James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

Four AM Coffee and Other Jet Lag Emergencies

Four AM Coffee and Other Jet Lag Emergencies

Flat white in Melbourne

I have an emergency: a desperate need at 4 a.m. for coffee, good coffee. Instead of capitalizing on this gift of time and silence, my body is on GMT+2—Johannesburg time—and by 6 a.m., the deprivation taunts me. There are free Anzac biscuits in the hotel room’s mini-bar and there is a Nescafé machine with four pods. I eat the cookies but avoid the predictable disappointment of an in-room espresso.

By 7 a.m. I am showered, dressed in black to blend in with the Melbournian sensibility in this part of town, and facing a medium-sized man wedged in a space that appears as if it could house no more than a single body. But there are two bodies in there, turning out toasties and avocado sarmies drizzled with fresh lemon. Switch Board sits in one of Melbourne’s laneway arcades, in Collins Street, with skinny benches plonked a few feet opposite and a glass alcove into which you can slide for some bleary-eyed people watching. I’m told the café occupies part of the site of the former Melbourne Telephone Exchange, which ran until 1958. Once upon a time, switchboard operators tended to emergencies (and whims) of a different nature.

“One flat white, please,” I say, throat scratchy with excitement, eyes dry from the hours spent staring at the hotel room’s ceiling. Many in the know call on the petite coffee bars similar to Switch Board, like Patricia and Brother Baba Budan, for superior coffee. (In the 16th century, Sufi Baba Budan is said to have strapped seven coffee seeds to his person, defying the strict laws in Yemen and the Middle East that regulated the growth and distribution of coffee within the region, and smuggling it to India. A reckless, brilliant man.)

While many of Melbourne’s coffee bars offer minimal seating—adjacent to the counter or at a cramped communal table—the modus in the CBD, I notice, is to pop in for a takeaway rather than linger over your laptop. At Market Lane coffee bar, queues tend to snake around the block at peak hour. Etiquette dictates you order, pay, stand to the side, and wait.

“Flat white,” the Switch Board barista announces with a smile. I may be dead on the inside, but my eyes light up at the call.

“In the morning it’s the caffeine hit and then off rushing to work you go,” says Maria Paoli, a barista trainer who founded Melbourne’s first coffee tour in 2001. I follow suit, and by 6 a.m. the next day, I’m stomping my feet, stalking another Melbourne hole-in-the-wall for a flat white, and later an iced latte, to go.

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