Hssss. Wipe. Tap-tap. She glanced up from frothing the milk for the order in front of her.
“I’ll be with you in a moment,” she says, and smiled briefly as she tilted the latte cup slightly to her right. As she focused on creating an image for the latest latte order, I watched – fascinated at her intense concentration, as if she willed the pattern to appear magically on its own. It was a pretty white pattern with nicely rounded edges on a rich, golden brown tapestry.
“Where would you like to sit?” she asked.
I lost my train of thought then, and resigned myself to asking for a quiet corner where we could have a chat. Her name is Betty. She is a barista at a quaint little café along Sin Ming Road, named Nook and Cranny. Well suited to its name, the café is relatively hidden from the street, although it is anything but quiet.
“Could you tell me about yourself, Betty?” I systematically spewed out the first generic question that came to mind, and realised I would have simply answered “yes”, and perhaps offered nothing else to the conversation if anyone had asked me that particular question. “So why did you decide to become a barista?” I hastily added.
Betty pondered over my question a little before answering… “while I was studying in Melbourne; that was when my interest in coffee culture started. At the time, I liked to stop by various cafés after class, and have a cup of coffee before making my way home. I found that I liked latte, which happened to be my first cup of coffee. I couldn’t help but be immersed in coffee culture, because that’s just what it’s like in Melbourne; it’s all about coffee. Although I started liking coffee then, I hadn’t thought of becoming a barista. My plan was to graduate as a graphic designer, and then maybe learn how to be a barista part-time.”
Although her interest in coffee had sparked then, Betty graduated with a bachelor in graphic design as planned, and eventually found a job working at a design firm in Singapore.
“I felt like my plan turned the other way,” she explained. “Turns out, being a graphic designer at the firm was an office job that didn’t really suit me well. As I’m a Malaysian, it wasn’t easy finding a job immediately after I left either. Honestly, there was a point in time when depression sank in; the first job I found was a job in food & beverage (F&B). Although I thought I could apply for a job as a barista, I had no work experience.”
Watching her downcast eyes, I wondered silently if I’d have given in to my hesitations and moved back to my home country if I had been a foreigner. As she continued her story, her eyes started to light up while she spoke of her first F&B experience.
“I had a chance given to me by Jimmy Monkey Café & Bar,” she continued after a short pause. “There, I could watch people, and learn a little bit, and then I realised that there was no chance at all for me to be a barista the way I was then. I decided to go to a coffee academy, Bettr Barista, to at least learn the basics of how to steam milk, watch a shot, and estimate what I needed to make a good cup of coffee. I took exams and courses, and completed the foundation and intermediate courses within a span of a month.”
Clasping her hands together and resting them on the table, Betty went on to talk about how she gained confidence as her knowledge increased. She talked about how her passion for coffee shone through while working part-time at Jimmy Monkey, and also how, when the peak hour crowd had slowed, she was finally allowed to try making cups of coffee on her own with some guidance. Although she moved on from there, Betty found that she didn’t enjoy her stint at her second café very much as their focus wasn’t mainly towards brewing a good cup of coffee.
“I want to improve myself every day,” she looked at me intently, “I really want to upgrade myself and find an opportunity to improve. That was when I found Nook & Cranny.”
She had hunted for jobs everywhere, without any sign of a response from the various companies she had applied to. “What about the coffee chains we have around the island, or McCafé? Surely a coffee establishment with roots in Melbourne would be suitable?” I interrupted naively.
Frowning slightly, Betty hesitated before explaining her thoughts. “Those places, I’ll go for coffee when I’m free during my off days, but I guess it’s more that it’s a franchise thing, and I really just want to focus on smaller places and slowly improve from there.” Admitting that her café days in Melbourne gave her a day just for herself and her thoughts on the past, present and future, Betty seemed at peace then, with the direction her life has taken.
As we spoke about her recent accomplishments, Betty revealed that she had entered a design competition in the recent Singapore Coffee Festival. Although she wasn’t the winner of the competition, she had managed to be shortlisted for a secondary competition wherein attendees of the Coffee Festival would vote to see which design they preferred most out of seven; the winning design would then be printed on merchandise to be sold by Detpak, the host of this secondary competition.
Pointing out that her design was the middle one, Betty expressed that she hadn’t expected to be shortlisted as “there was alot of people, and there were just so many designers who are better”.
“What would you like to learn next about coffee?” I couldn’t help asking as I was truly curious. She seemed such a passionate soul when it came to coffee, I wondered what skills she had yet to devour with her hunger for the art.
“Roasting,” she said. She wanted to know how beans were roasted, and how each country’s beans tasted. “Some can get really spicy!” she exclaimed, and I was fascinated; I had expected sour, or bitter, but never spicy.
As questions ricocheted in my mind, I picked a final question for Betty that afternoon (and sneaked in another for good measure). “When we talk about artisan coffee, there’s always the latte art. What’s your favourite pattern? Any defaults when you can’t decide what to create?”
“A tulip,” Betty said immediately. “It’s the fastest to do, and my default pattern. But if you ask, my favourite would have to be the ‘Slow Setta'”.
“I’m sorry, but the slow-wha??” I did a double take, and she laughed as she described it to me.
“You know, like a rosetta, but the slower version of it,” she explained that it was interesting because she liked how the hollow leaves showed themselves as she cut through the pattern. “At first, before I knew what it was, I thought, did this person make his own design? But I looked it up online and there really was such a design, and there’s a name for it. It’s the ‘Slow Setta’,” she remembered fondly.
As I thanked her for her time and we continued to talk about mundane things in the world of F&B, I discovered a newfound respect for this barista of Nook & Cranny. Many people have dreams, but moving off the beaten path to chase new dreams like Betty has done is never easy.
While we strive to find the next diamond in the rough, head on down, order yourself a cup of Joe, and have a chat with Betty herself.
Nook & Cranny
9 Sin Ming Road
#01-03 Thomson V One