Sailing on caffeine
The first touch of luxury arrived by courier: a heavy, black, embossed invitation from CEO Jean-Marc Duvoisin welcoming me this summer to San Francisco. And the artwork on the card? A midnight sea, the silver America's Cup and beside it, riding the wave ... a cup of coffee. Nespresso, what else?
The official coffee of the 34th America's Cup, "proud sponsor" of Emirates Team New Zealand and the international brand which nabbed George Clooney to front its ad campaigns, sure knows how to party - and how to market itself very well.
Being in a media group flown in (business class) to watch New Zealand compete in the last races in the Louis Vuitton Cup was not going to be hard to take. Six Michelin-starred chefs - including our own Josh Emett - have also arrived to cook a course each in a lavish dinner hosted by Nespresso for employees, retailers and business associates; but it's first things first upon our arrival.
There's a coffee shop to visit. Not that Nespresso ever refers to their stores in such a way. There are 300 of them in the global network and they are all "boutiques", shrines to good taste and exemplary service.
The large San Francisco outlet, the Swiss-based company's first on the west coast of the US, even has a self-service room where customers (referred to as members when they have bought a coffee machine) can select their own flavours and intensities of coffee, put the boxes in a carry bag and a scanner will calculate the order in the bag. A quick swipe of the credit card and the deal is done.
We are not here to buy, but rather to receive, and I opt for a caramel iced coffee in the Discovery Area before we are whisked away in a posse of America's Cup black Lexus wagons, their drivers always at the ready.
Our hotel overlooks the Bay Bridge and the ferry building and it's here, in makeshift kitchens in a covered verandah, that some of the world's top chefs and their assistants are prepping dishes for the banquet for 200 to be served upstairs in a few hours time.
Thomas Keller, owner of The French Laundry in Napa Valley and Per Se in New York, the only American chef to have been awarded three Michelin stars simultaneously for two restaurants, retired from the kitchen last year, but he is cooking today. He is busy prepping for his Maine butter-poached lobster course. It will be served with Black Mission Figs in a Nespresso Rosabaya bittersweet chocolate sauce, accompanied by cippollini onions (they are small, sweet and flat).
"You get a great sense of camaraderie at these dinners," he says, "and I am very honoured to be here, but they are a bit frustrating in that it's impossible to deliver what you want and you need to offer dishes that are the least likely to fail."
Fail he does not.
All the courses contain coffee in some form but, fortunately for those of us hoping to get some sleep later, it's in a rub or reduction, a subtle burst that's not overwhelming. "I've been working with my chocolate, coffee and fig recipe for 15 years," Keller says, "and it's been adapted with Nespresso for today."
Michelin-starred Kiwi chef (and Masterchef judge) Josh Emett is preparing the second course for the night - a thinly sliced, just seared venison loin. His coffee fix comes with intense, infused grapes. He gives me one to try on a spoon. Delicious.
It may have a down-home sound but Yannick Alleno's butternut squash is not the sort of dish you are likely to serve beside the Sunday roast. Cut into 2cm thick pieces with a pastry cutter, the corners are rounded, in the classical French manner, with a scouring pad (better use a new one) before the squash is baked with salt, pepper and coffee oil, garlic, thyme and ginger. But then it gets trickier. It is accompanied with a rye bread mousse flavoured with yeast and cream, strained then put into a siphon before being squirted at room temperature on to our plates. Alleno matter-of-factly explains its creation: "We never put stale bread in the trash in a restaurant kitchen."
The squash is drizzled with a vinaigrette (coffee and vanilla oil, chives, shallots, ginger, roasted sunflower and squash seeds, squash oil) and reduced red wine vinegar. Quite sublime. What else would you expect from a three-Michelin starred chef with locavore tendencies? His new bistro Terroir Parisien serves up reasonably priced, classic dishes from the Ile de France region surrounding Paris - from onion soup made with marrow and gruyere to a lamb stew with spring vegetables, even a finely crafted hot dog.
"It is a veal sausage, using the head of veal," he says in his charming, heavy French accent.
The bistro was a bit of a surprise for fans who were expecting the haute cuisine Alleno serves as head of Paris's Le Meurice or at 1947 at Cheval Blanc, Courchevel, a ski resort in the French Alps. He leaves Hotel Meurice in September and Alain Ducasse takes over.
Alleno says it is time for him to take a new direction and he has set up a laboratory in Paris with a team to "pursue the extraction of flavours and juices from food because I need to take the dining experience further."
Iron Chef winner Marc Forgione's cold-smoked coffee and spice-rubbed swordfish kicks off the dinner a few hours later when, after a cocktail reception in our hotel then Champagne and canapes outside the ferry building, we are led upstairs to be seated at long mirrored tables groaning with wine glasses. Grant Dalton and some of the Emirates Team New Zealand officials are here but the crew is having an early night.
Nespresso takes us out on two hospitality boats to watch the action up close the next morning but first I slip away for an early breakfast at the farmers' market across the road. Clooney's Tony Stewart, here at the America's Cup Village with his uber-popular pop-up restaurant The Waiheke Island Yacht Club, is a fan of the market and rightly so. The produce is just so good. I settle on a bag of the sweetest grapes I have ever eaten but the peaches and figs are just as tempting. I desperately want Mexican for breakfast but I forgo the pleasure. I am wearing white jeans.
We may all still have our feet on the ground but are elated just being here. Emirates airline hostesses with hot scented towels greet our return from an exhilarating few hours on the race course and then, oh, go on then, we have just one wine at the New Zealand base before heading back to the hotel.
Dinner at the booked-out Waiheke Island Yacht Club is another fresh-flavoured, six-course degustation that Tony Stewart has paired with beautiful Napa Valley wines. Primary ingredients are sourced from New Zealand, with the abundant, oh-so-perfect Californian produce backing it up.
"We are going through 100kg of lamb a week," Stewart says. "Our fish is caught in New Zealand on a Sunday and it's here on our menu on Tuesday. It's fresher than when we get it at home."
The Waiheke Island Yacht Club, which has been getting rave reviews from locals as well as from patriotic Kiwi diners, is staying open until December.
As I write this, my fellow team members are donning safety helmets and wet weather gear for a sail in an Extreme 40 catamaran, a smaller training version of the monster AC72s that create roars of excitement and disbelief in our hospitality boat when, high above the water, Team New Zealand and Italy's Luna Rossa literally fly right past us.
Nespresso says it has chosen to support the sport of sailing as it offers a prestigious image, international scope providing multifaceted opportunities for brand exposure and a unique way to experience the brand. "Coffee and sailing are both very close to Kiwis' hearts and we are proud to be supporting such an event," says Guillaume Chesneau, country manager Nespresso New Zealand. "The America's Cup has been a high priority for us for over two and a half years now. It is very close to my heart."
The socialising continues. Tonight there will be a Nespresso-hosted cocktail reception followed by dinner at Boulevard, the Michelin-starred restaurant opposite the hotel. But right now, I am hanging out for (you guessed it) ... coffee.