Nourishing My Drive
Most nights after closing the coffee shop, I return home and fix dinner with Priya. Priya is the expert, I’m more suited to dicing vegetables and flipping Roti on a skillet while she’s focusing on seasoning, braising and browning. Afterward, we sit close beside each other in our living room, often accompanied by our two roommates and two cats. Spending more than twelve hours in a coffee shop can be mentally exhausting. My internal need for socialization is fully met and exceeded. Nearly all extraneous socialization becomes a nuisance, even painful at times. So, when it is time to eat, we eat in silence, and almost exclusively with the television on.
It’s a bad habit, I know. Maybe one day I’ll return to traditional dining with the television off, and replace it with a healthy dose of conversation, or at least an album that we all can agree on listening to.
Several nights ago, as part of this nightly dinner ritual, Priya and I watched an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown. In this episode Bourdain makes a trip to Japan with legendary sushi master Masa Takayama.
Takayama was raised in rural Japan, and he learned the trade of cutting fish at a very early age. His personality is that of a tranquil eccentric, with passions in clayworking and music, he is known for crafting his own tableware in his ultra upscale NYC sushi bar, as well as for his practicing his saxophone in the bathroom while working under his former master in Japan. His inviting dimples break apart the seeming austerity with which he approaches his work.
The episode was memorable, and I was inspired by a quote he recited, relating to his personal drive. It stems from a cultural proverb, and, paraphrased, states that one should never lose sight of the passion one began with.
Any businessperson with a passion can attest, it takes far more than a good understanding of the skills behind a trade to reach a modicum of success. Masa Takayama may have spent years honing his craft, but would not own the most expensive dining experience in America if the only thing he knew was how to cut fish. Without some understanding of budgeting, real estate, marketing, management and beyond, it’s likely that Takayama may have never left his rural area of Japan.
The same is true of nearly all trade-based businesses. We learn finance, we learn marketing, we learn how to cope with the endless double-dutch of problems presented by logistics, government and finances. But what, if anything, do these matters have to do with our passion for our trades?
Perhaps some of us find delight in these non-intrinsic aspects of our work, there certainly are few things that can better fish me out of a creative slump than finding a new and exciting coffee roaster overseas via Instagram. But, overwhelmingly, these oft mundane tasks serve to muddy our drive, and separate us from the true passions that drove us to our trades to begin with.
It was the morning after watching the Takayama episode of Parts Unknown that brought me back to my own kitchen. After some digging in my coffee cabinet (where I store an arsenal of coffee-related odds and ends) I retrieved my Whirly-Pop popcorn maker and a green sample of Yemeni Mocca Sanani dry-processed coffee. I placed the popcorn maker on my gas stove and waited as the oils and chaff from previous roasts began to smoke and adorn the room with a toasty aroma. I dropped the raw Yemeni coffee into the heat and began to crank the machine’s stirring tool. As the coffee began to yellow, aromas filled the air that I hadn’t smelled for some time. Our North Coffee Roaster is fitted with internal ventilation, so the steams created via roasting are thrown out of the building, forcing the professional roaster to lose some of the hay like sweet aroma that true home roasting creates.
As caramelization set in and led to the fizzing pops of first crack, dampened by the cranking of the machine, I peeked inside to witness a barely-uniform roast, typical of a dry-processed coffee, and was met with a creeping and malty steam. Two minutes passed and I removed the machine from the heat and began tossing the roasted coffee between two colanders in my back yard, with chaff floating like flakes of ash from a campfire. I roasted coffee just this way for nearly two years, and I was surprised to realize I had forgotten many of its small joys.
Roasting this way brings me back to a time before my passion became muddied by the thousands of other factors that come with operating a business. Before our 10kg drum roaster, and the 2kg drum roaster before that, this is what roasting meant. It was done with eyeballs, shaky and uneven equipment and a lot of intuition. Despite not having thermocouples, profiling software, or proper cooling tools, I still to this day believe that the best coffees I have ever tasted were the result of home roasting.
Tiring as running a coffee shop may be, it’s experiences like this that make the rough days better. It reminds me of what brought me here in the first place.
Although much has changed since I first picked up a small batch of green Yirgacheffe coffee in 2013, the passion that brought me to that first roast is still very much there. And this is not unlike any other love. Sometimes we must reflect upon the nature of our own character, and examine more fully what propels us ahead. Don’t let a passion become overshadowed by the realities of doing what must be done to survive. It’s far too easy to lose heart in business, and it is always a good idea to revisit the small joys that can still enamor us.