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Food Issue - Special effects

A barista, a chef, and a bartender dish on the art of presentation

That moment when the barista hands over your latte topped with an adorable leaf etched in the foam; or when a dish is so attractive you feel compelled to snap a photo and share it with the world ASAP; or when the bartender finishes your cocktail with a citrusy burst of flame over top. These are minor moments for the consumer, brief spurts of joy sprinkled throughout the day. But for the engineers of those moments — the barista, the chef, the bartender — each visual embellishment is the culmination of practice, precision, patience, and technique. To get beneath the frothy surface of latte art we consulted Octane barista Elizabeth Finlon. Chef Jarrett Stieber of Eat Me Speak Me took us behind the scenes of his whimsical food staging. And Gunshow's roving bartender, Mercedes O'Brien, busted out her bar cart to exhibit fire's transformative power over cocktails.

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??Eric Cash???FOAM PARTY: For Octane Coffee barista Elizabeth Finlon, pouring a latte is an art???
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??Eric Cash???FOAM PARTY: For Octane Coffee barista Elizabeth Finlon, pouring a latte is an art???
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??Eric Cash???FOAM PARTY: For Octane Coffee barista Elizabeth Finlon, pouring a latte is an art???
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??Eric Cash???FOAM PARTY: For Octane Coffee barista Elizabeth Finlon, pouring a latte is an art????
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Beverage Beautification



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Professional barista Elizabeth Finlon pours a whole lot of lattes, and she sees each one as a new opportunity to craft a small sippable masterpiece. She has been perfecting her technique for two and half years, first at Carroll Street Café, then at Empire State South, and now at Octane Coffee in Grant Park. At a professional level, the swirled espresso and steamed milk designs atop lattes can range from an elegant leaf known in the biz as a basic rosetta to a foamy rendition of Edvard Munch's "The Scream." The skill is so revered in the coffee world many baristas train for high-profile competitions in which their designs are evaluated for qualities like "contrast between ingredients," "visual foam quality," and more. To the trained eye, latte art technique can be as distinctive as a street artists' signature tag. Finlon, for example, says she can differentiate the trademark wispy curls one of her co-workers has mastered from the intricate line work preferred by another.

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It starts with the espresso — you have to be able to pull a good shot ... you need it to be nice and thick, with good crema. That's what makes the contrast in good latte art. But the most important thing is milk texture, incorporating air into the milk, making sure it's not too foamy, and getting to what we call microfoam, which helps the milk sit in the espresso. Milk temperature is also critical. I've gotten to the point where I can feel the pitcher to tell the temperature, but it's also visual, and you can hear the sound when it's steaming ... you get to where you can tell it's just right. Everyone has their own milk texture that works best for their pour. I tend to like mine a little bit foamier than some people do. I think it tastes better that way.

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We'll typically pull the espresso directly into the glass we'll use for the drink. We steam the milk while the espresso is coming out. Then it's patience. You have to pour slow and in control. You have to be very deliberate, especially when you're pulling the milk back through the design to create the visual.

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Everyone's art looks different. My rosettas are different than my co-workers' ... I tend to have a style, but everyone is unique ... It's a craft that I continue learning. It's constantly evolving and always exciting.

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??Eric Cash???FOOD PORN: How chef Jarrett Stieber of Eat Me Speak Me makes sure his dishes are camera-ready???
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??Eric Cash???FOOD PORN: How chef Jarrett Stieber of Eat Me Speak Me makes sure his dishes are camera-ready???
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??Eric Cash???FOOD PORN: How chef Jarrett Stieber of Eat Me Speak Me makes sure his dishes are camera-ready???
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??Eric Cash???FOOD PORN: How chef Jarrett Stieber of Eat Me Speak Me makes sure his dishes are camera-ready????
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Picasso-esque Plating



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If you've never experienced chef Jarrett Stieber's food IRL, you need only check his Instagram feed (@eatmespeakme) to grasp his uncanny talent for plating beautiful dishes. Imagine scarlet swirls of beet sauce reminiscent of Saturn's rings beneath a slab of silvery crisped trout and deep green okra slices; a gardenscape of edible, pastel-colored flowers over glistening leaves of wilted bok choi. No matter the dish, the visuals Stieber orchestrates at Eat Me Speak Me every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night dazzle and enchant despite the pop-up's über-casual atmosphere. Here the chef discusses the artistic process and how his approach developed over time.

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My style just kind of happened. For a little while I was serving food on wax paper-lined deli baskets and it just seemed kind of funny more than anything to do fancy drop and drag plating in a paper basket. But then the plates became really pretty, and I started feeling disappointed if I didn't make a pretty plate. I kept doing it every week and tried to do at least one or two different things with the sauce work that we hadn't done before, and that's become the style of the food that I do.

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There's color, texture, and shapes to consider. That's the biggest part of conceptualizing the menu every week, making sure the dish has enough interesting stuff going on ... A lot of times, it will have a lot to do with the specific vegetables in the dish, how they look on their own, if they all happen to be long and slender I might do something a little more linear to accentuate that.

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The shape of the plate also kind of dictates what you can do. You have to make sure you can find the right shape and size for a particular dish. A certain bowl might make a portion look huge, another might make it look tiny. You want enough white space, but not too much ... I don't do the tweezer thing. It's indicative of a different style of food that I don't want to cross the line into doing. We want to be joyous and playful at Eat Me Speak Me. We're pretty fast-paced during service in narrow quarters, we've got the hustle bustle, and so I don't want to plate something that's really difficult to walk to the table.

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I find it flattering when someone wants to stop before they take a bite to take a picture. It means you did something right.

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??Eric Cash???FLAME THROWER: Gunshow’s roving bartender Mercedes O’Brien explains how fire can transform a cocktail???
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??Eric Cash???FLAME THROWER: Gunshow’s roving bartender Mercedes O’Brien explains how fire can transform a cocktail???
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??Eric Cash???FLAME THROWER: Gunshow’s roving bartender Mercedes O’Brien explains how fire can transform a cocktail???
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??Eric Cash???FLAME THROWER: Gunshow’s roving bartender Mercedes O’Brien explains how fire can transform a cocktail????
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Embracing the Flame



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At Gunshow, direct interaction between chefs and diners is what makes the experience special. When Mercedes O'Brien joined the staff in January 2014 as Gunshow's first bartender, she knew she had to find ways to make the bar experience as engaging as the food. Using a rolling bar cart at a dim-sum-style restaurant was a no-brainer, but O'Brien also knew she needed specific drinks that would help her connect with the crowd. O'Brien's Toasted Old Fashioned is such a drink, and its signature sweet-smoky-citrus-spice flavor profile owes a great deal to O'Brien's use of a classic bar move — the flaming of an orange peel. Typically bartenders will squeeze a section of citrus rind over a flame to ignite a spritz of essential oil near the surface of a drink. The fireball often attracts oohs and ahhs from spectators, but this is no mere parlor trick. That brief burst imparts a lovely caramelized orange flavor and aroma. O'Brien uses an alcohol-drenched cinnamon stick instead of a match or lighter flame to amp up the Toasted Old Fashioned's flavor and visual impact.

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I got the inspiration from tableside dessert carts of the 1950's, which had the Baked Alaska, aromatic, flamey-thing ... I use the Toasted Old Fashioned to kind of break the ice with the guests. Everyone always loves it and it creates a buzz around the room, too. One person gets it and then the next table already knows they want that.

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My favorite part about making the drink has gotta be the fire, I'm not going to lie. You don't want it to be too smoky, or to incinerate the drink. The cinnamon stick is soaked in bourbon, coated in sugar, left to rest overnight. Then we top it with Lemon Hart 151 basically, light that, and let it cook. Once I see the caramelization starting to happen, I'll spray the zest over the flaming cinnamon stick, which makes the flame much bigger. The citrus oil provides the aromatics, and it also clings to the cinnamon stick rather than going right into the glass. The stick then drops into the drink.

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We don't want to burn the cinnamon, or overcoat it in sugar, which would make it too sweet. And you have to know when to put out the flame at the right time – the nose knows. I can smell the aromatics and know when to blow it out.

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There's always an element of danger when working with fire in close proximity to guests. I've never — knock on wood — lit anyone on fire. Sometimes a burning cinnamon stick will start to roll off the glass, but nothing has ever hit the floor yet. I sometimes have to caution people not to grab the flaming cocktail or drink it while it's still on fire.

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Interviews have been edited and condensed.



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