Tales from the life of a barista


Got Milk?

 Snap by Lajos Varga

Snap by Lajos Varga



In a South Bondi beachfront cafe, I overheard a man ask for camel’s milk. The french waitress leant closer.


“Camel,” he clarified.

“Sorry, what is this?”

And that should’ve been that. But the man, ignoring the waitress, gestured with his index finger for the manager to come over.

I worked as a barista on Bondi road and would quiver when the weekend forecast read ‘sunny’. The locals and the masses from greater western Sydney would flock to the sand like pilgrims. Behind the coffee machine I watched the sunrise, illuminating the bay, the promised land of the east, as the car bays quickly filled and each bus at five-minute intervals dropped off another raft. The line for coffee then extended out the door, wrapping around the corner, and the inundation began, which would’ve been fine had everyone ordered a cap with one.

The coffee menu had seven types or styles of coffee: flat white, latte, and so on. A trite for an experienced barista to wrap her head around. The complications only started, and for the most part ended, with the modifications, the slight and very annoying changes from the original. A customer may want to specify the strength of the coffee, from a quarter of a shot of decaf to three and a half of the single origin, or to any one, or sometimes a mix, of 5 types of milk. On top of that, we offered different sweeteners and sized cups and 9 blends of tea from a boutique in Byron, as well as matcha and chai lattes. Coffee alone, we were threatened with upwards of 1680 combinations of coffees, and that’s not including whether a customer asks for the cup to be filled to a specific fraction, like three quarters, or seven eighths (it’s happened).


Paper spilt out of the docket machine, a trail of orders to the floor. Every now and then I’d look up to see someone at the till and hear the machine whir out a new docket. The length of the whir sound would let me know how elaborate the order was, the number of modifications. The sound that accompanied a tradie ordering a flat white was heavenly brief, but the whir that once went with a group of young women in activewear and push-up bras felt perennial. The psychology of Chinese torture is that victims are driven frantic to the point of insanity because of prolonged restraint under galling conditions, the constant drops of water or, in a baristas case, the unrelenting sound of a docket feeder. The women’s order was so long the docket had to be folded to keep the paper that drooped off the bench on the table, so it wouldn’t keep falling to the ground.

While labouring over the six involved coffees, one of the women in the group poked her head over the coffee machine, prying.

“Just wondering how far away our coffees are? We’ve been waiting 10 minutes,” she said anxiously.

I looked down at the 20 dockets with the 40 coffees and then to the 40 people in the cafe. One thing that’s drummed into a barista is ‘the customer is always right,’ even though that maxim is almost always wrong. So, as a conscientious worker, I swallowed the itch to defy.

“So sorry for the wait,” I said, twitching. “We’re making it now.” She waited in front of the pass, the table where all the made coffees were placed for the floor staff to carry them out.

“Sorry, do you mind just waiting here,” I pointed behind the coffee machine. “We wouldn’t want to spill any coffee on you.” She obliged but didn’t return my smile. The tension built. “So, what you up to today?”

“Probably just the beach,” she said. Explains why she’s in such a hurry, I thought.

Finally, the waiter took the made coffees to the woman and her friends only to return with one of the drinks. “Sorry,” the waitor said. “She reckons she ordered the decaf long black with rice milk foam on top and one equal three quarters topped up.”

“Three quarters?”


“Doesn’t say on the docket,” I said. The woman returned to the coffee machine.

“I think I forgot to ask for it not fully topped up,” she said. “I like it a little stronger.”

“You want me to make it again?”

“Is that okay?”

Do you know how hard and wasteful it is to steam rice milk foam? I thought. To get nicely steamed milk, the steam wand has to force air into the milk. As the milk heats, the proteins attach to the air particles. The proteins are attracted to fat, allowing a stable mixture in foam, which is why full cream milk steams to delicious silk and why rice milk steams to gurgled water. The scoopable foam from rice milk is merely a bunch of fleeting bubbles. Once I tipped the bubbles onto her four fifths topped up coffee,  I upended the rest of the five-dollars-a-litre milk down the sink, then put a vengeful dash of lactose filled full cream milk and a caffeine rich espresso in with the rice milk decaf. I’m not proud of it, now, but a barista learns to take small wins. She sipped.

“That’s perfect. Delicious,” she said.

A friend once told me that, in Argentina, he reached a small community where he was welcomed by a local family after hiking for days in the cold, subsisting on only rice. In the shanty the family sat cross-legged on an earthen floor and dished out an equal amount of food to each member, then poured boiled water into a large pot of mate tea, a traditional caffeine-rich South American drink, which tastes like water sifted through nutrient deficient dirt. They blessed the dinner and passed the tea which had to be drunk through a metal straw. He hated the taste, but in the bitter wilderness a hot drink is irresistible and because he didn't have choice and saw that the tea was just an extra to the company, he sipped with gratitude.  After eating the children fed the leftovers to the cow, which they would milk the next morning, the milk my friend would deem the tastiest of his life.

The manager, who was trying to clear a table, rushed over to the French waitress and man who impatiently blurted.

“Excuse me, I was just asking your worker whether you served camel’s milk?”

“We only serve what comes out of a cow, sir. And soy. Bonsoy,” the manager said.

The man sighed slicking back a fallen hair strand. “Well, just a long black then,” he sneered and looked back down to the paper like the manager was the one who should’ve been embarrassed.