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!

Interview with Michael Nusair from Tastyburgers.ca & Michaeleats.com

Burger Commandments

Interview with Michael Nusair from Tastyburgers.ca and Michaeleats.com
Monday, May 12 2014

The Backstory

I became aware of Michael’s work about a year ago when I found his website Tastyburgers.ca. I immediately marked it down as Toronto’s only “burgerdown” an idea as similar in concept and method to Toronto Phodown as they come.

Michael, moreover, in seeking Toronto’s best burger, tugs at my heartstrings in a different manner. Having spent the bulk of my life in the south of the U.S., a love of burgers was fired within me from a young age (for better and for worse). Long story short (too late): Michael is doing important work by performing an in-depth study of the hamburger in Toronto, both seeking to rate each one on his four-point scale and performing a longitudinal study, tracking trends in burger preparation over time. I should also note he’s been a hell of a lot more consistent than my fledgling project, which has become more travel and general food blog than a proper phodown.

The Interview

Toronto Phodown (TPD): Hi Michael, thanks for doing this.

Michael Nusair (MN): No problem!

TPD: What is the genesis of your love of burgers?

MN: I’ve loved burgers for as long as I can remember. I honestly don’t think there was one single “aha!” moment for me, burgers have just always been something I’ve been into.

I will say that there are a couple of things that really got me to start thinking more seriously about hamburgers, and provided the impetus for Tasty Burgers. The first thing is the blog Serious Eats, and specifically their sub-blog A Hamburger Today. I’ll admit that Tasty Burgers is more than a little bit inspired by that site.

The second thing is George Motz’s great book, Hamburger America. Obviously there are no Canadian burger joints in that book, but it’s well worth a read regardless.

Between that book and that blog, and getting increasingly frustrated with the fact that no one was writing about burgers in Toronto in a way that I deemed satisfactory, Tasty Burgers was born.

TPD: What caused you to settle on the 0-4 omnibus Tyrion scale? As you know, I prefer a more specific set of metrics – I could easily see you considering such a thing at some point in Tastyburger’s history (e.g., 0-4 for the beef; 0-4 for the bun, etc). [Editorial Note: At this point I was under the impression that the images Michael uses for his rating scale were those of Tyrion Lannister.  I was mistaken.]

2-5

MN: I feel like, for the most part, I want the review to speak for itself. I do get a little bit frustrated with the four star rating system sometimes, because, for example, some places I gave three stars to are markedly better than other places that got the same ranking. But not better enough for a 3.5.

If anything, though, I’d change the rating system to something even less specific. Like a Siskel & Ebert style thumbs up or thumbs down. Obviously the more specific scale is working for you, but I honestly have no idea what the difference would be between, say, a hamburger that deserves 8.5 out of 10, and one that deserves 8.6.

TPD: Speaking of your rating scale, why the Dink?

MN: That’s actually Samuel L. Jackson from Pulp Fiction! Hence the name. (“Mmm-hmm, this IS a tasty burger!”)

Speaking of Game of Thrones though, that show and Tasty Burgers are pretty much exactly the same age. Thrones premiered in April of 2011, and I posted my first review in May. Coincidence?? Yes. Yes it is.

[Editorial note: this is very embarrassing for me]

TPD: I noticed you often defer to the restaurant when choosing a burger to rate, ordering their specialty. While this may certainly be a fair way to go about things, do you ever worry you sacrifice some empirical rigor? For instance, the special at each restaurant may be quite different, whereas ordering a plain burger at each would yield more comparable ratings across restaurants.

MN: Yeah, that was definitely on my mind a lot when I first started the blog. My thinking is that I want to review whatever the restaurant feels is their signature item. There have been a few times where I thought that the signature burger was just too heavily condimented, and in those cases I got something simpler. But for the most part I think it’s probably worth sacrificing a little bit of consistency to provide a more generally helpful review; I think more people are going to want the restaurant’s signature burger, and will be looking to see how that tastes.

TPD: Which of the Ten Burger Commandments is most often broken?

MN: A few years ago I would have said the fifth commandment (“Thou shall not mix onions, garlic, breadcrumbs, and/or any kind of spices into your hamburger”), but I feel like Torontonians have slowly realized over the years that all you need to make a great burger is good quality beef. A lot of older places still serve meatloaf burgers, but very few new ones do. Thankfully.

So now I’d say it’s the third one (“Thou shall not use beef that is too lean”). It’s absolutely insane to me how many places get this wrong. I think a lot of places are under the misguided notion that they should make their burgers leaner so that they can be healthier, which is absurd. I also think that a lot of places like to advertise that they make their burgers out of cuts like sirloin, because it sounds fancier, not realizing that sirloin is probably the worst cut of beef to make a burger out of. Juiciness comes from fat. If you make a burger out of lean beef and cook it past medium (which 90% of Toronto burger joints do), it’s going to be dry ten times out of ten. That’s not my opinion, that’s a fact. So it happening so often in Toronto is as upsetting as it is baffling.

TPD: You note the smashed/griddled burger is especially popular right now in the GTA. All else equal, do you prefer a smashed griddled burger or one cooked on an open flame?

MN: I don’t know, they’re both pretty great. I guess I’d say griddled, because it’s so much easier to find a really good griddled burger in the GTA. But there’s something infinitely satisfying about a really thick, juicy, flame-grilled burger made with great quality beef.

TPD: Perfect beverage pairing with a burger?

MN: I tend to order Sprite or 7 Up with the burgers I review, so I’ll say that. But really, any soda will do. A burger, fries, and a soda — is there a finer combination? The answer is no.

TPD: A theme of your reviews is your consistently chiding restaurants for their beef (e.g., the sausage texture of processed meat, overcooking, use of frozen patties, etc). Fresh, non-lean beef, simply prepared seems quite easy to do – why are so many Toronto restaurants failing?

MN: I have no idea! It’s madness to me. It really is. A really good burger is so simple — just get really good quality beef, make sure it is sufficiently fatty (preferably in the ballpark of a 70/30 lean-to-fat ratio, and certainly nothing leaner than 80/20), grind it coarsely without over-handling it, season it with salt and pepper, and then cook it over high heat so a crust forms. That’s it! Don’t mix stupid gunk in there, don’t use lean beef, and certainly don’t use industrially-made frozen patties. This isn’t high-end French cooking. It’s easy enough that every burger joint should be serving a great burger, and yet most don’t. I don’t get it.

TPD: Besides burgers, do you have any other food-related obsessions?

MN: I think I’m just generally obsessed with food. There are few things in life more satisfying than a really great meal.

TPD: Harder to get right, a bowl of pho, or a burger?

MN: I’d say in theory the pho should be harder to get right, but I’ve seen burgers messed up in so many baffling ways that I think I’d have to go with hamburgers. I’ve never had a bowl of pho even close to as bad as the worst burger I’ve eaten. Then again I’ve had maybe a dozen bowls of pho in my life, so I’m probably not the right person to ask.

TPD: Thanks again!

MN: No problem, Jason.

Interview with Debbie Wong from Debbie Wong’s Wok and Gong

Debbie Wong Banner

Interview with Debbie Wong from Debbie Wong’s Wok and Gong
Wednesday, April 30 2014

The Backstory

I met Debbie Wong a long, long time ago. Back when eatvancouver was still a thing and “phodown” a word that had crossed nary a set of lips.

This was back in Vancouver, where Debbie was an actress and culinary professional. Now she’s living in Montreal (but makes frequent trips to mainland China), and has combined her passions into a hit online cooking show. Rare it is that one finds an outlet for all of one’s passions and so I’m absolutely over the moon that Deb’s doing this.

The Interview

Toronto Phodown (TPD): Hi Debbie, thanks for doing this interview.
Debbie Wong’s Wok and Gong(DWWaG): My pleasure!

TPD: I love your Wok and Gong, and I watch every episode. What caused you to conceive of such an idea?
DWWaG: Thanks so much! I appreciate the support. Food and entertainment are both a huge part of my life and who I am. I’ve always felt like they go hand in hand. I am a professional actor and a former professional cook, and for me, it was a natural thing to combine my passions.

TPD: Why a wok and a gong? Isn’t one or another good enough for you?
DWWaG: Debbie Wong’s Wok and Gong was a name that an old friend spouted out while we were cooking together about 10 years ago; and it stuck with me this whole time. For me, the Wok refers to the food, and the Gong is the entertainment; the gong show, if you will. (TPD: I will)

TPD: What’s the biggest challenge in producing an episode?
DWWaG: The intro. We always have to do several takes to get the right tone and energy. It’s the first take, so it’s the warm-up in a way. The rest of the filming is pretty smooth. Also, coming up with recipes that are true to my style, and the Wok and Gong brand.

TPD: You’ve recently introduced a new feature where you infiltrate your friends’ pantries and cook them a dinner with their own food. Are you worried you’ll draw a blank one day and just have to order pizza?
DWWaG: Not really. I truly enjoy the challenge. The idea is that they have a full fridge and pantry, and I’m just offering a new pair of eyes, using their ingredients in a way that they may not have thought of.

TPD: I recently finished a feature on my dining adventures in Hong Kong. What are you favorite tastes from that city?
DWWaG: I love Hong Kong. I’ve only visited a few times, but it’s the place I was born, and has become really close to my heart. It’s truly a crossroads of the world. You can get any kind of food, but my FAV is Cantonese BBQ. HK does it the best. The perfect Char Siu Fan (BBQ pork and rice). I love all food, but simple food done well is my go-to.

TPD: What’s the best pho you’ve ever had?
DWWaG: It’s not exactly a Pho. It’s sort of like a deconstructed Bun. It’s effing amazing and like nothing I’ve had before. It’s the Number 38 at Montreal’s Pho Tay Ho.
Grilled lemongrass pork in that fish sauce/vinegar broth, a pile of rice noodles and a mountain (I kid you not) of Vietnamese herbs—some I’ve only seen at this restaurant. –I’m talking 3 kinds of cilantro, mint, basil, green and purple shiso… I like dipping the noodles in the broth and eating it like a Zaru Soba.

Deconstructed Bun

TPD: What’s next for the Wok and Gong?
DWWaG: World domination. Lol. I would love to film a traveling food series. Debbie Wong’s Travel-along…?

TPD: What’s next for Debbie Wong, in general?
DWWaG: Exciting things. I can feel it. 😉

TPD: Rob Ford is coming home for dinner. What do you cook for him?!
DWWaG: Oh god, I’m thinking he’s not that adventurous… Spaghetti and meatballs?—That’s actually my favorite dish, believe it or not!

TPD: Thanks again Debbie!