Not your ordinary bartender...

From the back streets of Kawangware to serving premier coffee in the elite circles of Nairobi; Collins Ambani has come from far. PHOTO|DENNIS ONSONGO

What you need to know:

  • Starting out as a steward, cleaning dishes and counters, Ambani began his career at the bottom of the food chain. Fresh from college, no one could trust him with the delicate art of making the expert cup.
  • The clientele that patronises five and four star hotels are well travelled and often well aware of the standards of specialty coffee.
  • As such, the management places a high premium in sourcing the highest quality of inputs and staff to prepare its meal.

To a casual onlooker, he is just a waiter going about his business pouring and mixing drinks. But Collins Ambani is more than that. He is a barista and mixologist at the Golden Tulip Hotel in Westlands. To put it simply, he is a master craftsman, who, through his expertise, formulates and serves drinks professionally to clients who appreciate such finesse.

Duty may demand that he rotates between the cocktail, soft drink and coffee bar, but it is his work as a barista serving up the finest cup of coffee that he loves the most.

Coffee  brings people together. Specialty coffee is grown by pro-farmers roasted to perfection and brewed by baristas who are the connoisseurs of coffee. Top baristas compete in world championships and enjoy celebrity status just like top chefs.

“Coffee is not just coffee, you have to go to school to learn how to be a barista and it can take you a whole year to learn how to make a decent cappuccino,” Ambani explains. “Most Kenyans still don’t know the difference, but there is a growing appreciation. The foreigners that I serve at my place of work appreciate top notch Coffee; it’s not the same as what you would buy in town.”

From the back streets of Kawangware to serving premier coffee in the elite circles of Nairobi; Ambani has come from far. Growing up in the slums of Kawangware, his father was always worried that Ambani would get lost in his environment. For this reason, he shuttled him between his rural home in Kapsabet and Nairobi. Ambani studied in Kapsabet until Standard Six before going to Nairobi for his final years of primary school and later returned to Kisanguni High School and back again to Nairobi. By the time he was clearing high school, his father was living in Kangemi and was doing odd jobs to make ends meet. To avoid the pitfalls of the slum life, Ambani played football with the Kangemi All Stars.

FASCINATION INTO PROFESSION

“It’s just by God’s grace that I have come this far. I came from the ghetto but was determined to get out despite the obstacles that we faced. There is a perception that people from the ghetto are criminals but I took the challenges positively,” he says.

His affair with coffee was love at first sip, a fascination that has now turned into a profession. While visiting a friend in Mombasa, he went to the Cafesserie; an establishment that combines authentic Italian coffee with French bakery. Their cappuccino, decorated with the Rosetta flower design, dazzled Ambani.

It was not just the taste or aroma but also the presentation that compelled him to the craft.

“I really wanted to know how to make that kind of coffee, so I asked around and was told about the Dorman’s Barista & Coffee Training Centre. I enrolled for a six-month course after which I took up an attachment at Artcaffe,” he narrates

Starting out as a steward, cleaning dishes and counters, Ambani began his career at the bottom of the food chain. Fresh from college, no one could trust him with the delicate art of making the expert cup.

The clientele that patronises five and four star hotels are well travelled and often well aware of the standards of specialty coffee. As such, the management places a high premium in sourcing the highest quality of inputs and staff to prepare its meal.

Ambani was willing to put in the work; when the supervisor was away, he would steal the opportunity and secretly try his hand on the espresso machine. With time, his skills and confidence grew and his seniors trusted him to run the coffee bar on his own.

“It’s really is a fine art, every drink is unique and there’s a globally accepted standard of how it should taste. For instance, mochachino has chocolate, coffee and milk with form, you can’t deviate from it. If someone orders a mochachino in New York, London, Kampala or Nairobi, they expect a mochachino,” he explains.

Though the blend of coffee may vary from place to place depending on the available types of coffee, astute coffee drinkers have become accustomed to a certain level of excellence.

This drive for quality has created a demand for coffee houses and baristas that can satisfy this picky clientele. In prime locations around town, a class of top notch baristas ply their trade, occasionally competing at championships representing their coffee houses. 

Events like the Best Barista in Town by Dormans and Kenya National Barista Championship attract competitors from different hotels and coffee shops across the country. Artcaffe Group Head Barista, Martin Shabaya, is the two-time Kenya National Barista champion and the reigning African champion as well. 

“Working with Martin Shabaya at the Artcaffe was really the highlight of my career,” Ambani says. “He is a good friend of mine and I hope to follow in his path. I am already training for the competition and plan to bring the title back home again.”

Coffee might be his first love but Ambani has diversified into mixology.

Like coffee, cocktails have also evolved into a competitive sport, with mixologists competing for the coveted price. Around town, premium bars are continually looking for that extra offing for the heavy spenders. This arms race has led to the emergence of mixologists who must set themselves apart from the regular bar tender.

The sophisticated drinker knows their Margarita, Manhattan, Martini or Bloody Mary so there is really no two ways around it; but it’s the signature drinks that really distinguish mixologists.

Additionally, these craftsmen serve their drinks with a theatrical presentation that embellishes the experience.  “The bar is really wide, with so many types of vodka, scotch, tequila and rum, but you have to know it all.

In the soft drink category, we have so many smoothies and milk-based drinks that I can prepare as a mixologist. We are not your ordinary bar tender; our skill, knowledge and end-product speak for themselves,” he says.

 

Q&A with Collins

What’s the difference between a mixologist and a barista?

A barista specialises in coffee but a mixologist can prepare different cocktails and smoothies. My workplace allows me to be both but coffee is my real passion.

 

Does coffee pay?

Yes, coffee pays if you know what you are doing.

 

Is there a right way to take coffee?

Yes, coffee begins loosing its flavour the minute it is served, so drink it immediately, you can steam it when it gets cold but you will not get the best out of it. The best way to enjoy coffee is without sugar so you get all the flavours but that is a personal preference. A cappuccino is an espresso coffee with milk and froth, it should be drunk warm, not hot. You take the froth first and then drink what is underneath. Always drink some sparkling water before taking your espresso; it will wash your palette so you can enjoy all the flavours. Pairing a coffee with a snack is also an art, it is largely an issue of preference, but a good barista will always give you some good tips.  

 

What does it take to be a good barista?

Coffee is very tricky you have to really love it and enjoy making it to be good at it. Coffee is also very wide, you have to take time to learn each variety and master it.

 

How can you educate Kenyans to appreciate high quality coffee?

It’s unfortunate that most people still think coffee is coffee, but those who are well travelled are exposed to different types of coffee. I can prepare over 12 types of coffee, but you just have to experience it to know the difference. We just need to live a little, try different coffees every time you visit a coffee house and with time, you will know the difference.

 

What’s the most unique coffee you prepare?

The simplest coffee to make is the Latte which is coffee with milk, but all the rest require a specialised skill. We have something called a ‘Babyccino’, a drink we make for children, with frothed milk but no coffee. We also have latte macchiato, which is a drink with three distinct layers of milk, coffee and froth. The real trick is to ensure all three layers don’t mix because they will mess up the beautiful design in the glass.

 

Did you grow up appreciating good coffee or dreaming to be a barista?

No, my father was a driver for an expatriate and my mother a house wife living in Kapsabet. The only coffee I was exposed to was just the regular coffee. My dream was to become a footballer and I was really good at it. If I had pursued it, I would have probably been drafted by now. Most of the people I used to play with are playing in local leagues in Kenya and working their way to a major European draft. Once I was introduced to topnotch coffee, there was no looking back.

 

How did you move from being a barista you get into mixology?

After finishing my initial training in 2011, I took up an attachment at Artcaffe and then followed up with a month at Cafesserie to train under their head barista but I still wanted to expand my skill set. My first experience as a mixologist was at Pride Inn Hotel, where I was doing juices and smoothies. When the Ocean Basket franchise first came in town, they were looking for mixologists who could maintain their international standards. They trained us for three months and I worked there for another one year perfecting my craft before I started at my current position early this year; where I get to combine all my skills and experiences.  

 

What is your dream in life?

I want to be the best at what I do, and compete at the same level as world class baristas and mixologists.

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