A short history of food in cities

illustrations by Jenny Kim and Mushfiq Ul Huq

Cities have always depended on food. The development of the first major urban areas, which occurred in the near East about 10,000 years ago, coincided with the development of grain farming.

Fast-forward to the industrial revolution and its less well-know cousin, the agricultural revolution. Advances in farming methods produced greater yields and less demand for manual labour on farms. These surplus farm labourers found new industrial jobs in growing cities. Urban growth was facilitated both by the increased food production and by new technologies, such as railways, which could bring enough food into cities to feed their increasing populations. Further advances in agricultural and transport technology — think cars, trucks, and refrigeration — now allow us to feed huge groups of people in geographically improbable location with food from around the world.

And so we’ve arrived at the modern food system, a system that many people now are increasingly worried about. Here’s some food for thought:

FOOD PRODUCTION

  • 33 per cent of global greenhouse gas production comes from the production and transport of food.
  • Agriculture accounts for 75 per cent of the world’s fresh water use
  • Farming and ranching use 40 per cent of the earth’s land mass.
  • Food travels an average of 1500 miles to reach your plate.

MONEY MATTERS

  • Fifty years ago, 45–60 per cent of the money consumers spent on food went to farmers
  • In the US today, it’s 3.5 per cent.
  • A wheat farmer gets as much money from the sale of a loaf of bread commercially as the manufacturer of the packaging.
  • Five corporations control 80 per cent of global trade in food.

HOW MUCH WE EAT

  • In London, England (with a population of about 7.8 million), 30 million meals are consumed every day.
  • This means that Toronto (with a population of roughly 2.6 million) should consume about 10 million meals a day.
  • By 2050 twice as many people are expected to be living in cities.
  • Half of the food in the US is thrown away.

ORGANIC FOOD

  • 1 per cent of America’s agricultural land is organic.
  • Sales of organic products make up 4 per cent of the American food market.
  • From 1990–2009, sales of organic products increased by 25-fold.

Toronto designers

Tell us what makes them tick

NADÈGE NOURIAN

HEAD CHEF / FOUNDER
NADÈGE PATISSERIE

THE VARSITY/ WYATT CLOUGH

An elegant white room sits across from the south-east edge of Trinity Bellwoods Park, with full glass windows looking out on Queen Street West. The vividly coloured macaroons and cakes inside are the handiwork of Nadège Nourian and her partner Morgan McHugh, who opened Nadège Patisserie in 2009. French-born Nourian’s pastries proved to be a hit, and last year, the couple opened another patisserie in Rosedale. 

THE VARSITY

What do you enjoy most about being a pastry chef?

NADÈGE NOURIAN

A few things, but I’ll say to make people happy… When you make cakes, it’s like the centerpiece of a wedding or a birthday. It’s kind of like the main piece of an important stage for people. Being a chef as well — the image of it, the kitchen — it’s a bit like the army sometimes. I like that! [laughs] I don’t know if that’s for everyone. Being part of a kitchen, being part of a team, is also like being part of a family.

THE VARSITY

How did you start working as a baker and chef?

NADÈGE NOURIAN

My parents had a little restaurant and I started working with them. I was 14, working in the kitchen and then in the front waitressing because I liked the connection with people as well. Then, I discovered pastry and decided to go more into pastry. Also, my family — my grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great-grandparents — had a pastry shop, so I’m actually the fourth generation.

THE VARSITY

When you’re coming up with a new design, where do you find inspiration?

NADÈGE NOURIAN

Every time is kind of different. Sometimes a lot will be from fashion. It all depends on how I attack the cake. Sometimes I really want to do this flavour, or I want that combination of flavours. Sometimes I really want to have that shape.

THE VARSITY

You mentioned fashion being an inspiration for you. Do you see other connections between what you do and other art forms?

NADÈGE NOURIAN

The way we work is the same. I’ll start with a computer or paper and pen, and I start to write ideas and I start to draw. What is there? What shapes? Then I will create a recipe or I’ll take some recipes and arrange them. Then, I go into the kitchen and I start to make it.

THE VARSITY

Is there a particular cake or dessert you’ve made that you’re most proud of?

NADÈGE NOURIAN

There’s one that we took off the menu, and people are asking me to put it back. It’s a very tricky cake with a lot of layers. It’s matcha green tea with raspberry and brown rice pudding.

THE VARSITY

Wow!

THE VARSITY/ WYATT CLOUGH

NADÈGE NOURIAN

There are so many layers, it’s crazy to make. The bottom layer is a matcha green tea sponge. Then after you have a matcha green tea ganache. Then you’ve got a brown rice pudding and then a raspberry mousse … and all around, we have a matcha green mousse. And then a chocolate spread!

THE VARSITY

Your store on Queen Street has a very nice, simple interior; what were you aiming for when you chose that interior?

NADÈGE NOURIAN

Well, a lot of people say “simple” — I don’t know. It is simple, but there are a lot of lines to the design. We went to a really nice company of architects [Nelson Kwong Architects]. Maybe because I’m French, I like modern things because I’m surrounded by old buildings all of the time. My pastries are very avant-gardiste and modern as well, so I did want something to reflect what I’m going to create and who I am. I love open concept… I wanted people to come into the store and see the food.

 

SHILO RAPP

HEAD DESIGNER
RAPP OPTICAL

THE VARSITY/ RYAN KELPIN

Even if you’ve never heard of Rapp Optical, you’d probably recognize their frames. Rapp’s assemblages of thick, translucent plastic, brushed metal, and glass have been fixtures on the faces of Toronto’s most stylish since Mel Rapp started the company more than two decades ago. Today, Mel runs Rapp’s College Street storefront while his son, Shilo Rapp, crafts new designs at their North York factory.

THE VARSITY

How did you become a lens frame designer? Was there a moment when you decided that this was what you wanted to do?

SHILO RAPP

Not at all. I was born into it, my father being an optician for the last 30 years or longer. But I’ve worked in the shop all my life, so it kind of evolved gradually.

THE VARSITY

So you just kind of grew up around design and glasses?

SHILO RAPP

Well, the traditional school route that most people take wasn’t quite working for me, so I started working the shop. [My father] at the time had an interest in designing and manufacturing a line of pens, so that’s what kicked it off. There’s nowhere to go and learn how to make a pen anywhere; there’s no course you can take for it — or for eyewear, for that matter. It just set me down a whole route of different courses: goldsmithing, silversmithing, tool and die machining.

THE VARSITY

As an independent eyewear company, how hands-on is the process from initial designs to manufacture? Are glasses industrially manufactured, or is each pair really unique?

SHILO RAPP

Each pair of glasses is hand-finished entirely, so they get a lot of attention. We don’t use any mass finishing like the whole industry does. You’ll see most frames are round and glossy, and ours are really sharp and crisp, and the only way to achieve that is by hand. It’s hands-on for everyone who works at the factory.

THE VARSITY/ RYAN KEPIN

THE VARSITY

Is eyewear manufacturing something that’s really determined by technological advances at this point?

SHILO RAPP

Glasses used to be made on manually driven pantograph milling machines. Now CAD/CAM technology [Computer Aided Design and Computer Aided Manufacturing] and CNC machinery [Computer Numerical Control Machinery] are the widely used ways to produce a frame. I think technology is changing everything, even how you design. You don’t even need to put a pencil to paper.

THE VARSITY

On a broader scale, I’d consider Rapp Optical a Toronto institution. Do you think Toronto is a good place for this sort of design?

SHILO RAPP

Absolutely — that’s my father and [stepmother] Julia’s doing. They are a wealth of knowledge in industry that I’m lucky to have access to. As far as the Rapp eyewear line goes … everybody’s responsible. I don’t even call myself a designer per se.

THE VARSITY

What do you call yourself?

SHILO RAPP

I don’t know, I’m starting to warm up to it just ‘cause it’s easier. But when people ask me what I do, I tell them I make things — because I love the process of manufacturing, how things are made. It’s just as exciting to me as the actual design of the object itself.

BRUCE KUWABARA

PARTNER
KPMB ARCHITECTS

THE VARSITY/ WYATT CLOUGH

The resumé of architect Bruce Kuwabara and his firm Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg could easily double as a list of notable Canadian buildings. In Toronto, he has worked on the Gardiner Museum, the TIFF Bell Lightbox, the National Ballet School, and the ongoing expansion of the Rotman School of Management. Towards the end of 2011, Kuwabara was appointed a member of the Order of Canada. 

THE VARSITY

What do you enjoy most about being an architect?

BRUCE KUWABARA

Architecture is a fantastic experience because it is very much about creating the world we want to live in. In that one question, the question of what world do you want to live in, you have the opportunity to reflect on your own life, reflect on all of your aspirations and hopes for the future. Architecture in my mind is really a partner with the way we live; I think the more you do it, the more you realize how important that understanding is — that architecture isn’t just a kind of objectified building, but rather, a series of relationships between buildings and public space, notions of how to build and nurture communities within buildings, and how to make buildings that are truly sustainable and beautiful. So we always ask three questions: how does it work, does it work well, and how does it look and feel?

THE VARSITY

Do you think that good architecture can in turn create an environment that leads to creativity?

BRUCE KUWABARA

Oh, absolutely. That is the thesis. We’ve used different metaphors for architecture. One is that what you’re trying to create are the platforms upon which our clients — and some of them are cultural institutions or academic institutions ­— can really do their best work and really create a synergy within an institution and synergy that’s connected to the outside world. For example, we’re doing the Rotman School expansion; we made an event box room that sits up on the second floor that is a room for 400 first-year students. It’s a room that can accommodate the entire first-year class at the Rotman, but it’s also a space that projects its activity out to St. George Street.

THE VARSITY

You’ve been involved in architecture since the 1970s. How have both the materials you’re using and the processes changed since then?

BRUCE KUWABARA

The changes are incredible. We did a building for Manitoba Hydro, which is 700,000 square feet. It’s in Winnipeg; it’s in an extreme climate… They wanted to make a building that could achieve a reduction of 60 per cent of the National Model Energy code building. We designed some really beautiful systems.

THE VARSITY

What scope do you see for renovation in your buildings, or how do you accommodate for knowing that the buildings will age?

BRUCE KUWABARA

The structure of the building has to be modular and has to be robust. All the fixed elements like stairs and elevators and shafts have to be really well-placed. The way you get there is to make a proposal for all those elements and to try to lay out different scenarios of occupation… We’re doing that with the Kellogg School [at Northwestern University] now, where we’re making probably the most important decisions in the life of building… Flexibility has to be thought of deeply in terms of what it means. There’s nobody who would say, “I want an inflexible space,” but what is it? For me, flexibility is this: [Kuwabara stands up and slides a partition to reveal a meeting room]. We can use that room for some meetings. This is sort of like a Japanese house Is this room a conference room, a workroom, or a library? Does it matter? No. We get a lot of use out of it. We’ve had dinners here; we’ve had parties. That’s flexible.

Architecture school confidential

A heartbreaking tale of sleepless nights, severed fingers, and a shitload of hard work

Architecture school confidential

It’s the summer of 2009, around midnight, and I’m breaking into Harvard. Well, not exactly — I’m sneaking into one of the vacant dorms, carrying drafting pencils, a T-square, some rulers, and a big roll of drafting paper. I’m not the only one. Though this wing of the Walter Gropius dormitories is supposed to be empty, every room I walk past is already occupied.

We’ve snuck past campus police, propping open doors and jamming locks with kneadable erasers. Everyone is nervous, sleep-deprived, and drinking Red Bull. Some haven’t slept for days. At this time of night, Gund Hall, home to Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, locks its doors — and our workbenches along with it. So we’re improvising: these dorm rooms have nice, wide desks, perfect for drafting. We work late into the night, and as the sun begins to rise, we pack up, sneaking back out one by one, cleaning up after ourselves as we go.

RÉMI CARREIRO/THE VARSITY

*        *         *

RÉMI CARREIRO/THE VARSITY

It’s a Monday night at Ryerson’s architecture department, and Ariel’s group is building a bridge. The assignment is simple enough: in groups of six, build a 12-foot long bridge out of nothing but cardboard and duct tape. If you can get three people to walk across the bridge one after another, your group gets a 90. If the entire group makes it across, you get perfect marks.

“Though our prof tells us it’s possible to get the full six people across, none of us really buy it,” Ariel explains. Just then, as a third group member steps onto the bridge, the structure collapses and everyone falls to the floor. “We’re getting closer,” he says. “We should have it by tomorrow.”

Rachel, also in Ariel’s group, chimes in. “I’m still going to wear a bathing suit under my clothes when it’s our turn.” At their prof’s insistence, the groups will be testing their completed bridges over a pool in the gymnasium.

Ariel and Rachel are both first-year students at Ryerson in the university’s competitive pre-professional architecture program, one of a handful in Canada. Once they finish their four-year degree, they’ll apply to architectural master’s programs. Though they’ve just started the program, the workload is intense.

“On the very first day, for the first assignment in September, I’d already pulled pretty much an all-nighter for the deadline,” explains Rachel. “It’s definitely hard on you. Sometimes you have two or three all-nighters in a row, and then coffee’s your best friend.”

RÉMI CARRIERO/THE VARSITY

Sleep deprivation is a constant for aspiring architects. Easier projects might take a single all-nighter while others cost weeks of lost sleep. “During the end of the semester, a lot of people started pulling all-nighters,” says Rachel. “The studio was full of people. There were people sleeping in studio, sleeping in the computer labs… [It got] kinda gross.”

At the end of last semester, Ariel lived in the computer lab for five days straight.

“Basically, everybody needed a computer, so if I left my spot and came back hoping to find a computer, there might not be one, and I wasn’t going to be able to work. I just never left, which also meant I got more work done, but less sleep.”

Not everyone can keep up with the lifestyle. “[Last semester], one of the professors took pictures of every single one of his students, and then as they started dropping out, he would cross off their picture,” says Rachel. “The pictures would be posted up in their section as well. So he started off with a group of 12 and ended up with a group of seven.”

*        *         *

I used to be an architecture student. For six weeks I studied at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, enrolled in its “Career Discovery Program,” an intensive summer course meant to give people a taste of what pursuing a master’s in architecture feels like.

Students in the program come from all over North America, and though most are in university, some are older, often in their 40s or 50s. As the weeks progress, we look on as people silently pack up and leave the studio — casualties of the long, sleepless nights.

The hours are demanding. Gund Hall opens its doors at 8 am every day, and by 8:15 am, entire sections are already working on their projects. Many won’t leave the building until midnight, save to get coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts or some food at Darwin’s Sandwiches down the street.

RÉMI CARREIRO/THE VARSITY

Our instructors, all Harvard graduate students also enrolled in design programs, unhelpfully assure us that grad school is just like what we’re experiencing. “A lot of people don’t make it,” explains our drafting instructor. “You’ve got to have thick skin. If you’re questioning your resolve at all, you probably shouldn’t be here.”

Getting any sleep after pulling regular 16-hour days proves difficult. When I do manage to fall asleep, I dream of working in the studio, cutting foamboard or drafting up floorplans. When I wake up, I know I’ll need to go into the studio and do exactly what I’d imagined in my sleep all over again.

As we enter week four, I slice off a chunk of my thumb. I don’t have health insurance, so I clean and wrap the cut as tightly as I can, hoping not to bleed all over my model in the process.

In an effort to cheer me up, a studio instructor comes to my workbench and shows me his own scars, including a long line running across his right thumb. “See that? I once sliced off my thumb almost entirely,” he says. “It was hanging by skin alone!” He laughs. “Luckily, doctors were able to reattach it and it still works fine.”

RÉMI CARREIRO/THE VARSITY

I ask him whether I should go to a hospital. “That depends,” he says. “How’s your model coming along?” He’s only half-joking.

*        *         *

Architecture students like to exchange stories about their battles with X-ACTO knives, box cutters, and sandpaper. It’s a competition: everyone tells increasingly implausible tales of sleep deprivation and studio accidents.

“I kind of chopped off a whole section of my finger.” Rachel is wearing a hospital bracelet and she’s just gotten back to the studio. She laughs. “No stitches, because there’s no skin that’s salvageable, so they put in some foam or something to create a fake scar and bandaged it up.

“The blood was kinda gushin’ everywhere. One of my friends working on the bridge project went around with the skin that got chopped off, saying, ‘Rachel chopped off her finger! Everybody just take a look! Take a look!’”

Even though she’s only in first year, Rachel says high school doesn’t even begin to compare to architecture school. “High school was a challenge obviously, but once you get here, it’s like, ‘Okay, we’re going now.’ You can’t stop. You’ve got the ball rolling.

RÉMI CARREIRO/THE VARSITY

“It’s unfortunate because I don’t get to see my [residence] floormates as much as other people do, and sometimes, I feel left out of their social circles. But then when you come to studio, it’s more like your own family. It’s definitely a family.”

Ariel agrees. “It’s weird. I was originally in engineering, which is a 2,000-person program in first year because everyone’s taking the same course, and I thought, ‘Okay, I’m going to meet 2,000 people.’ But I ended up talking to maybe six people in my small circle of friends. But here, since there’s only 100 people and you’re basically stuck in a building for the whole night, you talk to everybody. There’s just a few people I haven’t actually talked to.”

Right now, having a social life is a luxury Ariel and Rachel can still afford. “The fourth-years tell us it only gets harder,” says Ariel.

RÉMI CARREIRO/THE VARSITY

It does. As I neared the end of my stint at Harvard, I’d already begun to question my resolve. It was the beginning of the end — and perhaps that was for the best. These days, it seems all my architect friends have become stressed out, alcoholic chain-smokers.

Rachel and Ariel are both unfazed by the three years of school still ahead. It’ll be more of the same: sleep loss, severed digits, and long nights in the computer lab. But at least for now, they’re happy.

RÉMI CARREIRO/THE VARSITY

It’s almost two in the morning as I prepare to leave Ryerson, and the computer lab is still half full. I take one final look at the studio: messy workbenches covered in styrofoam, box cutters, and cardboard. I briefly consider telling them my own architectural horror stories, but I decide against it.

It wouldn’t change a thing.

Letter from the editor

A few remarks on designing the issue

Letter from the editor

Usually when people think about design, they think about something like this.

ERENE STERGIOPOULOS/THE VARSITY

Or sometimes they think about über-hip Scandinavian-looking people who pout and scowl because they’re clearly better humans.

ERENE STERGIOPOULOS/THE VARSITY

And perhaps, at a more intuitive level, they think about objects with clean lines and a brushed metal finish: things that look expensive and beautiful and that would make up the pages of Wallpaper magazine.

ERENE STERGIOPOULOS/THE VARSITY

But the thing is, there’s a lot more to design than that. Anything that has ever been made by a person has been, in some sense, designed. Design is about creating something (let’s say a chair, a website, or a space shuttle) to suit a particular purpose and satisfy a specific set of aesthetic principles.

ERENE STERGIOPOULOS/THE VARSITY

That’s what this installment of The Varsity’s All-Arts magazine is about. We’ve talked to some of this city’s biggest names in design — starchitect Bruce Kuwabara (of TIFF Bell Lightbox fame), pastry chef Nadège Nourian, and spectacle designer Shilo Rapp of Rapp Optical — to get a sense of Toronto’s design scene. The lucky Brigit Katz sat down with the gloriously-bearded Stan Bevington of Coach House Books to talk about his 40-year career designing some of Canada’s best books.

(more…)

The divine code

text and illustration by Mushfiq Ul Huq

(more…)

Beauty in the mundane

The history of secretly beautiful household objects

The zipper

JENNY KIM/THE VARSITY

The humble zipper, the most common fastening device used on clothing, had a torturous early life. An early version was invented by Elias Howe but was shunned in favour of its creator’s bigger, flashier product: the sewing machine. The zipper then joined the illustrious ranks of novelties to be debuted at World’s Fairs — in this case the 1893 Chicago World Fair, in the form of a “clasp locker” by Whitcomb Judson. But it wasn’t until Gideon Sundback, working for Judson’s Universal Fastener Company, that the zipper became something akin to its current form. Sundback gave the zipper a whole new look, and it went on to become a raging success. You’ve probably got one on right now.

The ball bearing

JENNY KIM/THE VARSITY

Ball bearings make the world go round — or they would, if the earth were a man-made, wheeled device. The ball bearing was patented by Philip Vaughan in 1794 as part of a carriage design and by bicycle mechanic Jules Suriray in 1869. Suriray’s variant was an essential part of the winning two-wheeler in the world’s first bicycle race. The ball bearing is a true unsung hero, working behind the scenes in almost every form of mechanized transport and, most importantly, the yo-yo. So important are ball bearings that factories manufacturing them were some of the most frequent German targets of Allied bombing in World War II.

The stapler

JENNY KIM/THE VARSITY

Are you, like The Varsity’s staff, chronically unable to find your stapler? You’re in good company. The first person to own (and therefore probably the first to misplace) a stapler was Louis XV — the one between Louis the Sun King and the Louis that got his head chopped off in the French Revolution. The four-way stapler (the type you’re probably hunting around the house to try to find) was developed as recently as 1941. That makes it younger than its upstart rival, the stapleless stapler, invented in 1910. “Stapler” is also a fairly common Norman family name — so don’t expect that boy or girl you were dating to be inheriting an office-supply fortune anytime soon.

The cue card

JENNY KIM/THE VARSITY

When you’re writing that big speech you’re planning to give to your flatmate about washing the dishes, or to your tutorial group about the failings of the nation state, or to your stuffed animals in preparation for pillow-fort domination, nothing jogs your memory like a well-executed cue card. The late actor John Barrymore, grandfather of rom-com favourite Drew Barrymore, was among the first to use them in order to remember lines on stage in the 1930s. The cue card has failed to keep pace with its more technologically advanced rival, the teleprompter. Still, for those of us that aren’t newscasters or presidents (but want to feel just as grave and important), there’s no beating the cue card.

The scrunchie

JENNY KIM/THE VARSITY

You may not have realized this, but scrunchies are the world’s great leveller. Whether you’re a big-shot business executive or a broke university student, the same crinkle-fabric wonder keeps your ponytail in place in your down time. The scrunchie began life as the creation of one Rommy Revson in the ‘80s, though the design was only patented in 1994 after a good deal of wrangling — of the legal, not the untangling-knotted-hair, variety. Sure, scrunchies aren’t always a hot fashion choice; they had their heyday in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. But for those moments when an ordinary office-variety rubberband just won’t cut it, look no further than the ordinary scrunchie.

Design crimes

A primer on aesthetics faux pas

McMansion 

THE VARSITY/ MATTHEW D.H. GRAY

What has two turrets, five bathrooms, 11 ensuite bedrooms, and a single occupant? Why, every house on Oleander Blossom Boulevard Lane, of course. McMansions are mass-produced, tasteless, and poorly constructed jumbo-houses that line the sides of suburban streets everywhere. Disastrous details are the hallmark of McMansions. There may be six poorly-proportioned windows on the front and none on the sides; the house may hold two hot tubs and an elaborately flared staircase, but the “landscaping” consists of an empty plot of grass. McMansions are just right if you’re looking to accommodate your fugitive grandfather in a massive unfinished attic.

Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh 

THE VARSITY/ MATTHEW D.H. GRAY

The Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh may look like a combination coffeemaker and alarm clock radio, but if you bought it upon its release in 1997, you would’ve been shelling out around $10,000 for it. You also would’ve received your new computer hand-delivered by a white-gloved concierge — weird. As if its outlandish look wasn’t bad enough, the computer had some very lacklustre specifications, boasting technologies that were being released for cheaper in other Apple products, and its attempts to compensate with unusual add-ons — a flat(ish) LCD screen and an external subwoofer — failed to impress. Looks like Apple has its share of skeletons in the closet too!

Ford Pinto 

THE VARSITY/ MATTHEW D.H. GRAY

Sometimes, design crimes really are criminal. In 1981, a lawsuit was filed against Ford for a rear-end collision incurred by Lilly Gray and Richard Grimshaw, who were driving a Pinto. The accident killed Gray and left the 13-year-old Grimshaw badly burned. Ford was found guilty in part because of its awareness of a design flaw in the car and its refusal to pay for a redesign. The flaw? A lack of reinforcing structure between the rear panel and the tank, which meant that low-speed collisions to the rear-end could cause the tank to explode in a deadly fire from spilled fuel. Ford should’ve put in some design time to avoid that design crime.

Clippit 

THE VARSITY/ MATTHEW D.H. GRAY

Clippit, the unhelpful Microsoft Office Assistant that everyone hated, was created for Microsoft Bob, a software program that was meant to provide new users with a non-technical interface. With his stupid grin and smarmy eyebrows, Clippit (AKA, “Clippy”) popped up when you wanted him least in order to offer his unsolicited and inexpert advice. Eventually, the criticisms were heard, and Microsoft itself admitted its dislike for the little guy. In an ad campaign in 2001, Microsoft released videos of Clippy being fired and ending up as a floppy disc ejector for Macintosh computers.

The mind behind the machine

Your barista is a lot more savvy than you might expect

The mind behind the machine

“Alright, let’s see if I can’t make you something really cool.”

Sameer Mohamed, the owner of Fahrenheit Coffee and Toronto’s top ranking barista at last year’s Central Regional Barista Championship, darts behind his espresso machine and begins fiddling with a series of hidden dials and levers. Moments later, he passes me a latte with an elaborate phoenix pattern on top. I’ve seen a lot of lattes, but Mohamed is good.

Drawn into the crema — that reddish-brown emulsion that covers a good shot of espresso — with stark white steamed milk, latte art is an attempt by baristas to achieve design perfection. The heart, the rosetta, the phoenix, the tulip: there are a few others, but for the most part the lexicon of a latte artist is limited and precise. Confidence and coordination are key; if the steamed milk is poured too slowly, the bubbles on top will remain stuck to the sides of their original receptacle and will never make it into the cup, and if poured too fast, all definition is lost.

But that isn’t the only challenge a barista faces. Milk scalds at 180 degrees fahrenheit. At that temperature all the bacteria and enzymes in the milk are obliterated, sterilizing that sweet and desirable lactose. The ability to create microfoam — the white bubbly stuff that forms on top of milk with the introduction of heat, air, and movement — is also lost. Without microfoam, latte art is impossible, so baristas have to use all of their senses to predict if their medium is the correct temperature. The metal pitcher holding the milk becomes too hot to hold comfortably when the milk approaches 180 degrees; the surface of the milk takes on a glossy sheen, and the slight whirr of the steam and of constantly moving milk begins to switch frequency to a low ominous growl.

DAN SELJAK/THE VARSITY

The care and artistry displayed in this preparation reflect the attitude of the high-end independent coffee shop. Mohamed observes that customers “taste with their eyes,” and the unique presentation of latte art adds to their full experience. Despite this view and his own skill at latte art, he is quick to point out that visuals aren’t everything.

“The purpose of latte art to me is basically show that you have good texture in your cappuccino. It’s a showcase for your texture — [it shows] if you’re skilled in the art behind the machine. If you don’t have good texture… your latte art will suck.”

According to Mohamed’s overall philosophy, latte art is a showcase of the product’s quality rather than the product itself. “There’s a lot of importance that’s been given to latte art at the cost of the product; if you can make something that tastes even better than it looks, go for it.”

Mohamed thinks of the independent owner as a designer. “The independent coffee shop is driven primarily by how the [owner] feels about the space. It’s all about how you project yourself into the place.”

He describes how cost, interior design, layout, and location are all choices that must be made by an independent owner to maximize a customer’s experience and the quality of the final product. “Just how a place is laid out can increase output quite significantly. And while you’re doing whatever it is you’re doing, you have to be able to interact with the people in front of the counter. Basically, it generates a nice flow work-wise, and it doesn’t look too cluttered to the customer.”

Mohamed’s keen focus on designing a functional space that produces high-quality products stems from his extensive experience with the coffee world. What started as a part-time gig almost a decade ago in Montreal quickly became a lifestyle. Mohamed took his passion on the road as a coffee consultant under the name Fahrenheit Consulting, helping launch stores and redesigning existing spaces to optimize them for success.

Ultimately, however, the goal was always to launch his own place, which came to fruition in 2011 when he launched the Fahrenheit shop. “Coffee has been a very educational experience for me in terms of its complexity — how much you can change the dynamism of coffee and how incredibly delicate and complex it can be. For some reason, I think it’s a mission of mine to open people’s eyes to this amazing world if they aren’t aware of it.”

As I gulp down my latte, I think about what the implications of uniquely designed shops like Fahrenheit signify for the future of coffee culture. While maybe of a higher calibre than most, Fahrenheit is not entirely a unique breed in Toronto.

These days, we treat coffee less like a commodity and more like a luxury item, like wine, which has led to a surge in small independent coffee shops dedicated to high-quality product. Sure, this trend may bring about higher prices and a sometimes impermeable layer of pretension, but for the most part, it brings better design and damn good coffee. I scoop up the last remnants of my latte’s microfoam from the bottom of my cup and silently recognize that that is not at all a bad thing.