Curtis’ stepping stones

Curtis Stone has made his first Los Angeles-based restaurant Maude a success by celebrating just one ingredient each month. Such foods have included zucchinis, plums, cherries, radishes, and apples, to name a few. When BeanScene asks Curtis if coffee has ever made the cut, there’s a slight pause in his response.

“You know what? We haven’t, and I can’t think of a reason why. Coffee is a really good idea. I can’t believe we haven’t discussed it,” he says. “You have to consider whether you can use the ingredient in 10 different courses, and I do think coffee would work – certainly it does in seafood, meat, and dessert dishes.”

For patrons heading to Maude in the next year, keep your eyes peeled for a potential coffee-inspired menu courtesy of BeanScene.

Curtis says the concept of selecting just one ingredient to highlight each month is his way of challenging himself to constantly produce creative and delicious food.

“It forces me to analyse an ingredient and say, ‘what can I do with a grape? How far can I take it? What parts of the plant are edible? Can I dehydrate the juice and turn it into a powder? Can I use the skin, flesh, or seeds? Can I distil it or ferment it?’ As a chef you learn different techniques and apply them to ingredients. For me, that’s quite exciting. It means you never stop learning and trying to figure out new ideas.”

One technique Curtis has happily grown out of is heating milk in a microwave. He admits back in his “junior days” his parents would use the device to heat milk before adding it to some “horrible freeze-dried coffee”.

“That was my first encounter with coffee, back in the 80s,” he says.

The first time he consumed it, though, was when he started working at the Southern Cross Hotel in Melbourne as an apprentice chef at the age of 18.

“Drinking coffee is a ritual chefs do,” Curtis says. “Good food and good drinks go hand in hand. We also work bloody hard and stand on our feet for long hours, so it’s nice to have a bit of caffeine to help you get through the day.”

When Curtis says he drinks “a bit” of coffee, he slightly understates his addiction.

“I’m probably a six or seven cup-a-day guy. I drink it differently all day long. I usually start the day with a cappuccino. My wife [actress Lindsay Price] prefers French press, so sometimes I’ll make that to share. Once I get to work I’ll have a cappuccino, and as the day goes on I drink less and less milk. A macchiato after lunch, a couple of espressos in the afternoon and into the evening – one before we start service and one after the first turn, before the second seating,” he says.

When it comes to identifying good coffee, Curtis is confident in what he likes.

“The roast is important. I don’t like darker roasts where you get those bitter notes. I don’t like it under roasted either. It has to be just right for me,” he says. “I’m lucky to have good baristas around me that constantly educate me. I’m far from a coffee expert but you always know what you like to drink.”

One such barista who has influenced Curtis’s coffee knowledge is 2016 ASCA Pura Latte Art Champion Ben Morrow (see page 58), who flew over to LA to help Curtis introduce St Ali coffee to his new restaurant and butchery, Gwen.

“What a legend he is, a lovely guy,” Curtis says. “He’s super talented, super passionate, a brilliant barista, and understated. I remember on his first day I said to him: ‘I’ve carved out a bit of time. Show me how to make the perfect espresso.’ I thought he’d take maybe 15 minutes, but he talked for about 45 minutes. He’s certainly an encyclopaedia of information.”

Curtis has been working with the St Ali team for the past year. Truthfully, he says he wasn’t necessarily looking to highlight an Aussie roaster in his second restaurant. His approach was to use the best ingredients available – from beef to butter – and apply the same process to coffee.

“It’s a little out of the box for some people when you tell them you’re importing Australian coffee. A lot of people ask: ‘Why Australian coffee? Why not Italian?’ But people who have travelled to Australia understand more about what our coffee culture is all about and appreciate it. We’ve built a great reputation throughout the world, particularly in America,” Curtis says.

To select the perfect coffee, Curtis, his sommelier and wine director – also a tea sommelier – did a blind tasting of coffee samples through French press and espresso.

“We all agreed on our favourite blend. St Ali’s just happened to come out on top of everything we tasted. I had to keep asking myself: ‘Am I just being patriotic or is it truly my favourite?’ And it was,” Curtis says.

Gwen now serves St Ali’s Orthodox blend, two single estates on espresso, and Morgan Estate geisha on filter.

It’s no surprise then to hear that despite Curtis’s extensive travel, the best coffee he’s ever had comes from St Ali in South Melbourne, and now Gwen in LA, of course. “LA’s coffee scene is on the move. It was a difficult place to get a cup of coffee five to 10 years ago. It was all about drip coffee. My biggest complaint from Aussie friends who’d come to visit was about the coffee. Thankfully there are now places that are taking it quite seriously, and hopefully we’re one of them,” he says.

The full article features in the December 2016 edition of BeanScene Magazine.

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Image credit: Gwen’s dining room, courtesy of Ray Kachatorian