Todd Carmichael and Jean Philippe Iberti first became champions for “culinary coffee” in Seattle in the ’80s and crossed the country to found La Colombe Torrefaction in Philadelphia in 1994. Their company now has coffeehouses in New York, Chicago and Seoul, and Carmichael has expanded his interests. La Colombe’s adventurous green buyer navigated the South Pole on foot, solo. He’s increased philanthropic efforts and added a Travel Channel show to his schedule, titled “Dangerous Grounds,” which follows Carmichael the coffee hunter to countries like Haiti, Bolivia and Madagascar. We recently spoke by phone and Carmichael shared many coffee-fueled insights.
At what point did you know that you would work with coffee for a living?
It was 1988. Me and my business partner were two kids with fake IDs, working for another coffee company, dreaming about one day saving the cash and starting our own.
What’s your favorite part of owning and operating a coffee company?
It’s the fringe benefits of having some of the best coffee in the world every day. The non-cheeky answer is I enjoy working for myself. I’m a free spirit. Travel and adventure mean a lot to me.
What’s the biggest challenge about operating a coffee company?
Those challenges we’ve been able to negotiate. When we opened La Colombe initially, our days were spent purely in coffee. In the early years, it’s the administrative challenge. You have the drive, the palate and passion and skill to work in coffee, but after time, it’s about leases and accounting spreadsheets. This is really not what I signed up for. Now it’s 20 years on, I have 150 employees, I can do what I love to do, find it, cook it and drink it.
What are you hoping to accomplish with Dangerous Grounds?
It’s the same as what I did with Antarctica. It’s sharing something I find extraordinary beautiful. The center is coffee, but it’s the people that surround it, the mountains and voyage and the challenges it takes to get there. Coffee is a fruit and it grows at altitude? It’s not a product grown in California. It’s grown in countries that are dissimilar to our own, off the path. We’re hitting the open the road and hitting the trail, and we’re sharing that experience.
How are you able to maintain balance in your life, if you’re even able to?
Fro the most part, the show adds something to weight on my time, but I’m a coffee sourcer, and the Travel Channel is just following to me where I go. When I’m back from a trip, I become Mr. Dad. My wife would tell you, working on building up my husband points, because I’m cashing them in all the time. My children, I let them participate in what I do. Include them in the adventure. Having somebody along filming it, they’re able to see the clips and I’m able to share that. It’s a challenge. You can’t have it all. You can if you don’t sleep.
How many more duties can you take on?
My tank is full right now because in a lot of ways, sourcing opens up other responsibilities. Haiti, I was able to make it over the mountain to source coffee, and now I’m running an entire platform. We created a coffee academy and a nursery. We’ve literally transformed how that whole mountainside works. Often, there’s much more associated with sourcing than just coffee. I signed up with Fours Seasons Hotel and will be taking 33,000 pounds of coffee from that mountain over the next four years. I’m good. To be a husband, father and sourcer is already a lot.
Describe a typical coffee consumption day for you, from when you wake up to when you go to bed.
The typical day, if this is a work day and I’m near the plant, I have a Bodum French press, my brewer of choice, I’ll have two of those. I get up early because I need to read my newspaper before the house explodes. By my second French press, it explodes. If I haven’t stopped by one of the cafes, I have double espressos, 8-10 a day. As I age, I made sure not to have any double espressos after 6 p.m. That’s way down. My business partner, he had so many coffees, he lost the ability to see in color.
You said that Bodum French press is your preferred brewing method at home. Why?
I’m kind of a [tinkerer]. Take the French press, screw the knob off that the lid is attached to. Take the lid off. That’s there for safety, remove that, and let it steep for 3-4 minutes, push all the way to the coffee and lean on the coffee like you’re squeezing a rag. You’ll notice a stark difference in your coffee. The screen doesn’t actually let you push down and push out what’s in the grounds, which is the best part of the coffee. It adds another dimension.
If you could work at another coffee bar for one day, what would it be? It could be anywhere.
I’m going to say this, but in coffee, there are different sections. Stumptown Café in Ace Hotel. We have a different philosophy. The coffee geek world is split into sections. Stumptown occupies a different section from our company. I would like to cross the line and make coffee over there on that side.
If you could only have one more shot of espresso, who would make it for you?
Doug Wolfe, the most talented barista in Manhattan. I would go to 400 Lafayette Street, I would get in line and ask for Doug. He’s an artist.