Brooke and Chef Keller — A Blend of Two Masters

Q & A with Brooke McDonnell, Co-founder & Master Roaster Equator Coffees & Teas

Creating a coffee blend for a chef like Thomas Keller is a fascinating process and a once-in-lifetime opportunity. In this interview Brooke McDonnell talks about the journey that resulted in these very special blends.

Brooke, you've worked for 12 years now with Thomas Keller. Tell me how a coffee roaster is like a chef.

Brooke McDonnell: The French epicure and gastronome Brillat Savarin said: 'Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.' I would extend that metaphor to coffee; there is an entire sensory world in each cup of coffee, just as there is in a meal. Both chefs and roasters must carry through a vision for an experience, which begins with the story of terroir. Both the chef and the roaster must let the ingredients speak their truths, while using their personal vision to coax them into harmonious balance. When I select, roast and brew coffee, I am telling a story of the microclimate of the specific region, interpreted by me, the roaster. My responsibility to the coffee and the coffee drinker is to bring out the full flavor characteristics of the coffee, letting the truth of its identity be spoken directly.

Like a chef, I start with deep knowledge of my ingredients, select them carefully, and treat them both with respect and with a great sense of adventure. I envision the flavor palate of coffee origins like a spice rack. Each ingredient in each distinct coffee plays a role in the coffee's final flavor. Each coffee region has very different characteristics that I work with to create the final profile.

When a chef begins to cook the components of a dish, the heat changes the chemistry of the food. The sugars caramelize and create layers of flavor. This is the same thing that happens to the bean during the roasting process. As I peel back the layers of flavor during the roasting and cupping process, I note the effect the heat has had on the coffee beans. There are a thousand ways to deconstruct a coffee bean into its ultimate flavor profile! Like a chef, I am strict about this specific dimension of preparation. I start with a light roast evaluation because a light roasted coffee is entirely unforgiving. With a light roast I experience the full flavor of the coffee without any filter.

Then the long, intense phase of extensive tasting begins. My method starts with the espresso machine as my main tool. I will pull shots of 20-30 different origins, tasting them again and again to understand the characteristics of each coffee. In Equator's early days, even before working with Thomas, I would spend two to three months in this phase. It requires my complete focus, and is serious work. Such careful attention to detail is the only way to create a coffee roast worthy of being served to the guests at Thomas Keller's restaurants.

What surprises did you find in working with Thomas Keller?

Brooke: Few chefs pay much attention to the coffee, beyond whether they like it or not. Thomas was immensely curious about all the details of the coffees we had chosen to evaluate. I have never been asked so many questions on matters relating to coffee. His interest was refreshing. I am equally curious when investigating a great meal. I will certainly ask the chef about ingredients that pique my interest. I'll want to know where an exotic grain like black rice was grown, what kind of farm it came from, and what characteristics of soil and climate created its unique flavor.

How did you collaborate on choosing a coffee blend?

Brooke: Of course, Chef Keller collaborated in the design of both the TK espresso and each of the house blends for the French Laundry, Bouchon & Per Se, but the process was slightly different for the espresso. Because Chef Keller takes his coffee almost exclusively as espresso, he was involved intimately in designing that profile. For the house coffee blends, he had definite preferences but brought in other members of his team to collaborate, since most of them were avid drip coffee drinkers, and he wanted to include their ideas in the design of the cup profile.

The process took place over a period of many months involving many rounds of tasting, many visits to the French laundry, many hours at the cupping tables. Fine tuning of the final blends chosen during the initial process unfolded over a few weeks. We'd all get together in a room and taste, take notes, and deconstruct the blends. The chef team and Thomas were all involved. Building the espresso involved micro-adjustment of roast levels. Chef Keller nixed many of the early profiles so we'd begin to deconstruct the profile brick by brick, perhaps borrowing a brick from a previous profile to construct a new one. Clearly, this process was a collaboration with a master taster. We took a layered approach, which was time intensive and very thorough. And worth every minute we spent crafting this very special blend.

What do you want people to feel when they drink this coffee?

Brooke: The way one feels when one watches a perfect scene in a movie, expertly edited in such a way that it is seamless. The layers of taste in a well-crafted, rich-toned, balanced cup of coffee should present themselves as an effortless effect even though a great deal of effort has gone into the process. The challenge to the roaster is to capture the elusive qualities that change from the seed to the cup. It is challenging and very rewarding to capture that fleeting essence. It's a pursuit!

Why is coffee equally as important as the meal?

Brooke: Coffee is the closing statement of the meal and should live up to the dining experience. A meal is a sensory journey in which many stories are told. An inspired meal unfolds with a delightful rhythm, as does a serious coffee experience. Both are rituals. But unlike food, coffee revives the senses after the ritual of a long meal. It's like coming back to the present after a meditation. It punctuates the meal, focusing and closing what has come before. The inherent pungency of coffee, the assertiveness and boldness demand attention, and make a definitive and bracing conclusion. Great coffee doesn't sneak out of the room; it leaves with a flourish and makes itself very known. Like Thomas Keller.

What do you mean by "creating a coffee that tells a story"?

Brooke: Three years ago Chef Keller became the first chef in the country to feature the Panama Esmeralda Special a.k.a "Geisha" varietal coffee. Geisha is a grand cru coffee that has won numerous competitions, garnering some of the highest scores ever awarded to a coffee in the past decade. We approached him with the idea because we felt he'd be as excited as we were to fully explore this unique varietal from the Esmeralda farm in Panama. He made a serious commitment to the program, not only by serving it, but also educating his staff about its characteristics. The Panama Geisha got a lot of press, but he was the only chef to take the leap to tell the story of the coffee through his program and his staff. Working with Chef Keller allows us to create serious coffees that match his food. Together we break ground in creating a coffee program for his restaurants that are an integral part of the narrative he creates with his cooking. He tells beautiful stories with his food, and our coffee is the last moment of lingering in that experience.

Would you like to learn more about Brooke or Equator Coffees & Teas, schedule an interview, request digital images? Please contact us.

Equator Coffees can be enjoyed at the following Thomas Keller resaurants, each with their own unique coffee: The French Laundry, Per Se, Bouchon Bistro, Bouchon Bakery, and ad hoc.