Scott Cameron, a nerdy ex-somm, martial artist and hyper-conscious citizen, talks about his transition from the opulent world of fine dining to the more casual one of caffeination. He also clues us in on the struggles of running a small business and how he finds balance through meditation and giving back to his community.
Scott is a relentlessly curious human who enjoys taking the ordinary and encouraging it into a realm of its own genius. The production of both wine and coffee take this concept and illustrate it perfectly. They each begin with an agricultural product and find ways to elevate it to something highly revered. He spent years in the world of wine, studying (at one time considering taking the exam for Master Sommelier), traveling, tasting and, most innately for him, asking a LOT of questions. Through his restaurant career, he has worked with some of the most creative and market-driving programs in NYC – including with Matthew Lightner at Atera, Batali/Bastinanich at Babbo and Andrew Carmellini at The Dutch. This culminated a few years ago when he was offered a position that would have given him one of the most prestigious titles in the industry – overseeing the global beverage program for Jean-Georges Restaurants. He chose instead to pivot and now runs his coffee shop, Charter, out of a small space in Williamsburg, striving, in a new way, towards excellence.
On the state of the restaurant industry
The restaurant industry has changed so much. In a very general sense, it has become less about passion and obsession for producing something great – and through that process making people happy. It’s become almost entirely about visual production – more like the movie industry or the fashion industry. I always cared more about great food and making people feel good. There is also a lot of waste in the industry that is hard for me.
I can also say this – at the pinnacle of wine and restaurant service you only serve the one or two percenters. You have to think about what you’re really doing for the world in that scenario. As coffee and tea are things that nearly everyone can afford and enjoy, I now have the opportunity to create something that can be as profound as a great glass of wine but that is far more accessible.
On the coffee life
The trouble with the coffee life, though, is the margins. Even if I do everything perfectly, I walk away with 15 cents on the dollar. That’s a general rule of any food/beverage establishment, but in a business where the average check is $5-6 per person, you rely on volume. The crux is how much volume can you expect when perfection is a goal? The answer for me is to be more self-sufficient. I think that’s going to have to be a model for all small shops in the future. If we are to survive, we’ll need to vertically integrate. And by survive, I don’t mean merely to exist in one space for ten years. I mean so we can pay our people properly and make a profit – and hopefully to be able to do something positive outside the shop too.
On finding balance in a hectic industry
There are two things that keep me grounded and able to continue seeing the purpose in my work: inner reflection through meditation and outer service by focusing on how I can give back to my community. I train martial arts at the USA Shaolin Temple, which teaches a philosophy that is focused on what my teacher calls “action meditation.” It’s a Buddhist practice where the physical and the philosophy are inseparable. You can’t fully understand the philosophy without doing the action. Going through the motions of the action doesn’t guarantee you’ll understand the philosophy, though. This practice helps me treat everything in life and work as a meditation. Training regularly also helps me accept my flaws and find balance and perspective. It’s been a huge asset for seeing myself through challenging situations, including the decision to move out of restaurants.
On making an impact
Even after my disenchantment with the restaurant industry, it still makes me excited to go to work every day to see someone walk out with a smile. It’s so rewarding. Part of my push to become fully financially sustainable inside the shop is to be able to make an impact externally. I’ve just started roasting my own beans so that I can choose to source beans from specific farms. I’m going to be targeting countries where we can help with educating on the reduction of waste and becoming carbon negative. Fortunately, the carbon neg thing is supported by a lot of companies connected to the coffee industry. There is one importer of green coffee in particular that I just learned about and their whole mission is to be not just carbon neutral, but carbon negative. Every time they make money with someone’s product they go back and look at analytics and try to show that farm how to become less and less wasteful and reduce their footprint. We would like to be a part of that movement, to make a difference instead of just being a part of consumption.
From a local standpoint, I am working on making all food in-house, including baking. I just started roasting a few months ago. Part of my service to my customers is to be diligent in knowing everything about the companies I source from: bread, tea, packaging, everything. I need to know who they are, what they do and how they spend their money. As honest as I’ve always tried to make that process, there was always a limitation. With full integration, everything that I source can be sustainable and as equally profitable across realms as possible. I can be as un-politically connected as I can – or at least as correctly political. With intention in all aspects.
I have also started a mentoring program with a kid from our neighborhood, kind of a stage where he comes in once a week and I educate him on coffee. It is an attempt to build an opportunity for him in this industry like a skill or a trade. It’s something I look forward to doing more in the future. Hopefully with a proper program behind it!
On making the perfect cup of coffee
From a production standpoint, there’s a dehydration period after harvest and after pulping – which is where they remove the beans from the cherry. The green beans need to be dried evenly, which can be a challenge. They have to pulp the beans all at one time and then deal with them quickly, which can make evenly drying difficult. There can be similar issues with the timing of grape harvests.
After dehydration, storage can affect quality. These days beans are not often stored incorrectly, but historically bagging has been a big problem. The old burlap (or joot) sacks would let in aromas, moisture, mold, etc. Beans can be heavily affected by their environment, especially during shipping, by heat and humidity. They can also be tainted by what they are shipped with, from other beans to produce or just by being around moldy or dirty things. Nowadays the joot sack is still used for its aesthetics, but the beans are stored inside of an inert, sterile bag sealed inside the joot.
Finally, the last step, assuming roasting and shipping have been done with the proper quality and skill, is brewing. Everything can be perfect at every other stage and the person making the cup can still fuck it all up. There is a basic formula, but you have to respect what’s in front of you.
Why baristas are like cooks
I’ve heard people, even baristas that have been doing it for years, relate themselves to oenologists. No, you’re not a fucking oenologist. If anything, you are a chef – a cook! You are cooking something for each and every guest. Often the issue is over or under extraction and you’re looking for that sweet spot in the middle. What is the coffee telling you? Is it sour? Then it’s under. If it’s bitter, then it’s over. Like with cooking, if you’re not tasting your ingredients, you are not educating yourself. And it’s about being able to taste that coffee and then doing whatever you need to do to make it taste its best.
On his philosophy of service
Your depth of knowledge means absolutely nothing in actual service. Who fucking cares? What you should be doing is taking that knowledge, applying it to the product that you have, using your expertise to get the best quality and to read your customers’ needs. It’s never about how much I can talk about my product or the subject matter of my ‘expertise.’ I prefer to keep it clean and unassuming.
On parallels of flavor and structure – coffee vs. wine
I’d give them a natural. The thing about a naturally processed coffee is that it kind of slaps you in the face just like a big Cali Cab does. I’d probably go something like Central or South American that is natural because those coffees typically have bigger bodies fitting for someone who is a California Cab fan. Final answer: natural coffee from somewhere like Columbia – a great region like Huila.
Ooh. Sancerre I’d go Kenya all the way for coffee. It’s really intense and bright. There are many levels to Kenyan coffee but some of them are more sour and bright like cranberry and grapefruit. In a general sense, I would say Kenyan, but you could also get more specific – down to a single farm and a single clone like SL38. I would also offer a first flush Darjeeling tea. It has this really intense characteristic of muscat grapes and rose petals, which may seem more like a Gewürztraminer, but it is very aromatic like a Sauvignon Blanc.
When I think of red Burgundy, I think of shit and cherries. Which is intriguing and at the same time, off-putting. There are two things I would offer. I’ve been really into a clone in Kenya that is more rounded and full – meaty – called SL28. More wild blue rounded fruit than fat and sour and over intense. My other thought is top quality Papua New Guinea. One thing I love about a solid Papua New Guinea coffee is that it presents the structure – and by structure, I mean acidity – of an Ethiopian coffee with the body of something you find more often in Central America, like the body of a Guatemalan and the acidity of an Ethiopian. A great Burgundy is a moderate body wine. It can be so mouth-filling but also bright and lifted.
For white Burgundy, I don’t think there’s any comparable coffee. The best thing to associate with a white Burgundy would be a great Japanese tea. It would never have the acidity, but it can have this nutty savory characteristic to it with some appropriate ageing.
An Alaskan-New Yorker, Raven Adrian is an adult with a propensity to play. She is driven by all things that inspire laughter and curiosity which brings her very naturally to a career in wine and hospitality. She is a Certified Sommelier (CMS) and has spent 18 years knee-deep in the restaurant industry of NYC. Raven is a currently part of the sales team at Golden Ram Imports. You can follow her on instagram @grapenutter.