Laila Ghambari practically grew up in the barista business.
Her father, Ali Ghambari, opened the Cherry Street Coffee House when she was a child, and her first jobs were working in his cafes.
It wasn’t until she left Cherry Street to pull shots elsewhere that she started competing in barista championships. But it wasn’t until she came back to Cherry Street as its Director of Coffee that she won her biggest honor yet: Ghambari, 26, was named the 2014 United States Barista Champion at the Specialty Coffee Association of America competitions over the weekend. She had won the Northwest title in February, and she’ll represent the United States at the World Barista Championships in Italy in June.
Ghambari said Monday that her start in the business “really happened because of Cherry Street,” where she would go to work with her dad as a child, and got her first formal job as a teenager.
She realized after her starting jobs that she truly loved the field, and wanted to explore all it had to offer. “The thing that’s fun about coffee, to me it’s like an art form,” she said. It involves learning a lot about the raw ingredients and how to manipulate them and present them. Then, she said, in the big picture, a barista’s job generally involves making people’s days better.
“That’s a pretty fun job to have, when you get to talk to people all day and make them smile,” she pointed out.
A competitive person by nature, she started in the barista contests when her manager at the Urban Coffee Lounge in Kirkland, a former competitor himself, asked if she was interested in trying out. “It sounded fun. I’m not intimidated by standing in front of people and talking,” she said. She won third place in the regional competitions in 2009 and made the semifinals round in the nationals. (She competed that year with co-worker Andrew Milstead, who has since opened one of Seattle’s best-regarded coffee shops, Milstead & Co.)
The SCAA event required making espressos, cappuccinos and a creative signature drink. Scores were based on measures from flavor to the consistency of the foam.
For the signature drink, which involved engaging the judges for a 15-minute presentation, Ghambari went with a concoction she had developed after visiting Finca El Manzano, a farm in El Salvador used by Dillanos. Grower Emilio Lopez Diaz is a progressive producer who processes his own coffee and is experimenting with using different yeast strains to help with fermentation, she said. “He produces very beautiful coffee because he’s so involved and interested in what he does and is always trying to progress and change it. That’s the type of person you want to be working with.”
While on the farm, she tasted a jam Diaz’s mother had cooked, made from the fruit of the coffee tree. “I was just blown away by it. It was so sweet, and tasted just the way I would imagine the coffee cherry to taste.” She also wanted an element to represent the roasting coffee beans, and wound up with a dramatic one — smoke from a piece of the farm’s cherry wood, lit on stage and used with a smoke gun to add a savory flavor to her drink. She incorporated honey made from coffee blossoms on the farm. She developed the blend of beans she wanted with Diaz and with Phil Beattie of Dillanos. At the competition, she presented the drink as the story of those three people — the grower, the roaster, and the barista.
Her dad was cheering her on at the weekend competition — as was another group she’s been an inspiration to, the Iranian Baristas Guild. Ali Ghambari is Iranian-born, and Laila Ghambari had met other baristas there on a trip last year. There was a 12-hour time difference during the competitions, but “Dad had it on FaceTime,” holding up the phone so guild members in Iran could see her compete. “It was like they were there. Every time he would walk up and show me their faces I would start crying, because it was so beautiful.” They stayed up until 4 a.m. to hear the winning results.
Her involved performance drink is not one that customers are likely to see at Cherry Street, but Ghambari herself is in the nine stores “all the time,” and one of her responsibilities is training baristas. She rejoined the company just three months ago — other stints have included Stumptown and Caffe Ladro — after her brother’s first child was born, when her father wanted more time to “be a grandpa” and step back a little. “The thing about coffee is, it’s changed a lot in 20 years,” she said. Cherry Street is loved as it is, she said, and she doesn’t intend to change it in her new role — just to update it and help with training.
While world competitions might not be directly applicable to the cafe setting, “I’ve learned a lot about customer service and how to talk about coffee” through that work, she said. It’s all a good way to engage coffee drinkers, to share a passion, and to show them there’s a little more to that world than just a regular morning cup.