Too often, coffee is that easily forgotten final course, a disappointing flop after an elaborately plated meal packed with intense, memorable flavors.
Debunking that myth is what drives Matt Milletto, partner and vice president of American Barista & Coffee School, which has locations in Portland, Oregon, and New York City. Through intensive experiences that resemble the rigor of a boot camp, restaurateurs and their employees are coached not just in brewing techniques, but also the countries of origin, as well as the growing and harvesting processes surrounding coffee.
“If the coffee is lacking, it’s often the customer’s last impression,” says Milletto, adding that coffee should be as exceptional as the food. He suggests restaurants publish tasting notes for coffee on the menu, including the roaster, the beans’ origin, and the brew methods.
Coffee can also compel a dessert order and make post-meal lingering more cost-effective. “It’s a great way to upsell a dessert,” Milletto says, noting a Guatemalan coffee paired with molten chocolate volcano cake as an example.
Tapping into coffee’s rising acclaim is Ferran Adrià, whose well-lauded elBulli shuttered in 2011, paving the way for the acclaimed Spanish chef and his mad-scientist tendencies to further evolve through a culinary-education foundation. Through a partnership with Lavazza (a fourth-generation coffee company) that started 15 years ago, Adrià has developed coffee-based recipes—including a passion-fruit coffee cocktail, coffee mousse prepared with a siphon, coffee cake using a microwave, strainers, and a siphon, and coffee caviar (gelatin coffee pearls).
“Coffee is not just for drinking,” says Adrià. “You can make so many preparations, like vinaigrette. Chefs bring different components to the table. Coffee is an elaboration.”
Still, he says, “Ninety-nine percent of people, even in the restaurant industry, don’t have any idea what a coffee plant is like. We have a problem here.”
Yet even a traditional form of coffee is important. “Restaurants are an important part of our business,” says vice president Giuseppe Lavazza, based at the company’s headquarters in Turin, Italy. “For Italian people, coffee is not just something you drink to wake up. It’s a lifestyle.”
Lavazza’s coffees are served at three Michelin-starred restaurants in Italy plus American restaurants that include Eataly in Chicago and New York City, which are part of the Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group. “It has to be perfect, to give coffee the dignity, to be part of the menu, something that the customer can remember, the lasting impression,” says Lavazza. About the partnership with Adrià, he says, “it was the first time a coffee company had a dialogue with chefs. We have to be innovators in a world that is very traditionalist.”
Along those lines, Milletto doesn’t advise impressing customers with a staggering number of brewing choices (such as Chemex or French press), or offering coffee from regions across different continents. That can easily compromise the quality of a coffee program, especially if the coffee is brewed-to-order. “Have a simple program where you’re confident in whatever brew method you choose.”
As coffee gains prominence, more restaurants are brewing tableside, letting the customer plunge the French press or positioning a pour-over bar in full view. It’s similar to preparing Bananas Foster, guacamole, or Caesar salad tableside.
“You can choose to add some of that theatre aspect,” says Milletto, “while charging accordingly.” Recently, at the Social House in Las Vegas, he ordered a $14 cup of siphoned coffee, and with no regrets. “Make it a true finale, instead of the forgotten, rushed end to a meal.”