*DISCLAIMER: TIMEZONE 8 IS A VERY GOOD CAFE/RESTAURANT. You can get an excellent cappuccino or salad there, and the restaurant is bright and comfortable. What I say is not intended to offend, but merely to compare the coffee industries of China and America.
Working in a cafe the second time around, you would think things would be easier. But a cafe on a different continent, with different machinery and “coffee ethics?” Not so.
The concept of interning in China, although it exists, is a more foreign one. Whereas at Z&H I was clearly not a “real employee,” never working shifts longer than 5 or 6 hours, at Timezone 8, an art bookstore-meets-cafe in Beijing’s 798 art gallery district, I found myself working 9 hour shifts every day (also for no pay). To be fair, I was working mainly in the bookstore– after all, the cafe only came into existence in order to provide sustenance to artists and book-browsers.
My initial task was to “improve the communications between the bookstore and cafe,” which turned out to be nearly impossible. First of all, the two places had entirely different sets of staff with conflicting work schedules. Second of all, we’re talking about art books that cost up to hundreds of American dollars… so obviously, you couldn’t take them into the cafe. Browsing books and eating/drinking had to be separate events, and the two spaces attracted different crowds, although people were more likely to migrate to the cafe from the bookstore than vice versa.
Unlike Z&H, Timezone 8 is a real restaurant, which meant that the kitchen and espresso bar area had nothing to do with each other. The five star-trained chef, Anthony, who I ended up becoming buddies with (he really touched me by saying that I “shouldn’t waste my brains on the culinary industry”), came up with dishes that were actually pretty interesting. Just as Americanized-Chinese food is everywhere, Chinese-ified American exists as well. I remember years ago, upon ordering a Caesar Salad, to receive what was essentially a club sandwich with Caesar dressing on it (the lettuce was the salad… duh). Caesar salads and club sandwiches were on Timezone 8’s menu, but there were also salads like the Cajun salmon, a seared fillet on frisee and mixed greens with grilled asparagus, orange slices and basil oil. Also popular were pan-Asian dishes like Japanese style eel and curry chicken, both served with black rice and vegetables.
Given that you could get good food in the restaurant, it isn’t surprising that beverages were kind of put on the back burner. Don’t get me wrong, people ordered a ton of drinks, especially since it was so hot outside: hot and iced coffee, smoothies (in flavors like green tea and papaya), milkshakes, freshly squeezed juices, and the occasional alcoholic drink. The head barista, Xiao Wang, had been professionally trained, but the rest of the staff hadn’t been. The coffee was Illy, which is European 100% Arabica beans (better flavor than Robusta, but less caffeine and crema) and considered very good coffee, but the truth is that imported caffeine beans, even when packaged and shipped in sealed aluminum canisters, just can’t compare to those of a local roaster.
Another thing: at this point in my “coffee career”, I have no idea how Z&H’s coffee methods compare to those of other American cafes. I do remember, however, being horrified at the beginning seeing so much coffee and milk being wasted. My boss then told me, “See, we can’t afford to give a customer a drink that’s less than perfect when that’s all they’re buying. Our coffee is expensive enough that you pay for the quality of the drink that you get.”
I soon learned that in China, things just don’t work that way. We may no longer think of it as a third world country (Have you ever seen an American airport with a swimming pool in it or been able to get cell phone reception while taking the subway?), but restaurant culture has changed very little. Take service, for instance. Respect determines a huge portion of how people interact, but it doesn’t extend to waiters and waitresses. It’s very typical to see a rowdy, crowded table holler, “服务员！(literally “service person”) Get us some more napkins!” or something similar. You will never hear “Hi guys, I’m Darlene and I’ll be your server today” (although this is viewed worldwide as American intrusiveness), tipping doesn’t exist, and most waitresses are only in their early 20s, having come from small villages to find work in cities.
I met some really nice waitresses close to my age, but I still can’t really describe the embarrassment I felt when I complained (even about my head) about long hours. Or even more so, the day I broke down crying. I promise that I very rarely cry (at least to the point where I have trouble breathing), but it was when my manager told me I could no longer make coffee that I really broke down. “It’s just too wasteful,” he said. “I know you’re used to doing it a certain way in America, but the equipment is just different.”
He was taken completely aback when I wouldn’t stop crying, and kept saying, “Lida, stop crying! I never know what to do when girls cry!” He was actually a really cool, good guy; I think he just didn’t know how I was really only working in the cafe so that I could make coffee.
I felt even worse when he said, “You’re still a kid. Do you know how much I had to suffer and work when I was your age?” He was right; I knew I was a spoiled American teenager and this was the closest I would get to knowing what he had suffered. I know I wasn’t getting paid, but I think it was hard for most people to fathom why anyone would be working for no pay for fun.
Anyways, back to frugality in Chinese restaurant culture. The other day in Shanghai, I was in a Western cafe similar to Timezone 8. I ordered scrambled eggs and asked for whole wheat toast. I was served white toast (which I hate). I politely asked for them to exchange it, and they basically said, “sorry…. we can’t,” until we persuaded them to give me some whole wheat toast on the side. You see, after having learned how Chinese cafes work, I knew that in the kitchen, someone somewhere was adding “two pieces of white toast” to the list of “wasted items.” Every time anything was wasted, whether it was an entire piece of cake or two tablespoons of ground espresso, it had to be recorded and factored into the cafe’s overall budget. This is why my manager yelled at me right away for filling the portafilter up past the brim with coffee (the way I was taught to at Z&H).
More differences: Z&H used shot glasses and timers to measure espresso. At Timezone 8, we pulled shots directly into mugs and glasses. Because I wasn’t taught this way, it was hard for me to intuit when to stop the machine.
Chinese milk is generally found on shelves, not in the refrigerator section, which means it has all kinds of stabilizers and doesn’t taste as fresh as American/European milk (although this may be changing). Business was booming enough that milk was used up so quickly that it never ended up going in the refrigerator. It took me some research before i realized: no wonder I was having so much trouble foaming milk! It’s not that you can’t foam room-temperature milk, but it’s much more difficult than icy milk straight from the fridge.
In conclusion: every year China becomes more and more “Westernized” and more cafes pop up, but coffee in China is a very recent phenomenon. Ten years ago, you had trouble finding even instant coffee on supermarket shelves, whereas coffee became the “American beverage” shortly after the Boston Tea Party. Coffee at Timezone 8 is still way better than anything you’ll find at Starbucks or your average restaurant. But once you’ve tasted coffee from a place that serves almost exclusively coffee and tea, it’s very hard to go back.