Curating a barista’s journey: Jessie Gao recounts the moments that have inspired her progress
It was 5 AM when Jessie Gao arrived in Hoi An after an overnight journey by bus. She was on a backpacking trip in Vietnam in 2016 and had some time to spare before the day began. Wandering into a local café, the space was already cramped with middle-aged workers as they were waiting for their early morning shift to begin. It was strangely silent as the sleepy patrons sipped on their coffee in solitude. Jessie stayed on and watched as the café soon emptied out. She was enamoured with the setting, taking in the morning calm over a cup of Vietnamese coffee.
While she went on to attend her undergraduate degree in economics in the UK, Jessie was a regular at Mokoko, a speciality coffee shop on Dorchester Street in Bath. She vividly remembers this as the place where she had her first great cup of coffee. Being lactose intolerant, her previous experience with soy milk alternatives in Canada and China where she had lived was hardly adequate – she hated the acidic taste soy milk brought out of coffee. Mokoko’s oat flat white changed her perception of what coffee could taste like. This whole experience was something she cherished, as the friendly barista Daf Jones always welcomed her curiosity and addressed her basic questions, while consistently serving a great cup of coffee.
For Jessie, the main attraction of the coffee industry has been how chill and friendly everyone is. However, she feels that an area for improvement is making knowledge more accessible and lowering the entry boundaries. She highlights the many job posts requiring at least two years of speciality coffee experience. She sees that as a barrier stopping many passionate coffee lovers from starting their careers. In fact, she’s worked with baristas who claim to have more than five years of experience but they didn’t even pass the basic knowledge test because they lacked the motivation to learn and improve their skills.
Jessie started with almost no professional experience and wants to continue to encourage those who have the talent and passion for coffee, whether through training or casual conversations. She wants to help those who don’t have years of experience to become a part of our coffee community.
Each milestone she accomplishes motivates her to continue to work in the coffee industry. It can be a random cup of filter coffee she’s just made that tastes so damn good, or a new latte art pattern she’s just nailed by watching a video dozens of times. She’s always wanted to enter a latte art competition, so that has definitely been a factor for her to improve on her skills and stay in the coffee industry. With an artistic inclination, Jessie enjoys visiting exhibitions and galleries quite often. She’s curious about the presentation and utilization of spaces in an exhibition context and will be continuing her postgraduate studies in MA Curating and Collections in September 2021.
Being a self-proclaimed food critic, she cooks a lot and is always on the hunt for the latest her local food scene has to offer. She records her gastronomic adventures and ratings on a dedicated Instagram account. She also took to vlogging, beginning with recordings of her life in the UK, travelling, cooking, and some coffee content. Upon the encouragement of her friends, she started her YouTube channel and is starting to evolve from her hobby to something a little more serious. Commenting on how the coffee industry has changed, she suggests that social media marketing has definitely become a major influence in the industry with a big tilt towards equipment-focused content on social media. It is predictable due to the constraints of the pandemic, but not something she enjoys seeing on a daily basis.
Instead, her favourite part of being in coffee is simply being able to enjoy what she does, and observe all sorts of people come and go at the cafe. Sometimes customers may ask if she owns the shop or if she’s the manager, and there are those who go back for a second time just to tell her she’d served the best coffee they ever had. Others whip out their phones to take a photo of her latte art. She’s particularly fond of these little moments where her craft and presence behind the bar stand out.
Jessie’s proudest moment so far was being promoted from a newbie ‘baby’ barista to a coffee trainer. She took up the responsibilities of overseeing trial shifts, training new employees and helping out the manager. This got her recognised quickly as she worked in a relatively small team. This was an intense and precious experience for her as she could handle the workload of a Head of Coffee, Coffee Trainer and Manager at the same time with no prior experience. She is proud of how many things she’s taught herself.
The biggest challenge she’s faced, however, has been when people make assumptions and look down upon her because of her race, age and gender. Jessie shares that she doesn’t really take them seriously though, as confidence is the key – they eventually come around after seeing how well and efficiently she works. Still, she realises that earning respect from those who have more industry experience and accomplishments remains a tall order as she’s fairly new to the industry. Attaining that recognition is a measure of success for her, along with her professionalism and being able to impact or motivate others just by achieving her goals and telling her story.
Indeed, practice makes perfect. Jessie’s advice is to be confident and recognise your own ability. She’s been talked down many times in her career, but has never given up – because she knew what her detractors were saying just wasn’t true:
“You should know how much you are worth and work for people who appreciate and respect you.”
Jessie’s daily inspiration lies in knowing she has so much more to accomplish, improve and explore in life beyond coffee and she ties down her process to “just be yourself” and continuing to practice, learn and have patience.