive off of the tension and insanity of working the line, and it’s an adrenaline rush like no other.

You will learn very quickly if this is the industry for you. It’s smart to do your research before committing to culinary school and make sure you’re headed the right direction.

11. You’ll develop an unhealthy obsession with knives.

Bragging about your new eight-inch santoku knife is a way of life. A new knife inspires the kind of joy reserved for marriage proposals and climbing Mount Everest.

Additionally, you will begin to smell like food all the time. (I didn’t really want a subhead for this one, but it’s true.)

Ultimately, culinary school is one of the best decisions you could ever make.

The sense of pride that comes from being a part of a kitchen staff is unparalleled. Chefs and cooks are tough. And they are highly skilled. (Knives? Heck yeah.) This is a wonderful decision to make, and since I’ve attended culinary school I have never once doubted I made the right decision.

If you’re ready to dive into a fastpaced and insanely wonderful industry, this is the way to do it. I hope I’ve answered at least a few questions for anonymous researches out there like I was.

Bon Appetite!

Introduction? Appetizer? Maybe Both.

“You have to be a romantic to invest yourself, your money, and your time in cheese.” ~ Anthony Bourdain

 

If you were to look at my Google Search history, I imagine you’d laugh.

‘Quotes About Goat Cheese’ tops the list, followed closely by, ‘What Is A Filbert?’ For the record, a filbert is another name for a hazelnut. You see, 99% of my search history is food-related research, and not one iota of it has been driven by schoolwork. Curiosity, plain and simple, fuels my searches. Well, curiosity and a cappuccino served in a unique mug at my favorite coffee shop.

[Side note: any coffee shop willing to serve customers in actual mugs rather than sleeves is a winner in my book. ]

Anyway, despite the fact I am a shameless food history nut–no pun intended, after mentioning those Filberts–I always do my research away from home. I feel so much more productive studying food in a venue other than my apartment. Unless, of course, Anthony Bourdain is unraveling mysteries of the culinary universe on the Travel Channel, in which case I will sit with a pen and my notebook posed to jot down his clever phrases and outrageous discoveries from the comfort of my living room.

I devour food blogs. (Check out these favorites– Eat This Poem, Happyolks,and Plated Stories are my current top three.) I own more chef biographies than I do pairs of shoes. I have so many culinary magazines I could wallpaper a two-story house and still have enough to collage the patio.

I will also admit, I’m a menu thief. I find seasonal menus especially enchanting, better than a newspaper or a snapshot. It’s a moment in time. This is what’s seasonal, this is the price, this is right here, right now, this is what is good. Sometimes I smuggle them out in a large bag. Sometimes I ask. Sometimes they’re just given to me.

I am a culinarian. I am an epicurean. I am a student of gastronomy, I am obsessed, and that is perfectly okay, because I am not alone.

Although my favorite food blogs feature high-quality snapshots of gorgeous lighting and plating, I myself am an amateur photographer at best. My Instagram has less then 300 followers. I rely on a fancy camera that I don’t know how to use–point, shoot and sort through them later, that’s my motto.

So this post, this first interwebby combination of words, serves as sort of a preface. I love food, I adore it. I want to live in the cheese section of Whole Foods.

You’ll find a lot of good food here, and a lot of inspiration.

Welcome!