Coffee Talk: Interview with Gigi Presentey (former manager of R-Squared)

Gigi

Interview with Gigi Presentey from Gigi.to
Sunday, August 24 2014

The Backstory

I’ve known Gigi about two years now and for the entirety of those two years I’ve been very impressed by her. We met during the Fall of 2012 when she was a barista at the formidable R-Squared in Queen West. She told me about how she had recently competed in a barista competition, described her personal philosophy towards coffee, and showed me a google map she had created with details of nearly every espresso of note in Toronto. Here was a coffee-downer I could respect.

I suppose like food and wine, coffee has always puzzled me as something that’s infinitely complex yet very simple in its effect: it makes you feel good. I also do most of my writing in cafes so I end up drinking a lot of the damned stuff.

Gigi’s the same when it comes to complexity. If you think you’ve got her pegged – think again. You might think she’d be a terribly analytic person since she has a degree in science, but then she turns around and turns out to be an artist. You think she’s going to stay in the coffee game, but then you find out she’s working at an architect’s office. It’s all very confusing.

I attempted to get to the bottom of it. We met at the Sam James in the PATH and I did what I could to get to the bottom of her artist’s pain.

But before I recount our talk, why don’t you check out her incredible online store featuring her personal works of art.

The Interview

Toronto Phodown (TPD): Hi Gigi. Thanks for coming out here to talk.

Gigi Presentey (GGP): Hi Jason.

TPD: Professional barista, tournament competitor, the coffee map – did you conquer Toronto’s coffee scene?

GGP: For a while I felt I was on top of it. I knew which ones were new, where various baristas were.

TPD: Where was the best?

GGP: There is no right in terms of coffee. The greatest barista in the world, one of the best, the 2009 champion Gwilym Davies believes he still is learning and still has shots that surprise him. If anyone thinks they know how to perfectly make espresso, they have stagnated and they have lost.

TPD: What do you taste in this espresso?

GGP: It doesn’t surprise me. They [Sam James] use Cut Coffee, their house brand. I know they have good coffee. In this shot I taste red wine notes. It’s not very acidic. This is on the darker end.

TPD: When you compare Toronto’s independent coffee scene to other cities, how does it compare?

GGP: I’ll give you a general overview of my comparisons. Ottawa…

TPD: The birthplace of Canada

GGP: And me as well. When I left in 2006 it was small and emerging. Bridgehead was there but that’s closer to the Starbucks end of things. There were a few others, maybe Ideal Coffee.

TPD: Ideal is here!

GGP: It’s also is Ottawa. Next I go to Waterloo.

TPD: For School?

GGP: Yes, I was living in the student bubble. There were no good coffees in the bubble. Not even a Starbucks.

TPD: What are your feelings on Starbucks?

GGP: It’s complicated. At first, I thought I didn’t enjoy the coffee. But I forced myself to open my mind because everyone else liked it…

TPD: Okay, I won’t push you on that. Back to Waterloo.

GGP: There were no good coffee shops there at the time. Towards the end of my time there was a place called Little Bean, which was kind of cool. This is why I got obsessed with making good coffee. We bought our own beans because we were trying to up our game. We had this old Tim Hortons coffee maker in our student house. The only way to make it palatable was to add salt to the coffee.

Eventually, I found a really cool place called Eco Café and I can’t remember how I found out about it, or the path. But they gave us a tour of their roaster and we got to sample all these different beans and they told us about their method of test roasting beans in a popcorn maker.

I was going to give an overview of other cities. The west coast is good but I’ve never been.

TPD: Maybe you can go this summer.

GGP: Maybe the fall.

TPD: Who is a better barista you or Matt (former R-Squared barista)?

GGP: Oh Matt, for sure. Matt has a lot more technical knowledge and experience in different places.

TPD: This challenges my world view! But we’ll agree to disagree at this point.

GGP: I make a mean French press at home. When I was working, I really enjoyed making every single cup of coffee.

TPD: What is your favorite to make?

GGP: Latte or cappuccino because you get to put a lot of artistry in making the milk texture just right.

TPD: What is the precise difference between the two?

GGP: Cappuccino is a stiff micro foam, slightly stiffer than a latte and it doesn’t separate. It will naturally separate if you sit with it, but it should hold a while.

TPD: When you make a good one and someone just sits with it, does it drive you crazy? Just drink it!

GGP: No! I don’t force people to enjoy it the way I want. There’s no point in getting pissed off about it.

TPD: I think you are a zen master.

GGP: …

TPD: So…movingon.org, you can’t taste every coffee you serve. But you do taste beforehand when you calibrate the espresso in the morning??

GGP: Yes

TPD: How does that work?

GGP: I pull several shots. I adjust the grind of the coffee – ideally also the pressure and temp of machine, but that’s more if you have your own café.

TPD: So at R squared you didn’t?

GGP: I felt I couldn’t experiment as much because it was not my place, but if it was mine, I would experiment more. The dosage of coffee (grounds in machine), the time it takes to pull the shot.

TPD: You would tweak all of these things every morning?

GGP: Yes.

TPD: And if everything is just right, you can pull the perfect shot?

GGP: It’s not a linear relationship. Have you seen multiaxis 3d graphs?

TPD: No.

GGP: It’s a relationship that has multimodes with more than 2 axises.

TPD: When it comes to coffee are you nihilist?

GGP: No. I don’t think it doesn’t matter. Even though we can’t reach the ultimate, there are lots of highs we can reach.

TPD: There’s maybe not one high?

GGP: Sure. Because there are different styles people love.

TPD: So if you want to find an espresso that’s good for you, you need to find a barista you agree with, stylistically?

GGP: Yes, but the barista is limited by the shop. Not only limited, but elevated. But you need the shop. It should be a cooperation.

TPD: Sorry we ran out of time! Thank you Gigi!

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