297 Harbord Street, home of SJCB.
Like clockwork, Sam James unloads the ceramic cups from his trolley to the gleaming Nuova Simonelli espresso machine, lines up four jars of Belleville milk—a pitcher for each judge—and decorates their table with a mason jar of red roses. Wiping, steaming, pouring, placing, his black boots move swiftly to the music of Dr. John. With quiet precision, the Sam James we know from 297 Harbord Street is focused, in control, and pulling the last drop of hazelnut-butter espresso into the chocolate cups for his signature drink. Inside St. Lawrence Market at the 2010 Eastern Regional Barista Championships, the judges have drank, the clipboards have lowered, and Sam James finishes early. Wouldn’t it be a perfect one-year anniversary gift to win the national title—again?
At seven in the morning, one year ago today, James opened the doors of Sam James Coffee Bar to a not-so-surprisingly long line of customers. “I knew that we would have a loyal following, based strictly on one hundred percent quality and service focus,” he says. A resident of Toronto for six years, he’s done his time in the city’s food industry at places like Manic, Cherry Bomb, and Hank’s. “I’ve always thought it was important not to make any enemies. Put in a good vibe, and I know that it’ll come back, you know? I think if you’re like that, it’s really easy to build a good network of friends,” he says. “So when I had this place built, I had a reputation through friends, and I had a reputation through the industry.”
“I remember Sam was very particular about the latte art,” laughs Rachelle Cadwell, speaking about their days working at Hank’s. Then under the culinary genius of Jamie Kennedy, Cadwell was pastry chef while James was resident barista. Now, as pastry chef and co-owner of Beast restaurant in King West with her husband Scott, Cadwell approached James to design their coffee menu. “Do you know Sam?” she looks at me, “He’s amazing. He’s genuine, and wants to help people.” To a non-coffee drinker like herself, Cadwell was glad to have James select a French press focus for their menu, aware of their limits in espresso. “I don’t want to be one of the many in Toronto that make an okay espresso. The majority of people said they’d rather have a French press done well than a mediocre espresso, so that’s what we went with.”
James in his element at the 2010 Barista Championships.
For James, quality over quantity isn’t just in practice, but fundamental to how he came to do what he loves. Take the infamous siphon brew; James discovered the nineteenth century manual grinder when he learned French press with a Magic Bullet–esque machine. Let’s just say that you can’t make coffee and guacamole with the same equipment. Instead of getting a nice, consistent grind (“There’s only one coarse particle size you need for French press”), he used a sieve to separate the coarse from the fine. Still in search of a better way to brew, he came across the siphon in his research. “This is like the deliciousness of French press coffee, but the hands-on approach of an espresso, where you’re involved in the whole process.” And if there’s one thing he can’t stand about the plethora of coffee equipment amidst a coffee industry boom, it’s the automated machines. “I think old-school grinders, like manual doser grinders, can produce consistency. I’m not going with the trend of automating my equipment; I swear by my doser grinders.”
So if James wasn’t manually grinding his beans, researching better brew methods, or training his staff (which looks a lot like hanging out with his friends), where would he be? Believe it or not, a barbershop. Turning to the customer sitting next to us, a tall guy with aviators and grazing side burns, James prompts, “Wouldn’t you agree that a haircut is an important male necessity?” While we don’t get a reply but a side glance as he sips, James explains: it’s the hands-on craftsmanship. “That’s sort of my whole focus.”
There’s a pause, and then up walks another visitor. All the stools outside the café are taken up at his shop this afternoon, but James greets this visitor by name nonetheless. I get a sense that these punctuated interruptions are what he means by a following built up organically. “People up here, they actually live in this neighbourhood,” James says, “And they appreciate something from this neighbourhood, even though it’s been kind of barren for a while. They respect that someone in this community is doing something for the community. It’s for whoever walks by, whether they’re cool or not. We’re all regulars here.”
At the Barista Championships, James serves up extra espressos to friends and fans.
Like a good crema, James has earned a place at the top of many minds, hearts, and palates of the Toronto espressorazzi. He’s keeping mum on what’s around the corner for year two, but not about to shift his ways from how he does what he does. It’s what sets this Palmerston java joint apart. And, who knows? A little respectful competition could really shake up the coffee scene in the years to come.
To celebrate SJCB’s one-year anniversary, Sam James will be doling out free cups of his magic elixir all day Sunday, August 29.
Photos by Valerie Lam.