Starbucks, give 'em credit, is able to do more than one thing at a time. Mark of maturity, that. The papers are full of its plans to expand into every corner of the globe; this week it's Russia. On the domestic front, meantime, they're promoting a slogan to follow up on last year's "Geography is a Flavor." The new catchphrase: "Coffee is Culinary."
Half a step back to the very American notion, articulated by New Englander Ralph Waldo Emerson and practiced on the Western Frontier, of individuality, independence and self-reliance. (To this day, the red half the country admires the swagger of its true believer and über-practitioner in the White House.) One could argue that the way much of America does business, including striving to create new markets for Starbucks, is an outgrowth of this philosophy.
But much of this country, and indeed most of the world, would be followers of ubuntu, the Bantu way of saying "We're all in this together." Starbucks seems to recognize this as well. And what better way to showcase the concept of ubuntu than by involving 36-year-old Marcus Samuelsson in a new promotion.
Samuelsson was born (as Kassahun Tsegie) in an Ethiopean village, placed in an orphanage after his mother died of tuberculosis and raised by foster parents in Sweden. Sweden! He became a chef (at a Scandinavian restaurant, Aquavit, in New York) even as he embraced his African heritage. Not the negatives (poverty, war, famine, AIDS, corruption) but the vast continent of great beauty, teeming life, shared community and generous humanity: ubuntu.
For the Coffee is Culinary concept, Starbucks repackaged Samuelsson's award-winning The Soul of a New Cuisine (James Beard Foundation's Best International Cookbook in 2007) as Discovery of a Continent. (Coffee beans replaced plantains on the cover, for example.) One of the high priests of coffee at Starbucks, Master Blender Andrew Linneman, then collaborated with him to create two new coffee blends: Joya del dia (using Latin-American beans) and Ubora (African beans). In east Africa, they point out, people are as knowledgeable and fussy about coffee beans as American shoppers might be about tomatoes or corn. And they went way beyond "coffee cake" recipes.
In Seattle this week for the third stop in a 22-day, 10-city culinary tour, Samuelsson cooked up a Pan-African plate of spicy Ethiopean beef and aromatic Moroccan couscous while Linneman brewed some Ukora in a French press. The combination was astonishingly smooth and flavorful, with the coffee's floral notes providing a counterpoint to the fragrance and heat of the berbere chilies in the meat. Around the room (the Starbucks in Madison Park), nips and sips and sighs of shared contentment. Ubuntu at work.
Who knew coffee could be so complex and enriching? Starbucks knew.