Category: Memories


Crazy Ones

October 5, 2011.  It’s a day that will likely be forgotten by many, yet remembered by most for years to come.  It’s a day that no matter how much we were not thinking about it, we all anticipated.  Steven Paul Jobs passed away.  We all knew, when he resigned in August 2011 as CEO of the company he co-founded and loved, the end was near.  While many are likely burnt out of the 24/7 coverage of one man’s life and his contributions to the way we think, live, and communicate, I’ve been reflecting on what his man has meant to us who knowingly, or unknowingly, use his and his company’s inventions every day.  I think beyond Steve and Apple’s core innovate soul and spirit, is a man who can clearly see very clearly, the difference between what is good and what is insanely great.  He is a man who knows no fences and walls in creating something truly beautiful and yet truly functional.  While many ride down the river of complacency for the sake of increasing shareholder value [RIM, I’m talking to you specifically], Steve was known publicly as a person who regularly browbeats his team for what everyone else would say is impossible.  And yet, through no love for him, I’m sure, his team always delivered, even if the public didn’t always embrace their products completely [insert Apple III, Lisa, the Newton, Cube, Apple printers to just list a few].  But even with these failures, there was never any submission to mediocrity.

With remarks like “You’ve baked a really lovely cake, but then you’ve used dog shit for frosting” [His comment to a NeXT programmer], it’s clear that Steve isn’t the most nurturing individual in the office.  He’s never going to win “best caring manager” in the world.  But it’s this constant knowledge that it can be better.  It has to be better.  That’s the drive that only he knows and can live by.  Many, I am sure, will say that 80% is good enough.  The other 20% is not worth the time and money to reach there.  But Steve was after the insanely great.  It was clear, that he was the crazy one of the bunch when Silicon Valley wasn’t even known as Silicon Valley.  Maybe at one point, he wanted to win the PC war.  But even he admitted, Microsoft won: “The PC wars are over. Done. Microsoft won a long time ago.”

You know, when you’re young, being foolish isn’t so foolish.  We never understood how our parents’ generation can work at the same company for 40 years only to get a gold watch at the end of the rainbow.  Steve made this comment when he was 29:  “We’re gambling on our vision, and we would rather do that than make “me too” products. Let some other companies do that. For us, it’s always the next dream.”  That dream didn’t end when he turned 30.  Or 40.  Or 50.  While many of us are happy to just have a job in 2011 [as we should], Steve was and had been dreaming of products that can be both beautiful and technological.  Of course, Steve had more money than he knew what to do with and one can argue that it’s easy to dream when you’re a billionaire.  And while that’s true, we shouldn’t compare our dreams to his.  In his famous 2005 commencement speech at Stanford, he never said that the graduates should be like him.  He never said that they ought to try and be the richest man/woman in America.  He just wanted them to dream.  To live the life they were meant to live, rather than listen to the “noise” of what society tells them they ought to do.  And that’s what made Steve so crazy.  In a time when CEO’s ought to increase shareholder value, he sunk his time and money into the Macintosh rather than milk the Apple II for as long as he could.  Instead of consolidating the core Macintosh products when he returned in the 1990s, he scrapped it all and gave us the colorful iMacs.  And instead of giving us a phone with more buttons and functions than we know what to do with it, he gave us a beautiful device with one button and an intuitive way of using our finger as the stylus.

Here’s to the crazy ones.  In this case, the crazy one.  I don’t think we should be like Steve in all the things he represented, but we can follow his lead on dreaming big for our lives.  Whatever that is.  And we ought to live our lives and not someone else’s.  While that may not be as simple as 1-2-3, it all starts with a step.  And lastly, in the words of Steve: “I think if you do something and it turns out pretty good, then you should go do something else wonderful, not dwell on it for too long. Just figure out what’s next.”

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This isn’t about pho.  Well, indirectly, this entry was inspired by my recent experience with pho.  So the picture above says it all.  A bow of pho.  A plate of herbs.  Sriracha.  Wait.  Pump the brakes.  Back up to the herbs.  You see those 2 wedges of limes?  Those beautiful wedges of limes is what makes the broth sing.  Don’t get me wrong, the broth itself is already sexy.  But those limes?  They make the broth red carpet sexy.

But what I’ve noticed over the last year is that when the price of limes go up, the pho shops EVERYWHERE demote this very special ingredient to lemons.  LEMONS????  I mean, do they think I’m not paying attention here?  I recently went to a Vietnamese pho place and not only did they serve lemons instead of limes, they took away other condiments on another dish.  I mean, don’t take it out on your customers people.  It’s not our fault the limes are more expensive.  It’s not our fault you put the price of a bowl of pho at $5.  But don’t think I’m not watching.

I know some of you out there, you think I’m just being dramatic.  I mean, limes, lemons, they’re both citrus right?  It’s the same, right?  Well, it’s not.  It’s not the same.  The tartness of the lime is what accentuates the broth.  The lemons is like a bad substitute, like baking a cake with Equal.  It’s like telling yourself that the tofu cake you’re eating is really cake.  It’s like a vegan telling me that the tofu chicken I’m eating is chicken.  Well, IT AIN’T.  But that’s what so frustrating about these places.  The limes go up $0.10 a pound and we get lemons.  What are we going to get when the price of chickens go up?  Oh yea, LESS CHICKEN!!!  And what about beef?  Yea, that’s right, LESS BEEF!!!  Now you’re getting the picture.  It’s less of whatever the price is rising.  Or substitute it for something else, that’s kind of similar, but it really isn’t.  Can you imagine going to Panda Express and getting your fix of their Orange Chicken, but instead of using orange [or whatever flavoring substitute they use], they use tangerines?  But they still call it, Orange Chicken?  See, you don’t think you can tell.  But you can.  That’s the beauty of our taste buds as it interacts with our memory.  We remember.  We remember the first time we ate a great burger.  We know what that burger taste like.  You substitute that ground beef with ground turkey, no matter how much the other stuff stay the same, it’s not the same burger.  It’s just different.  And something’s just a little off.

Renewal

It’s been 2 months to the day since my last post.  Time seem to fly with every day life, but then, time seemed to stand still because of it.  No inspiration from the drab dining experiences behind the Orange Curtain and feeling flaccid in any attempt to call upon any muse for something magical.  Then, there’s nothing better to feel a sense of renewal in prose than to be inspired by things that are beyond the everyday.  During our vacation up north, we experienced a lot.  And to be sure, it reaffirmed what I have been pontificating and standing on a soapbox about for many, many posts now.  There truly is nothing less spectacular in our eateries in South Orange County than your average chain restaurants.  Even those we do like sometimes feel overused and over visited.  And yet, we seem OK with that.  We seem OK continuing to get our bagels at Panera Bread and Corner Bakery when we should be demanding the simplest things to come down here, like Noah’s Bagels.  We should be wondering why places like Redd and Cyrus would likely get less customers and attention than a BJ’s or Islands.  But we don’t.  I guess in many ways, we’ve come to expect nothing less than mediocre from our senses as we devour another pizookie.

And yet, when we were in the Bay Area, we truly experienced some places that are magical.  More magical than Providence.  More magical than Mastros.  Places like Redd, Cyrus, Bouchon, Incanto are just a few places we let our sense of taste be released from the dreary and the mundane.  Places like Gott’s, Oxbow Market, and the 1 Ferry Building remind us of how a good public market doesn’t need to serve Baja Fresh and Panda Express.  I had to take a break from my own rule of no more taking pictures of our food during our vacation because the food we were eating were so damn good.

We were surround by great friends and family during our week there and it was those times that stick out, even more than the food we consumed.  But the food, as simple as strawberries from local farmers that tasted like candy it was so sweet, added a dimension to our vacation that we will not soon forget.  It will be tough to come back to the reality of BJ’s and Islands, but we can always draw upon our memories to  remembers that we are not prisoners of our own culinary demise.  We don’t have to settle for mediocre.  We just need to search out something better with vigor and perseverance.

Dai pai dong.  Big license plate stall of goodness and cheap eats.  Where it used to be a ubiquitous sight in Hong Kong and Kowloon, these culturally rich fabric of Hong Kong is slowly and surely dying or moving indoors.  When I think of these food stalls, I think of my childhood where we would love to get the yau tieu’s [fried Chinese donuts, although they look nothing like it and they’re savory, not sweet] and congee.  Wonton noodles, rice noodles were other items we would get.

The rich history of these food stalls cannot go unnoticed.  After World War II, the Hong Kong government gave out ad hoc food licenses to injured civil servants so they can make a living.  These licenses had to be visible in public, and since they were food stalls, they were big.  Thus, the big license stalls.  Dai pai dong.  From there, the popularity and the quality of of food just took off.  But because of the amount of dai pai dongs sprouting, it was causing pedestrian and traffic congestion.  Additionally, because owners of these stalls started to “lease” their space out in the black market, the HK government no longer issued these licenses after 1956.  The licenses could no longer be inherited so if the owner passed away, it could only be transferred to their spouses.  If they didn’t have a spouse, the license would expire at the time of death of the owner.  Since 1983, the HK government, in order to promote healthier hygiene, began to buy back these licenses and push these stalls in doors in what could only be described as food courts.  Since the licenses could not be passed down, the owners were glad to be compensated in this way.  The number of dai pai dongs have drastically decreased over the years, much to the chagrin of people like myself.  Were they the safest place to eat food?  Probably not, but they certainly cranked out some of the best the city of Hong Kong had to offer.

It’s a rich food heritage that has come to a slow death in Hong Kong.  It wasn’t just a place to eat for millions of people.  It was a place where one might make their early morning stop to get a milk tea, a place where impoverished families could still go and get a decent meal for cheap.  A place where lower income couples could have their dates while whispering their sweet nothings to each other over a bowl of rice noodles.  But as most things in life, we learn to move on and change.  And while it lasted, the dai pai dong was good to the people of Hong Kong.  It became integrated in their every day lives as they provided meals for hungry souls in the city of fragrant harbor.

Reinterpretation

I’ve never been to the French Laundry.  I’ve never been to Per Se.  The closest to those restaurants I’ve been to is Providence here in Los Angeles, where the food is both playful [a dessert offering paying homage to a Seinfeld episode called “These Pretzels Are Making Me Thirsty”] and exquisite.  I am not at all trying to compare Providence to either of Thomas Keller‘s restaurant, but I think it is important to take comfort foods to a new level where we can experience something new.  Something so American, such as macaroni and cheese, can be reinterpreted to a higher level as Thomas Keller does at Per Se.  The picture above is his interpretation of macaroni and cheese.  A butter poached Nova Scotia lobster tail served over creamy lobster broth and mascarpone enriched orzo topped with a parmesan crisp.

I know a lot of people take offense when people like me say cooking can be considered an art form.  People might say, “It’s food for crying out loud!!!”  But like many art forms, you can reinterpret something that is so familiar to you that it creates a new experience.  To me, that’s part of art.  It’s part of what artists go through to interpret, and at times, reinterpret their surroundings and even their own experiences.  And it’s this reinterpretation of a classic American dish that allows someone like Thomas Keller to be inspired by something of the past to take the diner to a new place.  As he says during an interview with Charlie Rose:

People often ask, what inspires you?  Well, you can’t really say what’s going to inspire you in the future, but you can talk about stories of what inspires you in the past.

We don’t want to live in the past, where mac and cheese is done a certain way and there’s no changing it.  But there’s importance and artfulness in trying to transcend a dish that is so basic to something quite extraordinary.  While these new interpretations won’t evoke childhood memories perhaps, it is the same childhood memories that allow chefs like Thomas Keller to reach for the stars as we ride happily along with him.  We don’t all have to cook like Thomas Keller to imagine the possibilities of creating a new dish from an old dish.  It takes iterations to get the flavors right and balanced.  We don’t have to have lobster tail or mascarpone enriched orzo, but we do need some imagination and some adventure in our way of eating.  As Eric Ripert said during an interview for PlumTV.com, a dish normally take about 4 weeks from conception to bringing it on the menu.  We don’t have to go to French Laundry or Per Se to experience food in a new way.  We just have to be open to new experiences.  Sometimes they work out beautifully, and sometimes we wonder why we tried at all.  But life is not about going to Red Lobster every Friday night because that’s what you’ve done for the last 20-30 years.  Life is full of experiences and one can start by venturing out to something new.  It will be worth it in the end.  We may never look at macaroni and cheese the same ever again.

I can still hear my friends and family telling us before we went on our trip to Italy a couple of years ago, “You are going to have the most amazing food in Italy!”  Logically speaking, I thought that was obvious.  I mean, how bad can Italian food be in Italy?  For those who have traveled or lived there, you know there is good Italian food and then there is horrific Italian food.  All can be found all over Italy.  In particular, we found the good, bad, and ugly in Rome.  We realized, even though not quickly enough, if the menu of the restaurant came in English, it would be horrific.  Bad pasta, bad seasoning, poor products, and generally, it’s to rip off pour tourists like ourselves.  As I wrote in another post, some of the worse pizza I have ever had was in Rome.  And yet, a place like Dar Poeta, one of the best pizzas I’ve had, can be found just on the other side of the city.

One place that we stumbled upon that turned out to be an amazing restaurant is right around the corner from the Colosseum.  Very close, in fact, to the church St. Peter In Chains [San Pietro in Vincoli] along Via Del Fangutale in the Piazza di San Pietro in Vincoli .  Along Via Cavour resides a restaurant that blends in well with the surrounding architecture and a little nondescript.  But we read about this restaurant in our guidebook and decided to take a chance, even though the menu was all in Italian and the people in the restaurant did not speak English.  Adjusting to the “laid” back life of Italy was tough, waiting for someone to finally come around to take our order after about 15-20 minutes seemed like an eternity.  And yet, I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s how the rest of the world lives, and only in America do we expect instant service.  In many ways, we responded to this foreign restaurant like many Americans, ordering something familiar.  We ordered a vegetarian lasagne and a plate of mixed meats [salami, ham, etc] and cheeses.  What we got was truly sublime.  The lasagne was truly homemade and the flavors were both delicate and robust at the same time.  The photos below were taken during the days when I would still snap photos of food [back in 2008], so I get to share them here:

Beyond those dishes, were the desserts.  The homemade pistachio gelato and nougat with chocolate sauce was truly beyond reproach.  Never had I had ice cream, much less gelato, with cracked black pepper right on top.  It sounds weird and maybe even disgusting to put pepper on desserts, but as my friend once told me, “When the chef puts cracked black pepper on ice cream, he’s almost daring you to eat it.”  And dare we did and we were rewarded with the most amazing pistachio gelato I have ever had, still to this day.  Yes, these superlatives are well warranted and although it may appear that I’m merely exaggerating to make a point, I am not.  It was truly that good.

And so we learned another lesson in traveling and eating, especially in Italy.  If you see items in English, just walk away.  Find places where they only have menu items in Italian.  We were rewarded time and time again when we followed that golden rule.  From a trattoria in Florence, to Cavour 313 and Dar Poeta in Rome, and a typical Tuscan restaurant in the small medieval village of Bibbona, we never left angry or feeling duped.  I would never tell anyone to not be a tourist when you travel, because that’s part of the reason why people go to places like Rome and Florence.  To see the Sistine Chapel, to see the Colosseum, and to walk across the Ponte Vecchio.  But with food, I feel that’s where we can be more like the locals.  We ought to really try things that truly IS foreign to us, even if that might mean we just plopped down $60 for 2 for a dud.  But what this experience has taught us is that the duds are far and few between than plopping down $40 for 2 for the crappiest pizza on this planet in Rome because the menu is in English.

For those who know me, you know where I stand on proper English high tea.  It’s one of the most colonial and traditional ways to spend an afternoon – sipping English teas and eating finger sandwiches and scones.  And yet, there is something so homey and English about having Afternoon Tea at the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong.  I don’t know that it’s the best afternoon tea in Hong Kong, but it’s one of the oldest and one of the most sought after locations by tourists and locals alike.  This east meets west collides right along the Victoria Harbor, where the hotel has become one of the worlds most famous.

When you look beyond the classic “Peninsula green” color that is the signature of the hotel, the magnificent lobby, the luxurious shopping arcade, and the quartet playing high above in the balcony, lies a deeper story of colonization of the British.  The British, by all accounts, had a tremendous profitable trading partner in China in the 1700’s.  With China’s insatiable appetite for silver, Britain was feeling the pressure of supplying silver by purchasing it through other European countries.  When that appetite continued to grow quicker than the supply, Britain turned to opium, a poppy when cultivated, was used as a type of medical morphine.  In large doses and especially through smoking the poppy, it is an hallucinogenic drug.   China would ban the import of opium because its citizens became hooked on it as the main drug of its day.  And thus, the two Opium Wars came about between China and Britain.  We all know how that ended for China – it ceded Hong Kong Island first in 1845, then Kowloon peninsula in 1860.  For the next 137 years since the cessation of Kowloon, Hong Kong would become a financial center of Asia, an asylum of sorts for the Chinese fleeing Mao and Communism in 1949, and where Oriental and Occidental became one.  At least in a governing sense.

With the British sovereign rule came cross cultural blending where east not only meets west, but both started to fuse into one another.  And none of that became more evident then the British lifestyle – clothes, makeup, capitalism, ideas, and of course, food.  Afternoon teas were introduced and people in Hong Kong not only embraced English style tea [with milk and sugar], but they would, over the years, perfect a variation of their own English tea [with condensed milk and sugar through strained steeped black tea leaves].  Here at the Peninsula Hotel, is a world where the English clearly became the forefront from its colonization of a tiny part of China, and turned it into one of the most dynamic and multi-cultural cities in the world.  And yet, when you step inside the hotel, you are transported back to the 1930s and 1940s, where you can still hear the sound of old money in the lobby, talking about life, art, the economy, and the future, all through drinks and food.

When Britain finally handed Hong Kong and Kowloon back to China on July 1, 1997, I think we all feared the worst.  What will happen to this dynamic city where the west has so immersed itself into the culture of the east?  After 13 years, the Peninsula Hotel continues to be a vibrant landmark in Hong Kong, where important dignitaries, celebrities, and wealthy travelers stay as a way to experience something so European in a country so Chinese.  But then again, we’re talking about Hong Kong, where locals drink English tea in the morning, eat congee for breakfast, and have afternoon teas in the afternoon.  It’s a way of life that is still dear in its heart. The colony of Britain, for 137 years, has not changed much in the way of its roots.  One can only hope that the Peninsula Hotel continues to breathe its English history each and every day, while serving its magnificent afternoon teas to all.

East Meets West

It hasn’t always been the case.  There was a time when I didn’t really enjoy going back to Hong Kong, where I was born.  Most of it is because after a few days, I get really bored.  Now that I’m older and definitely more to be nostalgic about, I really enjoy going back.  Of course one of the things that I enjoy about Hong Kong now, are the reasons I never really thought was all that unique.  Hong Kong, at its core, is as Chinese as any city in China.  But what makes it so unique is not that it is a thriving metropolitan financial behemoth, which in itself would have been enough to visit and write about.  It’s that it was a British colony for over 100 years.  Trade wars, opium wars, and being subjects to Britain’s monarchy has made this singular city an intersection where Occidental collided with Oriental.  And none of that comes through as well as the food.  With its foundation set on Chinese cuisines, Hong Kong has embraced the European expats in the way they have infused its own spin in its foods.  And let’s not forget Thai, Malaysian, Indonesian, etc. on top of about 20 other provincial Chinese cuisines.  And what you have is not just a monotonic way of cooking and eating food here in the Big Lychee.

Places like Cafe de Coral are what people in Hong Kong live on.  It’s good, cheap, and the menu is always changing, if only a bit.  At any given point during the day, it will be packed with people from tourists who want a break or Hong Kong lifers who want the same.  It’s a typical cafeteria where you walk in and look at the menu on the wall, walk up to the cashier, order, and at the end of the line, pick up your food and try you hardest to find an empty table.  If you’re queasy about sharing a table with a complete stranger, this probably isn’t the place for you.  But there’s something comforting for me, to go in to a place like Cafe de Coral and order something very Chinese, like sausage and rice in a clay pot, and then order a Hong Kong style milk tea.   Or baked Portuguese pork chop rice and a lemon ice tea.  It’s the East meets West all in one meal.

There’s nothing like that here.  At least not an East meets West kind of food experience.  Here, we have more a South meets North, like a Baja Fresh or Rubios, where Mexican street food meets an American twist.  We do have some Hong Kong style western restaurants here, but it’s not very Cafe de Coral like.  I keep wondering if they will open one here, because it would be crazier than a Kogi truck.  I can’t wait to visit Singapore again one day, where food has become so integrated between the different Asian cultures that it has created is very own Singaporean cuisine.  I can’t wait to go back to Hong Kong again, where I get to try all different kinds of East meets West foods again.

Coffee is one of those beverages that people digress about, talk about, debate over, and really, just plain love.  I don’t know if that’s because Starbucks has gotten all of us to think and drink coffee twenty four seven, but a “hot cup of coffee with a good book on a rainy day is bliss”, a lot of people declare.  I know people who roast their own coffee because it’s better tasting.  To them, I say, “I am not worthy.”

We discovered Lavazza, the Italian coffee maker, while vacationing in Italy.  To me, it’s got the right amount of bitterness, roast, taste, and aroma.  Lavazza is tough to get here in the States at a grocery store, where I still feel that it is dominated by crappy instant coffee like Folgers.  Some are getting upscale and stocking Starbucks whole beans, but even that is not Lavazza to me.  Lavazza is more of an experience.  The experience of sitting at our friends’ balcony at their Tuscan flat along the coast in July, where the smell of the sea quietly drifts through the town.  Talking about life and how different our two countries are, not just statistical factoids, but culturally and historically.  The sound of the percolating coffee in the Bialetti stove top espresso maker, signaling it is ready to be consumed.  All of that come roaring back when I use my own stove top coffee maker once or twice a week to enjoy a cup of Lavazza.

The science of percolation, especially with coffee grinds, is one where the Italians and other European countries have perfected more than Americans have.  Here in the States, we want things now, we want things fast, and we want things cheap.  Or probably more accurately, we feel entitled to things now, fast, and cheap.  There in Italy, it’s about the quality and experiencing life more fully.  They still work very hard, as my friend does, so the stereotype of Italians taking afternoon naps is not accurate.  But they get six weeks of vacation a year, which is pretty normal.  And culturally, August is a time when they all go on holiday to the sea or mountains for some rest and recuperation.  They appear more passionate about living a good life, not hoarding everything they can with the least amount of effort like we do here.  And the Italians have done that with their coffee.  Certainly, Lavazza is not the only coffee they have there.  Nor, perhaps, the best.  But the process in which they extract flavor from the coffee beans through percolation is magical.  The solvent, or water, passes through a permeable substance [coffee] and it extracts the flavors from the beans to a rich and full bodied cup of coffee.  You can’t set up a time to have it ready.  It doesn’t turn off by itself.  And if the heat is too strong, you can destroy the water chamber of the espresso maker.  The old adage of “patience is a virtue” is true for Lavazza.  It’s worth the wait for that cup of espresso that will take me back to the Italian coast.  And that’s always a good thing.

Starbucks Allure

In Anthony Bourdain‘s book, “Medium Raw“, he writes that without Starbucks, we may still be paying $0.25 for a cup of coffee.  He postulates that for years, maybe even half a generation, it would have been absurd to have paid $3.95 for a cup of coffee.  In our parents’ generation, that is how it was.  Refillable cup of joe.  Cup of Java.  For a mere $0.15.  Even if you calculate inflation, which I have no idea how to do, it can’t possibly work out to be $3.95 for coffee, can it?  Anthony Bourdain thinks not, and I agree with him.  Something happened when Starbucks, founded in 1971, went global in the 1990s.  We started to pay dearly for coffee.  Now, this isn’t Sanka or Folgers.  This is some serious coffee.  Beans from far away places like Africa and Italy.  I mean, that in itself is worth the price of submission, isn’t it?  And, what about all the cute little Starbucks paraphernalia in over 17,000 Starbucks locations?  It all adds up.  It adds up right in the kisser.  A cup of “tall” classic espresso?  $3.95 please.  But oh, we’ll throw in a “fair trade, recyclable” piece of cardboard around the cup so you feel better about that purchase.

But hey, we’re all fans of Starbucks.  I’m a fan, you’re a fan, we’re all a fan-fan.  I don’t think twice when the nice baristas behind the “coffee bar” takes my $4 for something I could make at home.  In fact, I like giving them my money.  It gives me satisfaction I’m contributing to combat unfair trade practices in Africa for coffee beans.  What?  Unfair trading for coffee beans?  What has this world been reduced to?  And yet, I really enjoy going to a Starbucks every once in a while to plop down $4 for, if you break it down, flavored water.  I don’t even blink an eye driving to a Starbucks if I’m in the mood.

And then we went to Italy in 2008.  I had been there before, but not like the trip we went on.  Sans large and packed-like-sardines tour buses this time, we roamed the country at our own pace.  That was the first time our Italian friends introduced us to Lavazza, an Italian espresso coffee.  Maybe it’s not even the BEST Italian coffee, but I was hooked.  I was, enlightened.  We went to several Italian cafe’s to sit and enjoy a cup of cappuccinos like the locals.  And you know what we realized?  We didn’t see ONE Starbucks in Italy.  Not one!  I asked our friends why the Italy had spurned the global domination of Starbucks.  They told us that in Italy, the government subsidized the coffee, so every one can get it for €1.50 or whatever.  I’ve also read that Howard Schultz, the current CEO of Starbucks, upon visiting Italy, realized that the Italian coffee culture would be almost impenetrable with Starbucks’ business model.  Starbucks is about “fast” coffee.  Order how you want it, get it in a “to-go” cup and off you go.  The way Italians treat their coffee time is so different.  A “to-go” cup would be sacrilegious.  A ceramic espresso cup with a saucer.  That’s how it is done in Italy.  And that’s why Howard Schulz decided against bring the Starbucks culture to Italy.  It just wouldn’t work.  And I bet millions of Italians are thankful of that.

Ultimately though, Starbucks is more than just coffee and pastries.  To me, they’re also selling community in a box.  I think we’ve all seen people, young and old, meet at a Starbucks to catch up and “hang out”.  More and more business meetings are being held at a Starbucks.  In some ways, that’s good.  Get people out of the house in front of their TVs and computer screens to have community with their friends.  Starbucks has really been successful in creating a place not just where good coffee is served, but a warm and cozy place where people go to catch up on life.  I swear they crank up the AC in there so you buy more hot drinks, but it’s an inviting place to go.  And those are all the reasons why I don’t mind plunking down $4 for a cup of coffee.  It’s a great meeting place, especially in Southern California.  In a lot of ways, Starbucks is our Italian cafe’s.  It’s not as traditional and it’s not as cool, but one step at a time.  Maybe one day, we’ll want a tiny little Italian coffee shop where they service one type of coffee.  If you want to sit, it’ll cost more than standing at the counter.  But for now, I’m happy to participant in what Starbucks offers.  It’s a small price to pay to have face to face time with people I enjoy being with.