New Zealand barista and MasterChef winner Sam Low on bridging the specialty coffee world with consumers

Sam Low

Sam Low talks about his hospitality adventures, why it’s important for him to bring greater consumer awareness to specialty coffee, and how that goal aligns with being a De’Longhi brand ambassador.

As the Scottish poet Robert Burns inferred in his line “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men, gang aft a-gley”, no matter how carefully we plan our lives, we can’t predict the events that will change them. The coronavirus pandemic has been an unpredictable and life-changing disruption for many people. For Sam Low it meant not going to Italy to study at the Gastronomic Science Institute of Slow Food in 2020 as he was supposed to.

“I had been accepted on a food scholarship which was a really big deal – chef David Chang [who founded Momofuku] was going to be one of the lecturers – and I was suitably excited, but COVID happened,” explains Sam. “Instead, I found myself in Melbourne in lockdown, kind of lost. So, I decided to go back home.”

Home for Sam is Auckland, New Zealand. And as the saying goes, when one door closes, another opens. While in hotel quarantine, Sam had some unique culinary inspiration.

“I had the idea to re-plate all the food that I received at the hotel doorstop, and turn it into fine dining,” says Sam. “I wanted to create a positive story and use my time in a fun, constructive way whilst in quarantine. When I shared the pictures on Instagram I guess it resonated with people.”

One of those people was New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinta Ardern.

“When the Prime Minister re-grammed one of my posts, the whole journey went viral and it became a bigger news story,” Sam says. “Which wasn’t my intention but was a happy outcome, because it gave me the opportunity to be under the radar of different brands, including De’Longhi who approached me to be brand ambassador.”

Those in the antipodean specialty coffee scene are likely to be familiar with Sam. Prior to his success in food media, he was a well-known barista – he has won both the New Zealand Barista and Latte Art Championships – and coffee trainer, having worked with the esteemed Code Black coffee in Melbourne. Yet his foray into gastronomy has led to a wider audience, ironically since his plans were disrupted by the pandemic lockdowns.

“During lockdown in Auckland I was just cooking every day and Instagramming my meals and people were loving it,” Sam describes. “And when the lockdown ended, opportunity came, including casting calls for MasterChef New Zealand.”

While Sam cites MasterChef as the “hardest thing I’ve ever done”, he is now a household name thanks to winning the competition in 2022.

“The whole time I was focusing on trying to promote my cultural heritage. On telling a story of my lived experience through food. Who knew that was good enough to win a national reality TV cooking competition?” he reflects. “And coffee was a huge part of that. In fact, it’s a combination of everything I’ve done in my career, the developed palate, precision, and dedication I learned from the coffee industry, my cultural background and learnings in Chinese gastronomy, in addition to building a social media presence and becoming more comfortable with mainstream media. All that culmination of experience was instrumental to my success on the show.”

Sam now has the influence to impact a larger population – a position he views as both a privilege and a responsibility, as well as one that aligns perfectly with being a De’Longhi brand ambassador.

“It’s about doing something beneficial for a broader community. With De’Longhi I feel it’s like a perfect marriage because we share a similar vision and ethos,” Sam enthuses. “And that’s about bridging the professional scene with the everyday and domestic.”

Sam points out that competitions such as MasterChef and the World Barista Championships – which require finalists to bring new concepts and innovations to the highest level and form in the industry – have a “trickle-down effect” on consumer behaviours.

“For example,10 years ago you wouldn’t find single origin on the supermarket shelf, but now you can find single origin quite easily, and that’s these influences on the world stage having a larger impact later down the line,” he elaborates. “So, for me, being part of a brand that is in most people’s households and is approachable and accessible, extends that ability to connect the higher end of the specialty coffee world to consumers.”

Sam points out that it’s consumers that make up the largest numbers when it comes to coffee consumption, and therefore can have the greatest impact on the specialty coffee supply chain.

“By bringing awareness to better coffee you’re doing better for everyone involved. Having traceable coffees and domestic machines that help aid the flavours of origin can connect those dots, because good coffee is more than just ingredients,” Sam expands. “It encompasses a whole story of flavour, of community, of livelihoods. And being part of that narrative is very important.”

Importantly, Sam admires how De’Longhi’s innovations are in line with consumer trends, such as its new Eletta Explore automatic machine which has a unique cold-milk frothing technology for iced coffee creations, or the ‘espresso cool’ function on the La Specialista Maestro Cool that produces a ‘cold espresso’ as well as the ability to make cold brew coffee in under five minutes.

“If you look at the coffee-based content on TikTok and Instagram that is popular, it is largely Starbucks-style iced coffee creations like choco-mocha-latte and such. Or it’s coffee cocktails,” says Sam. “And I appreciate how De’Longhi thinks about these coffee consumers and creates inclusivity, because if you’re just focused on espresso and that high level scene, you’re potentially being a bit of snobbish and closing off an entire new generation of coffee drinkers.”

While Sam believes there is a place for “highbrow coffee” in the domestic market, he reiterates that it is better for the industry as a whole to make coffee more accessible.

“I’m of the mindset that we should encourage people to have fun with making good coffee and good milk. Because that will make the bean to cup process more digestible and ultimately better understood. Which stands to benefit a much wider network of people,” Sam concludes.

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