Hand in Hand: Fine Dining and Specialty Coffee

Considerations on Coffee Pairings and Menu Presentation at Restaurants

By David Lange

Coffee and dining have been mainstays in American culture for generations. Whether it’s the quick morning cup at the corner coffeehouse, the midday pick-me-up at the neighborhood diner or café, or the finale at the elegant five-star white tablecloth establishment, coffee is the staple of a generation of foodies.

For years, diners were treated to extensive wine lists and unique cocktail creations to supplement their dining experience. But now, diners are experiencing how coffee can be implemented in recipes and in course pairings to enhance the occasion.

A new generation is valuing coffee as an affordable luxury. It is imperative that coffee roasters, purveyors and suppliers implement programs to help their restaurant clients meet their customers’ demands. An education in coffee should include the restaurateur, executive chef, kitchen staff and wait staff. And, as restaurant patrons become more in tune with sustainable coffees and single origin coffee, then restaurants need to make sure that their staff is also aware of these changing trends and have the skills to “walk the walk and talk the talk.”

It is so important for coffee suppliers to truly listen to their clients and guide and educate them on the value of specialty coffee and its revered presence in the restaurant culture. Two recent experiences come to mind regarding listening and developing a coffee program. I was approached by a customer that was developing a new breakfast concept, Wild Eggs. They wanted a coffee that would be an eye-opener and would accompany and complement their breakfast and lunch fare. Our education began with having the restaurateurs, executive chef and his staff come to our facility and develop a blend that would meet their expectations. After much cupping, blending and coffee education, we discovered a very complex blend consisting of Sumatran, Ethiopian, Kenyan, Brazilian and Costa Rican coffees. To insure the integrity of this blend, we decided on the brewing equipment that would correctly brew and maintain the taste profile of this elixir. The coffee’s components are proudly displayed on Wild Eggs’ menu and customers are encouraged to imbibe on this illustrious brew. We also wanted to display to their customers the restaurant’s passion for this coffee, so the coffee is served to each customer in their own signature 32oz. signature thermal carafe. It was each customer’s little taste of Nirvana. Before each new location is opened, the entire staff comes to our facility where they see firsthand the coffee being roasted, blended and packaged for their particular facility. Then they attend a class that takes them from the bean to the cup of coffee education. By these measures, each employee “buys in” on the signature blend and displays pride when serving it.

Another example is a grand dream that was realized by Louisville’s premier restaurateur, Dean Corbett, with his newest restaurant, Corbett’s: An American Place. Chef Corbett wanted a blend that would complement and accentuate his decadent desserts. So, once again we duplicated the same procedure, but this time concentrated our efforts on a coffee that would meet these requirements for desserts. Since chocolate was often a common denominator for these sweets, we settled on a blend that was heavy on Indonesian components for the rich and heavy body that they display. Since every member of the staff was included in this procedure, they really took ownership of this coffee and displayed it when the servers shared the coffee menu with their guests. Since espresso-based drinks play a major role in both restaurant’s coffee menus, we made sure that the staff spent time with our master baristas so that each crafted drink was made with perfection and presented with the proper vocabulary.

Part of the education regarding coffee includes the importance of brewing coffee correctly and under proper standards. Just as restaurants covet the Wine Spectator Award or Distinguished Restaurants of North America Award for their remarkable wine program, we feel that the pride of earning the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s Golden Cup Award is just as important an accomplishment.

For years, restaurants have teamed with wineries to showcase wines through wine dinners at their establishments. Lately, local micro-breweries have showcased their products with beer dinners at restaurants to display how food and beers can be paired together. In Chicago last year, Chef Graham Elliot Bowles, of the restaurant Graham Elliot, offered a four-course coffee and espresso dinner that showcased java as not only a beverage pairing but also an ingredient, as displayed in his espresso-poached scallops with sunchoke purée, frisée, brioche croutons and bacon vinaigrette; and espresso-crusted beef with potato pancake, poached egg and redeye gravy.

In New Orleans, a series of dinners in September sponsored by a local Public Broadcast Service television affiliate gave diners the chance to sample a distributor’s coffee blends as paired with multi-course prix-fixe meals at 13 area restaurants.

For operators, coffee-pairing dinners can present a new way to reach out to guests who don’t drink alcohol and attract diners put off by generally higher priced alcohol-paired events. From a business perspective, they also represent an ideal way to connect with—and co-promote—local roasters, too.

At an event in Louisville recently, coffee aficionados were introduced to alternative ways to enjoy coffee. Coffee was brewed in a Turkish ibrik, an Italian moka pot, a Vietnamese coffee pot and a French press. Introducing these methods enabled coffee lovers to realize that coffee truly is a universal beverage.

Not viewing coffee as an afterthought, but rather considering it as a viable course in the dining experience, enables a restaurant to avoid an unfortunate occurrence: great food, great wine, great service and…not-so-great coffee. Like tripping over the finish line of a record breaking marathon run, many of America’s finest and most celebrated restaurants fall short of expectations on the quality of coffee they serve at the end of a great meal.

When you culminate a great meal with a unique cup of coffee, that glow of the dining experience continues right out the door. This last aspect is to me the fundamental meaning of the coffee break, the coffee klatch, the happy hour and the after-dinner coffee. These are secular rituals that, in unobtrusive but essential ways, help maintain humanness in ourselves and with one another.

David Lange is the vice president of business development for Consumers Choice Coffee. An instructor for the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) Espresso Labs and Golden Cup certification classes, Lange is also an SCAA Golden Cup certifier and is a featured columnist for Food & Dining magazine. He currently serves as a state board member for the Kentucky Restaurant Association and is the board secretary for the organization’s Louisville chapter.