Some might call Joel Finkelstein a coffee curmudgeon, what with all his fussiness over the perfect cup of joe. (Don’t even think about asking for a Caramel Brulee Latte with extra whip at his roasting house and shop, Qualia Coffee in Petworth.) Personally, I prefer to think of Finkelstein as a malcontent for the cause of artisanal coffee, no different from those people who turned the tide away from watery beer, processed white bread and frozen pizza.
The Qualia owner and roaster views coffee beans not as a drug for early risers but as a perishable agricultural product that needs to be treated as respectfully as any other gourmet kitchen ingredient. One of Finkelstein’s frustrations — and one of the reasons he thinks the District lags behind coffee cities such as Seattle, San Francisco and New York — is that local chefs haven’t fully embraced the gourmet java movement. (Incidentally, Washington,. D.C., ranks 19 out of 20 cities on Travel + Leisure’s 2011 list of “America’s Best Coffee Cities.”)
“The restaurant industry is really far behind. In D.C., in particular, they’re really far behind in terms of understanding certain culinary aspects of coffee,” Finkelstein told a small group of food writers and bloggers invited to Qualia on Thursday for an informal talk about coffee.
“This is a big pet peeve of mine, where [chefs], honestly, put so much attention into their ingredients and then use not very good coffee,” Finkelstein said. “They’re having the servers make the coffee a lot of time, and the servers . . . they don’t have the time, they don’t have the patience and they don’t have the training to be making food, which coffee really is. I think that’s kind of an ingrained cultural thing.”
Finkelstein is not some Pollyanna idealist with no grounding in business. He understands the complications of serving good-quality coffee at restaurants. Coffee can be expensive. The profit margins are low. Restaurateurs might have their hands tied by contracts signed with local roasters, which supply the beans, the equipment and the training. Restaurants, in other words, might not even have much control over their coffee service, which is bizarre on the face of it. How many chefs would surrender control of their grill station to, say, a beef supplier?
“Basically, it’s going to take some forward-thinking chefs to say, ‘We can’t do business the same way anymore.We’re serving these fantastic meals, then we’re serving crappy coffee,’ ”says Finkelstein, who sells beans to Chez Billy and DC Reynolds, both in Petworth.
“It took a long time for beer to come around. I’m hoping coffee will be next, and people will start to appreciate that.”
When I circled back with Finkelstein this morning and told him that I was going to write about his chef call-out, he didn’t back down from his statements. A true iconoclast. He even wanted to widen the scope.
The chefs-and-coffee issue, he e-mailed, “dovetails with the resistance of DC farmers markets to admit coffee vendors and a lack of recognition of the value of small-batch, locally roasted beans.”