Vicky Cheng On How A Cup Of Coffee Inspires His Craft
There are nearly 17,000 kilometres between Hong Kong and Colombia, but chef Vicky Cheng seemed to feel right at home. While such a distance brought into sharp relief the dramatic contrast between the two regions, over four days the chef ambassador of Nespresso Hong Kong and co-founder of VEA was able to find the familiar in the unfamiliar—and a renewed sense of appreciation for a simple cup of coffee. Connecting with local coffee farmers in the Andean town of Jardín in northwest Colombia, located about a five hour drive from the cosmopolitan centre of Medellín, Cheng quickly saw that a growing dedication to quality is the backbone of this formidable coffee producing country.
It hasn’t always been easy. The average size of a coffee farm in Jardín is just 2 hectares (in Brazil, the average is between 5 and 7.5 hectares), but many farmers take on the responsibility of doing their own milling and drying of the coffee cherries. This crucial step before the beans are roasted is labor intensive and challenging—and not every farm is able to maintain the consistency and efficiency required to produce quality beans, which then impacts upon the environment as well as farmers’ livelihoods if they do not have enough high quality yield.
To address this issue, as part of the Nespresso AAA Sustainability Quality programme, the brand committed to build a community coffee processing centre in Jardín in 2010—a central mill that has enabled more than 200 farmers to improve the consistency and quality of their coffee while doubling their yield, increasing their profits and reducing the environmental impact of growing and processing in Colombia by reducing water consumption. By centralising the process, farmers are now saving up to five hours a day compared to when they had to mill and dry the beans themselves—precious time that they can put back into their personal lives and community.
The Nespresso AAA Sustainable Quality programme seeks to address the need for maintaining a high standard of coffee, which will ultimately end up in your cup. With three pillars including quality, sustainability and productivity, the programme is committed to support coffee farmers and promote sound practices in the process—not only environmental ones, such as managing biodiversity, water and soil, but also going beyond social and economic considerations.
The mill is operated to meet these exacting standards which, at the end of the day, results in a consistent and reliable coffee in your cup, whether you’re in Hong Kong or Houston. And as Cheng believes consistency is the single most important reason behind maintaining a successful restaurant, seeing firsthand the entire process and how Nespresso assists in keeping up that quality over the years was a reminder of his early days prior to launching VEA in 2016.
“Before I opened my restaurant I had the chance to bring my team to the farm [in Hong Kong] and have them see how hard and intensive it is to grow something before it gets into the kitchen or dining room,” he explains. “It was a way to show them how important farmers are in this world and what backbreaking work it is.” He points out that the Nespresso AAA programme is not just about ensuring quality coffee goes through screening, but what happens after quality control—what happens if a product doesn’t make the cut, for example.
“It’s about supporting farmers to make the most of their crops and time,” he says. “If one time the beans do not pass quality tests, then the programme will suggest ways to help the farmer grow a different way, so as to ensure optimal quality crops the next time around. It’s the same way we work in the kitchen. I tell my chefs that it’s totally okay to make a mistake—just learn from it, and don’t make the same ones. I’m a strong believer in that and that’s how I became the chef that I am today.
“It’s more or less like a AAA system in the kitchen,” he laughs. “We try our best to maintain the quality of the food and provide the best service we can, and cook consistent food. In this case we also try to make sure we nurture the cooks so that they can become better chefs in the end.”
On the farm in Jardín, Cheng found a kindred spirit in Humberto Galeano, the embodiment of hard work and a figurehead that inspired him further. The two spent some time on the farm, harvesting coffee cherries—a deceivingly simple task that made the chef realise just how laborious the process is to go from bean to cup. “To Humberto and all the farmers in Colombia, I want to say a big thank you,” Cheng enthused. “We experienced just a tiny bit of what you do and the work that you put in for us to be able to experience your coffee. I want to tell you that your work is really being appreciated all over the world, and that every time I drink Nespresso I will think of you.”
For Cheng, there is only one word to describe the experience: Inspiration. “This is the word to describe all farmers, the growing process, how the beans get traded, and the hard work that is really involved behind the scenes.”