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Inside Rubi’s: Living The Hipster Barista Fantasy

Last winter, I had a bad case of yearning to be young. I was a middle-aged guy seeking a short cut back to the future. Inspired partly by a book called How Starbucks Changed My Life, I set out to become a barista, a hipster archetype that did not even exist when I was a young man in the 1980s. With stubborn conviction, I imagined that by putting on a pair of skinny jeans, tying a long white bistro apron around my waist and standing behind the counter at the hippest cafe in Great Barrington, I might be able to turn the clock back a couple of decades. Working side by side with inked and pierced twentysomethings, I thought I might become awesome by osmosis.

I applied for a part-time job with Matt Rubiner, the erudite and punctilious cheesemonger who runs Rubi’s café and the adjacent cheese shop. “You’ll have to work your way up to making coffee,” he told me. “First you’ll learn the register. Then you’ll train on sandwiches. If you last that long, we’ll send you to barista boot camp.”

Was he kidding? Of course, I could master sandwich making—I had worked one summer at a high-end deli during college—but I conveniently ignored the part where Matt told me that my duties would include loading the dishwasher and mopping floors. “It’s drudgery,” he warned me. Unwittingly, I was creating my own version of a reality TV series: So You Think You Want to be a Barista?

I rationalized this midlife folly in many ways: I was doing on-the-job research for a concept about opening a food shop of my own; I was exploring Great Barrington as a place to live because, ironically, it seemed it might be a good place to grow old. Working at the café would be an antidote to the solitary writer’s life, and I was tired of spending my days in front of a computer screen. I longed to do something social, tangible and physical. I reasoned that nothing could be more satisfying than feeding people.

I assumed I’d spend my days in conversation with the diverse clientele: organic farmers, screenwriters, chefs, professors, second-home owners from New York and Boston, and assorted creative types from 18 to 80. Alas, no one goes to Rubi’s to flirt with a cashier whose beard is flecked with gray.

Located in the back of a renovated 19th century red brick bank building, Rubi’s paneled dining room was the bank president’s office, and it has a chic serenity when empty; it would probably make a nice Pilates studio, which may be why I mistakenly thought that working there eight hours a day would be invigorating and restorative.

I quickly discovered that being a barista would require more than attitude and skinny jeans. Although I’d learned to steam milk to make café au lait at an East Village tearoom called Danal in the early 1990s when I was between journalism jobs (and before Starbucks came to New York and coffee drinks got so convoluted), I did not have a clue about how to prepare a chai latte or a half-caf soy macciato.

But I refused to believe that I was too old to learn to be a barista: For if that were true, what else was I too old to do?

I thought of Rubi’s swaggering baristas as caffeine cowboys:  Eric, the lanky, buff guy with a large heavy-metal tattoo on his forearm and empathetic eyes who was ogled by men and women alike; Amy, the charismatic manager, who had a nose ring and was brimming with sassy energy.

As they took turns behind the Faema E61 semi-automatic espresso machine, they basked in their coffee-making expertise with nonchalance that bordered on arrogance. The more I studied them, the less they seemed like cowboys and the more they seemed like porn stars (yet another job I was too old for!) because they earned their living being watched while getting people off.

The way they made lattes and cappuccinos was erotic. It began with jerking the handle on the grinder multiple times, caressing the ground coffee with bare hands in the portafilter, and then rhythmically inserting the steamwand into a small pot of milk to get it very, very hot . . . and only stopping after reaching climax: creamy white foam.

The baristas would bend over backwards to be kind to older customers who seemed to be down on their luck. They assumed I fell into that category, for why else would a middle-aged guy [left] be willing to haul crates of milk and buckets of ice up from the cellar? I approached my apprenticeship as if I were working in a Michelin three-star restaurant: I would stoically do all the scut work so I’d earn the privilege of being sent to barista boot camp at Barrington Coffee Roasting Company in nearby Lee, MA.

However, I seriously miscalculated how hard it would be to make Rubi’s artisanal sandwiches.

The compact sandwich station was like a miniature golf course with obstacles at every turn. The squeeze bottles were unmarked so it was easy to mistake mustard and the house-made hot sauce. I couldn’t distinguish between the comte and asiago cheeses, and all the pale pink meats looked the same to my untrained eye so it was easy to confuse prosciutto, porchetta and cotto. A timer had to be set for each hot sandwich, and the cooking times varied so you needed to do some algebra if you wanted a hot dog, a tuna melt and a classic grilled cheese sandwich to all be ready to serve at the same time.

The breakfast sandwich was the most challenging item on the menu and learning how to make one perfectly was as essential as wearing skinny jeans. A dastardly piece of culinary engineering, it’s basically a grilled cheese-and-ham sandwich with a medium-cooked runny egg in the center, and it’s sublime when made right.  (And it’s delicious even when flubbed.)

How do you manage to put a raw egg between two slices of bread and into a panini press without breaking the yolk or having the white slither out?  You take one slice of bread and make a depression in it with a rubber-gloved fist and then use your fingers to massage the cavity to make it as wide as possible without cracking the crust, which contains the raw, local farm-fresh egg like a seawall. One bright, generous co-worker (a pre-med student at Bard College) confided that she made depressions in both slices of bread to create an ample pocket for the egg, ham and cheese. Her method worked like a charm, but by the time I finally made a perfect egg sandwich I’d had enough of being a barista-in-waiting.

Although I was working at what felt like break-neck speed, there was one co-worker who seemed to think I was a slacker. She wasn’t a manager, just a busybody whose role models were apparently the cast of Jersey Shore. She needled me and rolled her eyes at everything I did. Dan! That’s not how to cut a Cuban sandwich! [photo right]. She snapped at me for running the dishwasher only 75 percent full. Dan! You’re wasting water! This was a dishwasher that only ran for 60 seconds! How much water could I be wasting? After she scolded me for the umpteenth time about how I loaded the dishwasher, it was my turn to roll my eyes.

I went next door to the cheese shop and gave Matt my two weeks’ notice. I did not tell on my Mean Girl colleague, because I still had to work with her for the duration so I merely said, “I’m not cut out for this. It’s harder than I thought,” which was true. He laughed and said, “I told you so,” which was also true. (Nine months later, I learned that Matt eventually fired the Mean Girl after she reduced another employee to tears.)

Still, I had learned a valuable lesson during my time at Rubi’s. I went home and devised my own version of the signature egg sandwich in an ordinary skillet. I did not have to wrap it in parchment paper. I did not have to pray that the weight of the industrial-strength panini press would crush the yolk. I did not have to wear rubber gloves or skinny jeans. I made it free-style—with attitude. I hadn’t been able to turn back the clock, but I’d found my inner hipster after all.

Dan Shaw, a co-founder of Rural Intelligence and regular contributor to The New York Times, is writing a book about life in the closet.

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Posted by Dan Shaw on 01/14/14 at 10:28 AM • Permalink