Missionaries always Travel

My father was a pastor. He was never a true traveling pastor, although he was moved around several times, but he was never a missionary in the classical sense of the term. What I genetically got from him is the latent necessity to convey whatever passion vibrates inside. On top of that, they got me travelling from age one, increased it a bit by the age of ten and I took it several notches higher once I left the church.

Around the time I started travelling more, I started drinking coffee and began doing it with a fairly watchful tongue. I do not understand why. It seems to me that most individuals start doing something out of necessity, out of influence or out of accidents, but seldom it is began with a critical mind. For some reason I did with coffee. It was perhaps the drastic difference I could not help noticing between a coffee in some US-American coffee spot and the coffee at a Mexican restaurant at Harvard Square. Mexicans do not have any image of being particularly attentive to the quality of a coffee and the nuances one could bring out through careful brewing, but they do have a high culture in the mixing of spices – especially when it comes to the usage of cacao and cinnamon. Either way, they have impressed me – back then in Cambridge, as well as now in Soho. And I might as well be thankful to them for having pushed me to pay attention to coffee from early on.

Year after year I have shifted, started, stopped, varied. I have experimented, have paid attention from various sides, always looking to improve my coffee tasting experience. I have done it at home – always! – and I have done it wherever I find myself in the myriads of shops available and in the many cultures that have ever influenced the way we drink coffee. It has gotten to the point that I have done some extensive traveling for coffee. And visiting Japan is a perfect example. I learned of Yukio Mishima in the early 80s, and even before knowing of him I had been very attentive to the work of Akira Kurosawa. But shortly after the turn of the century I learned from Sekiguchi Ichiro.

As the Germans left Japan in a hurry towards the end of the second world war, the coffee they had bought from Indonesia was left behind, and Sekiguchi was the man to acquire the abandoned coffee. The Café de L’Ambre was born. Sekiguchi roasted daily the coffee he needed and stored for years his raw material. He began buying older harvests from various countries, becoming a collector of old coffee and gaining later recognition for giving way to a new culture – the one of brewing vintage coffee.

Through an article of Ken Belson in the New York times in July 12th 2009, I learned for the first time of Sekiguchi. As a result I contacted Michael Kleindl, who had moved to Japan around the same time I had moved to Boston, and had acquired a taste and experience for good food and coffee in Tokyo. He assured me that old coffee was good. My German colleagues were very skeptical. I had to find out for myself, but the fact that the Japanese master was already ninety-five years of age at this point, made me very nervous about reaching my goal.

Just a couple of months ago I made my decision – I bought a ticket to Japan. I arrived on November 7th at Narita Airport. At 1:00 pm on the following day I met Michael in front of Wako. We stood side by side for about 10 minutes, before I gently called his name, for I thought to recognize his face, but found him to be much taller than the man I had seen in the pictures. Minutes later we exercised my long-awaited entrance, and to the right, quiet with himself, sitting in front of the heated drum and waiting for the right color and the right sound, I clearly recognized Ichiro Sekiguchi.

My friends and many of the individuals I have encountered in my life will clearly testify to my passion around coffee. This manifested itself once more, as I noticed that even my Japanese host, Kyoko, barely 30 hours after knowing me, showed clear interest in coming along with me to Café de L’Ambre. She had never heard of Sekiguchi, she had probably never visited a Kissaten in her mature life, and, on top of that, seemed to know only the usage of hot water on top of instant coffee powder.

It appears to be common practice at Café de L’Ambre that when Sekiguchi and his assistant, Maki Uchida, start roasting, an interested guest might be informed and invited to witness the process. This made the experience sweeter – for Kyoko and for me, too.

With Kyoko at Cafe de L'Ambre, Ginza, Tokyo, Japan / Leica D-Lux 4
With Kyoko at Cafe de L’Ambre, Ginza, Tokyo, Japan / Leica D-Lux 4