Despite my Italian origins, I had never been much of a coffee drinker in my youth. But then my children came. A cup of tea, after I’d been awaken several times during the night but still needed to be at work by 7am, was not enough anymore. At that time, I was already living in London, where finding good coffee was easy.
Cue forward 10 years, and here I was in the City of Light, world capital of gastronomy, falling prey to coffee cultural shock: I simply found it impossible to drink an espresso in a café, unless diluted with too much milk. It was always too bitter, too acidic, or tasted just like dishwater.
Over the past few years, thankfully, things have changed, with specialty coffee shops, often roasting their own blends, popping up around town. None however have the same credentials as La Manufacture de Café Alain Ducasse, celebrating its first birthday last month.
At the Manufacture, not far from Bastille, Monsieur Ducasse and his team are on a quest: To produce a coffee that matches the sublime quality of the gastronomic feasts produced in his restaurants. Today, two young cafeliers – like baristas but better – are working behind the counter where a glass and chrome La Marzocco takes pride of place. It is a model exclusively made for Alain Ducasse by the Italian company that has been producing the Rolls Royce of professional espresso makers since 1927. The industrial feel of the bar, all chrome pipes and exposed masonry, resonates with what is going on beyond the glass doors at the back, where the roasting takes place.
This is probably at the heart of today’s concept of luxury. The artisanal production process, until not long ago a closely-guarded secret, is now proudly shared with the customer to warrant the quality of the product itself. At the back of the Manufacture sits an imposing coffee roaster, surrounded by large sacks of green coffee beans coming from the four corners of the world and, surprisingly, a computer.
I say surprisingly because I always thought that roasting coffee was an eminently artisanal process, where smell and taste mattered above all, the same way a wine is blended, or a perfume is put together. Veda Viraswami, the master coffee roaster bringing Ducasse’s quest for the perfect coffee cup to fruition, trained as an engineer. As he roasts a batch of the house Signature blend (a mix of beans from Brazil, Ethiopia and Laos), his eyes are glued to the screen of his computer, connected to the roasting machine with a probe transmitting exact readings on the temperature of the drum, the air circulation and other variables I am too science-averse to grasp.
The ideal roast, the one he has perfected by trial and error, is shown on a chart, all very scientific. But, as he tunes the different dials on the roaster, he reminds me of a violinist tuning his instrument. He feels the coffee beans: with his eyes and nose, as he scoops out small samples to check their color and smell them, but also with his ears, as he listens intently when they start to pop, a telltale sign that the roasting will soon be over. It does not take long to roast a batch, less than 15 minutes, plus the cooling off time, which takes place at the front of the roasting drum. As soon as the roasted beans are ready, I can see the tension dissolving from Veda’s features, visibly drained like a pilot switching off the engine of his car or his plane.
As we talk about his career before joining Ducasse’s team, he comes across as an interesting mix of scientific rigor and poetic impulse. When I ask him what attracted him to coffee, his answer is “the inherent sharing nature of coffee”. His insight evokes the counter of a café where an espresso is just an excuse for interaction with friends or with the regulars… Thought-provoking for someone working for a chef catering to the gastronomic needs of the happy few.
As I discuss the business model with Olivier Fellous, general manager of the Manufacture, I understand better what Veda means. While the most expensive cup on offer here costs a whopping 13€ (it is brewed from rare coffee beans of the Bourbon Pointu Laurina cultivar, harvested exclusively for Alain Ducasse in the French island of La Réunion by farmer Guibert Boulanger, who reintroduced this almost extinct variety on lands formerly dedicated to pineapple and sugar cane plantations), the Signature blend espresso costs 2.5€ a cup, about 60€ per kilogram. Clearly more expensive than what you can pick up in a supermarket, but paradoxically less expensive per kilo than the leading brand sold in capsules, once you do the math.
Does this mean that the Manufacture is on a mission to flood the coffee market? “Not at all!” Olivier explains. It is meant to remain a high end brand, served in Ducasse’s establishments of course, and a few other outposts of luxury. Think not only other star chefs like patisserie-genius Cédric Grolet, but also more unusual places like high jewelry stores or topflight legal firms.
My visit concludes with a tasting. I ask Elisabeth, the smiling cafelier on duty, to surprise me. And boy does she manage to! From a frothy cappuccino made with homemade almond milk, accompanied by almonds toasted in-house, by way of a cascara brew – a concoction infused from the shells of the coffee beans, ideal to convince tea drinkers of switching to coffee – to my favorite of all, a cold brewed coffee served in beer glasses. It looks foamy, just like a pint of Guinness, the flavor intensely chocolaty to start with, but when the foam subsides more malted tones shine through.
How funny that it would take a French chef to convince an Italian to drink “coffee like a beer”… I guess that going beyond tradition, finding new ways to look at established ways is probably Monsieur Ducasse’s distinctive feature!
La Manufacture de Café Alain Ducasse
12 Rue St Sabin, 11th
Tel: +33 (0)1 40 02 76 90
Open from 9 am to 7 pm Monday- Friday, 9 am to 7:30 pm on Saturday, and 10:30 to 7 pm on Sunday