KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 26 — What does it take to run a café in Kuala Lumpur? For that matter, what does it take to build and sustain a very specific style of café, such as a Japanese-influenced coffee shop?
One such café is Artelier Coffee x Kitchen, opened last year at Pavilion Kuala Lumpur. The popular hangout spot attracts droves during teatime for their unusual assortment of cakes, such as the tofu cheesecake and almond sponge caked drizzled with honey, as well as made-to-order savoury treats such as the chicken teriyaki wrap. But great coffee is what it truly excels in.
The coffee bar is headed by Masahiro Aoki, a Japanese barista trainer and coffee consultant who has been grooming baristas in Malaysia since 2011 as well as judging at various Malaysia Barista Championships.
He first apprenticed under three-time Japan Barista Champion Chihiro Yokyoyama before launching outlets of German-based Darumiya Coffee in Japan and Korea.
Along the way, Aoki — respectfully referred to by industry acquaintances as “Masa-san” — had worked and trained with specialty coffee stalwarts such as Sherri Johns, founder of SCCA (Specialty Coffee Association of America); Justin Metcalf, a head judge for the World Barista Championships; and Paul Basset, the 2003 World Barista Champion.
To say Aoki is experienced would be somewhat of an understatement.
So when Artelier Coffee x Kitchen was first announced last year, there was already a group of coffee lovers who have been following Aoki for years eagerly awaiting its launch.
For Aoki, the challenge was in introducing new menu items for an ever-changing market. He says, “After five years in KL, I’m still learning about local tastes and preferences. Our focus at Artelier is to only use good quality products.”
According to Aoki, Malaysians like Japanese products and coffee. He says, “Back in Japan, the emphasis is on different roasting styles or profiles. In a Japanese café, there may be three hoppers with beans from various roasters, each a unique profile. Customers choose the beans, and the baristas will tell them whether it’s better as an espresso, latte or drip coffee — and not the other way round.”
Besides occasionally getting coffee beans from Japan, such as from Tokyo-based Glitch Coffee & Roasters, Aoki mainly sources from local roaster The Hub. Run by husband-and-wife team Nicholas Tay and Yuki Teh, The Hub is a boutique outfit known for their limited edition beans including rare ones from Ninety Plus Coffee, favoured by luminaries such as the 2016 World Brewers Cup Champion Tetsu Kasuya of Japan.
Tay recalls, “We first met Masa-san when he visited our café in Taman OUG when we first opened. He tried our coffee and told us it was too sweet. From there, we started a conversation about coffee and he brought many of his regulars to our café.
“Today we deliver beans personally to Artelier and discuss with Masa-san’s team. We help the baristas calibrate to get the best out of our beans but according to their customers’ preferences.”
This relationships extends to Tay involving Aoki in bean selection at The Hub, as well as experimenting with roasting. He says, “Masa-san hopes to roast his own beans some day and I’m glad to share. This way we both learn from each other. For example, we’ll never use beans such as Costa Rica for espresso at the Hub because I like Panama whereas Masa-san prefers Ethiopia.”
Aoki is also full of praise for the Malaysian roaster: “Unlike other roasters who stick to one style of roasting their entire career, Nicholas is very willing to experiment. He’ll change his technique to showcase the best profile of a specific bean, and then deliver that quality down the line to his customers. Then it’s our turn, as baristas, to maintain that quality till the end consumer who drinks that cup of coffee.”
For green tea, an indispensable part of any Japanese café’s drink menu, Aoki depends on Matcha Hero Kyoto run by Japanese tea specialist and Kyoto native Masahiro Onishi.
The affable Onishi imports various fine teas from Marukyu-Koyamaen, a centuries-old green tea purveyor based in the famous tea region of Uji, 20 kilometres outside of Kyoto City.
The two fellow countrymen first got to know each other in Kuala Lumpur, rather than in Japan. Onishi says, “Before I opened my shop here, I had met a friend for coffee at Wa Café, where Masa-san used to work, during one of my research trips to the city. That was when I started chatting with Masa-san. He learned that I was importing Japanese green tea into Malaysia and was very interested in learning more.”
During the lead-up to Artelier Coffee x Kitchen’s launch, Aoki approached Onishi again for advice. Onisihi recalls, “Masa-san was interested in our tea bags for Artelier. He wanted to expose Malaysian consumers to different types such as hojicha (roasted Japanese green tea) and genmaicha (or brown rice green tea). Personally, I find him to be very professional.”
The feeling is mutual as Aoki finds Onishi to be a kindred spirit in celebrating the best of their homeland whilst abroad. The barista trainer says, “On some level, it’s because we’re both Japanese and we have a tight-knit community here in Kuala Lumpur. I had decided early on not to serve black tea like other cafés but instead deepen our Japanese concept by focusing on Japanese green teas beyond the popular matcha that Malaysians are familiar with.”
Ultimately Aoki decided to work with these “partners” — his preferred term rather than “suppliers” — because of their passion. He says, “Of course, quality is important — without it, no amount of passion will convince me to offer products that are not the best quality to our customers. But there are many people who produce high-quality products. What makes a real difference is their personal belief in and love of what they do.”
Partners, for Aoki, definitely extends to the team of baristas he’s training and working with. He recalls, “Five years ago, when I first came to Kuala Lumpur, the standard was not like in Japan. So I saw opportunity to do something here. Then at Wa Café, I met a bunch of young baristas who were eager to learn. Their passion inspired me; they made me wonder what I can contribute to the industry here.”
Since then, some of Aoki’s protégés, such as senior barista Rain Lee, have followed him to Artelier. He explains, “My team is very important to me and I strive to create a great working environment for them. I strongly believe if they have a good place to work, a decent salary and amazing products to serve — something they can be personally proud of recommending, not only to customers, but also their loved ones — then they will stay on, learn and grow.”
Lee, who has been working with Aoki for four years, shares, “There’s always something new to learn working with Masa-san. You’re always challenged and never bored. I also found myself changing. I used to be shy with customers but he taught me how to interact with them, how to be interested in their tastes, opinions, their lives.”
According to the senior barista, many in their profession get stuck professionally. She says, “Baristas can get lost. At some point, they find themselves simply serving coffee to customers. That’s when they give up and maybe find a different job. Masa-san has been there before so he inspires us to keep growing — and he does this by example.”
Indeed Aoki continues to learn, such as delving deeper into coffee roasting through a stint with Glitch Coffee & Roaster. Why are so many people – from coffee lovers to coffee roasters – drawn to Aoki and his café philosophy?
The coffee maestro ponders this for a moment before replying: “I’m personally very excited about coffee; I can get geeky about it. I want to try new beans, the best beans, and share it with others. I think my team, my customers and my partners can pick up on this and get excited too.”
It takes a village to build and run a café but real passion to make it a success. As Aoki puts it, “Passion is infectious.”
Artelier Coffee x Kitchen
Lot 2.75.00, Level 2, Pavilion Kuala Lumpur, Jalan Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur
Open daily 10am-10pm
61, Jalan Hujan Rahmat 3, Taman Overseas Union (Taman OUG), Kuala Lumpur
Open Mon-Wed 9am-7pm; Fri-Sun 9am-11pm; Thu closed
Tel: 012-808 8834
Matcha Hero Kyoto
Lot 6.16.00, Level 6, Pavilion Kuala Lumpur, Jalan Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur
Open daily 10am-10pm
Tel: 011-2366 3325