How to Make the Perfect Cup of Coffee, According to the Israeli Training American Baristas

Israeli-born Tomer Zilkha is teaching the first academic barista course in the U.S. The owner of three French cafés, who starts each day calibrating his bean grinder, tells Haaretz what’s wrong with Starbucks and why he always stocks instant coffee in his kitchen

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Zilkha.  "To know how to draw a design on the milk foam might be pleasing to the eye, but it doesn’t interest anyone."
Zilkha. "To know how to draw a design on the milk foam might be pleasing to the eye, but it doesn’t interest anyone."Credit: Nir Arieli
Tzach Yoked
Tzach Yoked
Tzach Yoked
Tzach Yoked

Even though it was 15 years ago, Tomer Zilkha remembers vividly the last time he drank Starbucks coffee, the brew that millions of Americans apparently can’t do without every morning.

“I had been hiking in the Grand Canyon with my wife and her uncle,” he recalls. “We’d finished a trek of almost 30 kilometers and found ourselves in the small town of Page, Arizona. I was wiped out, I had to have a coffee. I remember we drove around looking for a small, local coffee shop, but all we saw was one Starbucks after another.”

With no other alternative, they ended up going into one of the branches. “I will never forget the coffee I was served,” Zilkha says. “It was mediocre cappuccino with an acidic taste and a strong bitter flavor. On top was a bubbly milk foam that reminded me of a tasteless bubble bath. No matter how badly I wanted coffee, I wasn’t capable of drinking that. I just threw it into the garbage,” he relates, squirming uncomfortably in his chair at the Patisserie Florentine café in the northern New Jersey town of Englewood.

Patisserie Florentine is one of three branches of the chain of French cafés owned by the 40-year-old Zilkha – who for the past three months has been able to boast about being the first person to lecture in coffee studies in the United States. The café exudes a European ambience, with small tables, bourgeoisie clients and a full menu that includes omelets, salads, soups, sandwiches, quiches, Shabbat challah, shakshuka and homemade pastries. The pièce de resistance here is croissants of a range and quality rarely seen outside Paris.

The background music here takes the form of jingling cups and spoons, the grinding of beans and the sound of espresso emanating from a state-of-the-art coffee machine, which Zilkha recalibrates every morning with the precision of a watchmaker.

“I can teach someone in a week everything they need to know to be a good barista: how to prepare latte, cappuccino, macchiato, including making all the designs on top of the foam,” he explains. “But try to explain to them that coffee beans are like yeast for baking, or, if you will, like the fingers on your hand, which expand in heat and contract in cold.”

The expansion and shrinkage of the beans, indiscernible to the naked eye, has a serious affect on the flavor of the coffee, Zilkha stresses. The perfect espresso shot emerges from the advanced machine in a slow dribble that lasts exactly 27 seconds. This process is divided into three stages, and every deviation of one second either way disturbs the sacred balance underlying the flavor of the coffee – assuming the imbiber of the beverage is endowed with taste buds as sensitive as Zilkha’s.

“The first stage lasts 10 seconds, in which a very dark coffee extraction, very concentrated, very strong, trickles out,” he explains. “The second stage, known as ‘tiger stripes,’ is far less concentrated; it lasts eight seconds, and the extraction is already far lighter, even a bit blonde, I would say.” The third and final stage, as its name – “blonde” – suggests, consists of a light extraction, less concentrated, more water and less coffee.

Zilkha prepares and tests six shots of espresso every morning, with the meticulous attention of a laboratory researcher. He checks that everything is running like a Swiss clock. “If the extraction progresses from the first stage to the second stage in eight seconds, for example, I deduce that the coffee is too coarse, that the water is trickling too easily, that it is not compressed enough – all due to the beans’ expansion because of the high level of humidity in the air,” he says.

What is to be done, in such a case? Recalibration of the grinder, a shift of a millimeter or two, no more. And if the first stage is prolonged by a second or two? “That means the coffee is too compressed, that the water isn’t able to trickle through it,” Zilkah says. That calls for the same solution, only the opposite – calibration of a millimeter or two the other way. So it goes every morning anew, and if necessary also at midday, depending on changes in the weather.

A Starbucks cafe in New York, 2019. Credit: The Art of Pics / Shutterstock.

Does the average American sense these differences? “When an Israeli client orders coffee, he says how much sugar he wants, if any,” he explains. “The American, though, doesn’t elaborate. The accepted standard in the United States is coffee with cream and sugar. How much sugar? Usually between three and four teaspoons. Everything has to be extremely sweet. That’s what they like, that’s what they’re used to. A high fat content and a buttery taste that veils the whole original aroma of the coffee.”

That, Zilkha continues, may well account for the bitter, acidic, burnt taste of American coffee, which above all can be associated with the Starbucks chain: “Once they know the customer is adding so much sugar anyway, they can allow themselves to compromise on the flavor. They don’t have to go into minute details, be rigorous about subtleties, about quality, because in any event no one will notice with all that sugar and cream.”

And this is even before we talk about syrups and artificial sweeteners. Such flavorings used to be found only in pastry shops or ice cream parlors, but in recent years they have become staples for many clients of Starbucks – and in their wake, available in most American coffee shops. As if the sugar isn’t sweet enough. Toffee, caramel, raspberry, vanilla, walnuts, chocolate, cinnamon and other syrups and additives now give coffee a whole new meaning.

“Starbucks has trickled so powerfully into American culture, that just because of its influence I have three syrups here: vanilla, caramel and hazelnut,” says Zilkha, who admits that he has been compelled to play by the rules the chain dictates, but emphasizes that the first two syrups are prepared by him from scratch in the café’s kitchen.

“When you take coffee and add caramel to it, or vanilla syrup, you enter into a completely different category – it’s no longer coffee,” he observes. “They took an Italian drink and Americanized it.”

To work at Starbucks the students don’t need me – you can learn the ropes there in a few hours. I try to get them to develop pride in the coffee they make, and serve to others. To expose them to a quality of coffee they will not find anywhere else.

Zilkha

Educating the taste buds

The criticism Zilkha has of Starbucks and the knowledge he’s accumulated over the years about coffee-making are being imparted to students at Bergen Community College in the city of Paramus, in northern New Jersey. “Barista Fundamentals: Coffee and Tea” is the name of the course he taught during the spring semester – the first barista-certifying course that’s been recognized by an academic institution in the United States: 14 sessions of five hours each.

“This course explores the history and cultural roots of coffee and tea production, connecting them to marketing and cafe operations,” the college’s course catalog states, adding, “Students complete regular tasting of coffee and tea beverages in order to identify and compare quality, then prepare them in a cafe setting. All areas of production from harvest to consumption are explored.”

Zilkha doesn’t expect his students to take a sip and be able to differentiate coffee from Costa Rica, for example, from a variety that originates in Tanzania or Papua New Guinea.

“I try to educate their taste buds to identify whether it’s coffee from a light, medium or dark roast, and to figure out more or less where it comes from. They should have key benchmarks – a scale that has on one side Brazilian coffee, which is very coarse, very strong, very dark, and on the other side Ethiopian coffee, which is far more elegant, with a slightly acidic aroma, that’s lemony, less coarse, more sophisticated. In between those two is Indonesian coffee, the java everyone is familiar with, which is at a level of medium roast and has a light touch of chocolate.”

Germinating coffee plants are seen at a coffee plantation, in Grecia, Costa Rica.Credit: JUAN CARLOS ULATE/Reuters

And why is all this important? “If a construction worker comes into the café, I will serve him Brazilian coffee, which is the strongest and most burnt,” Zilkha says. “If I serve him Ethiopian coffee, the chances are very good that he won’t come back. People like that, laborers, want the bitterest, darkest coffee, because they’re convinced that is what will wake them up. The irony is that it’s exactly the opposite: The more burnt the coffee is, the more bitter, the darker the roast – the less caffeine it contains. The longer you roast the beans, the more caffeine you lose. Exactly the same thing that happens to broccoli if it’s left in boiling water too long – all the minerals will evaporate.”

In the same way Zilkha will usually serve Brazilian coffee to construction workers, he will offer the businessman in the elegant suit Ethiopian coffee. “When a client like that enters you want to give him delicate, refined coffee, with light touches of sweetness.”

After his students are taught the history of humanity’s love affair with coffee, and other background information, and they taste enough coffee that their palates know how to distinguish between Ethiopian and Brazilian varieties – they learn about the methods of growing coffee beans and roasting temperatures. Then comes the practical stage: operating an espresso machine. Zilkha aspires to train the ideal barista, someone who may someday work in his chain and who, just by looking at the espresso shot emerging from the machine, will know immediately if the grinder needs calibration or not.

Zilkha: “To work at Starbucks the students don’t need me – you can learn the ropes there in a few hours. I try to get them to develop pride in the coffee they make, and serve to others. To expose them to a quality of coffee they will not find anywhere else. To understand what’s meant by burnt coffee. What happens when you over-boil the milk. Mostly I want them to know how to drink coffee, to understand what they’re putting into their body, to be able to distinguish between the various types. Knowing how to draw a design on the milk foam might be pleasing to the eye, but it doesn’t interest anyone.”

The Aussie connection

Starbucks changed the consumer habits of the Americans and made them feel that it’s all right to have a coffee in the subway or while walking in the street. All of that, all the paper cups you see everywhere now, didn’t exist before Starbucks.

Zilkha

Zilkha was born in Rishon Letzion and grew up in Ramat Gan. He served in the military censor’s unit in the army and concurrently obtained an insurance agent’s license. At the age of 23, after discovering that insurance wasn’t his thing, he went trekking in South America. On the way back he stopped over in New York – and never returned to Israel for more than a visit. He’s married to an American woman, Amy, who’s a nurse in the pediatric department of Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. They have two children, ages 4 and 6, and live in North Jersey.

After arriving in the United States, and spending the requisite time working for a moving company, Zilkha landed a job as at a small café in the East Village. From there he moved from one café to the next, from a Ukrainian diner (Veselka) to the Israeli-owned Mocha Café. He went from dishwasher to barista and then graduated to pastry chef. In the meantime, he obtained a degree in cooking and hotel management at the City University of New York, and traveled to the small French village of Moosch, where he worked for a year as a chef in the Aux Trois Rois restaurant. Upon returning to New York, he became pastry chef and sous-chef at the French restaurant Le Grenouille. In 2013, he decided to open the first branch of Patisserie Florentine.

“I remember that when I arrived in the United States, in 2004, before I even worked in cafés or taught a course on the subject – I couldn’t understand why the local coffee had such a bitter taste,” he says. “Every time I bought coffee at Starbucks, I would add three teaspoons of sugar to overcome the acidity.”

So tens of million Americans and hundreds of millions all over the world are wrong about what constitutes good coffee, and only he is right?

“I understand the business logic of a chain that offers you both convenience and consistency. Their big advantage is that you know what you’ll get, no matter where you order the coffee, which is very important for every business. They led a revolution that brought the convenience of coffee drinking to the public domain. Until then it wasn’t pleasant for the average American to stand outside with a cup of coffee in his hand and drink next to everyone.

Tomer ZilkhaCredit: Nir Arieli

“From that point of view, the American is not the Israeli who will sit outside and eat jachnun [a Yemenite pastry] with his hands,” Zilkha continues. “Starbucks changed the consumer habits of the Americans and made them feel that it’s all right to have a coffee in the subway or while walking in the street. All of that, all the paper cups you see everywhere now, didn’t exist before Starbucks.”

Thus, the revolution fomented by Starbucks beginning in the 1980s is an upgrade compared to what existed previously.

“The first wave of coffee-drinking began toward the end of the 19th century, when instant-coffee companies introduced coffee into every kitchen in the United States,” Zilkha relates. “Coffee that you put into boiling water and it dissolves and is immediately ready for drinking. What Israelis know as ‘ness kafeh’.”

In contrast to Starbucks, which Zilkha couldn’t bring himself to drink even after a 30-kilometer hike in the Grand Canyon, he keeps Elite Instant in his kitchen cupboard. “For me it’s a sentimental coffee, it’s what I grew up on,” he says. “But there are quite a few things we grew up on, which doesn’t mean they’re high-quality.”

Are you referring to every brand of instant coffee or only Elite?

“When you have coffee that stays fresh on the shelf for such a long time and then dissolves in a cup and is ready for drinking in 30 seconds, there’s no way it can be a quality product. It can’t be coffee that does your body any good. There’s a chemical process it needs to go through so that it can be stored for such a long time and dissolve in a minute. On the other hand, it’s convenient. Just pour water, stir and it’s ready. In the end, there’s a difference between convenience and quality. And that coffee, popular for its time, is mostly convenient but not much more than that.”

Which leads us to the third – inevitable, he says – wave. It begins in 2005-2006 when, alongside 10,000 Starbucks branches, increasing numbers of independent coffee shops began cropping up in the United States, with a different philosophy and a new approach to coffee. “It’s inconceivable for there not to be quality coffee in a country of this size for such a long time – it’s simply not logical,” Zilkha says.

The new wave was generated mainly by Australian migrants – offspring of Italians who moved to the southern continent after World War II and began immigrating to the United States in the early 2000s. “Suddenly I saw small cafés in Manhattan with a new philosophy about how coffee should be prepared and what it should look like,” he recalls. “Cafés that don’t serve latte with pictures on the foam, but that invest attention in the coffee itself. Instead of buying from giant commercial firms that import coffee into the U.S. in huge containers, they went straight to the farms in Africa and Central America where the beans are grown. They understand the differences of quality between coffee beans and can distinguish between one farm and another.

“They care about the farmers’ working conditions and they want the coffee they import to meet the criteria of fair trade. They are people with a social conscience, with commercial responsibility. They visit roasting sites personally, as I customarily do twice a month. They check how the beans they order are roasted. They care how much time the coffee spends in warehouses, the different levels of roasting, whether beans that arrive from Brazil are mixed with others from Indonesia and Ethiopia. They want to know that 250 kilograms aren’t roasted all together, but in much smaller quantities, which promises fresher coffee.”

After everything, after the precise calibration of the machine and the contraction of the beans, after one learns how to extract a perfect shot while identifying the three stages it goes through – Zilkha admits that the whole process is actually a lot less complicated than it looks.

“In the final analysis, it’s a very simple formula, and as long as you follow the instructions it doesn’t really matter if it’s coffee that emerges from a machine, coffee in a French press or any other method of infusion,” he says. “All you need to make the perfect cup of coffee is the correct proportion between water and coffee: one gram of coffee per every 15 milliliters of water. After that you need to be meticulous about the right amount of time for soaking: four minutes exactly, with a water temperature of 88 degrees (Celsius). The thing is that it’s not easy to ensure that the water is maintained at that temperature throughout. But when you follow those rules strictly, you don’t really need all the different infusion machines. As far as I’m concerned, you can also heat the coffee in a pot with water over a fire, it doesn’t really make a difference. The flavor will be exactly the same.”

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