“HMMMMM... Ohhhhh... “Oh my, what a fabulous combination!” Nooo, this isn’t some risque opening to some err... porn masterpiece that I’m working on. Rather, I’m salivating over a cup of cookies and cream affogato from the cosy back seat of a neighbourhood café.
Being someone whose only excitement in life is discovering new coffee concoctions, perhaps you can imagine how thrilling it is when one happens to stumble on something out of the ordinary. I’m used to the standard affogato served with vanilla, and even coconut ice-cream, a combination served at a favourite local haunt. But cookies and cream? Now, that really does take the biscuit (pun intended!).
Barely four months old and located on a street that I drive down every day, I’d bypassed the café countless times thinking it to be yet another new dobi (laundry) or possibly an extension of my favourite hair salon, Retro, located just next door to it. With its non descript facade, a smattering of chairs outside, and the name “RINSE” pasted in terse letterings against the white concrete, it’s hard to say what kind of business is being conducted behind the glass windows.
But peer inside and you’ll see a cosy space bustling with pockets of people enjoying their beverage amidst boisterous chatter. Many cafés I’ve stepped into lately seem to be sporting that cold, industrial look with the ubiquitous peeling walls and unsightly wires dangling from the ceiling. This one, however, despite pulsating with that chilled, hipster vibe falls just on the right side of “pleasant”!
With its laminated wooden flooring and simple cushioned seats, comfy sofas in the corner placed next to an old TV, it’s certainly cosy, but at the same time, the unfussy choice of colour palette of white and grey, combined with minimal industrial design elements, shout quietly, “young hip”. It’s a space that both families and young people would be able to happily co-exist.
Playing softly in the background and weaving seamlessly with the chatter is Tony Braxton crooning Mad About You, turning the air inside mellow as the sun outside begins to sink into the darkening canvas.
Most of the excitement is centred around the open “bar” in the middle lit overhead by some funky lighting fixtures that seem to swirl like a halo. It’s the focal point of the cafe where the trendy owner, barista Mervin Chin does his Tom Cruise-a-la-Cocktail turn, teasing and exploring the boundaries of a beverage, from coffee, tea to hot chocolate. Aided only by a handful of staff, Chin, with his dark blue beanie perched jauntily on his head, hipster tortoiseshell glasses around his eyes, and a permanent chirpy disposition, is the picture of “roaster hipster”!
“Hahaha! I’m the epitome of the ‘reverse hipster’, if there’s such a thing,” chuckles Chin, during a lull in his work time. I’d just asked him whether he’s just another hipster barista in an already saturated landscape. “I don’t subscribe to hype and basically I like to do the opposite of what everybody does!”
The affable 25-year-old has been on his trendy sneakered feet since morning, attending to the continuous orders for coffee and the likes as I wait patiently while sipping contentedly on my affogato. Considering the café has only been opened for a few months, it seems to be doing very well, the ebb and flow of the crowd heartening for any proprietor to see. “Nice or not? You’re drinking our Ethiopian blend, Yirgacheffe Abaya. It’s rich and fruity, yes?” asks Chin excitedly, noting my look of satisfaction.
The KL-born Chin is passionate — and knowledgeable — about his coffee and craft. Just sit back and watch him launch into the virtues and technicalities of the “drink of the Gods” when you engage him on the topic. “I can ‘talk coffee’ with you for hours,” he exclaims, eyes shining. In many ways, he reminds me of another Tom Cruise character, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell in the 1986 blockbuster, Top Gun. He has opinions. Lots. And he sticks to his guns.
Says Chin: “My style is simple. I speak what I think and in this industry, they certainly get to hear my voice a lot. Not everyone likes it of course because I don’t conform. Bottom line, I’m just a guy who’s passionate about coffee and the trade, and I think that there’s much to be improved. As a barista, I believe it’s our responsibility to give the customer what he wants, and not to tell him what he SHOULD want. It’s also important for us (barista) to know how to communicate our craft.”
His passion to push the envelope led him to where he is today. “I was driven to open this cafe because I couldn’t find good coffee in this area,” confides Chin, who was previously a barista at another hidden coffee gem in Bandar Sri Damansara, Kuala Lumpur called Tree 15. “If I want to have Ethiopian beans or Kenyan, or I want to try lots of new things, where do I go? Many cafes are fixed to the same beans all year round.”
Staying in a comfort zone is just not his thing. After all, why else would this young man, who has a Master’s degree in Business Administration, throw in a respectable-paying job for something that’s considered rather menial for his level of qualification back before he opened RINSE?
“I was already working in a well-paying job before I even graduated,” confides Chin, looking rather bemused at the confession. “After I graduated, the first thing I did was hold a broom and sweep the floor (of a cafe). I wanted to get my foot in, from the bottom. My dad was so annoyed. And that’s how I started.”
And when he did open the doors to RINSE, Chin was adamant that he’d continue pushing the boundaries. “Instead of offering standard staples, I decided to bring in the best coffee, the best tea, the best Matcha, and be innovative.” Customers to the cafe have the opportunity to experience a drinks degustation, something one would normally enjoy at a culinary showcase with a chef. Just take a seat at the brew bar and enjoy the barista in his element. “That’s why I put the ‘bar’ in the centre so I can create that ‘open kitchen’ concept,” says Chin, simply.
LORD OF THE RINSE
Nodding to a gentleman seated barely metres away from us by the “bar”, Chin continues: “That’s my dad over there. He’s the one who gave me the initial funds for my business. To be honest, it’s not my dream to open a cafe!”
Noting my look of incredulity, he swiftly adds: “My passion is to actually craft things for people. I want my name on every piece of ‘art’ that I do. And the cafe is part of the colour/paint that I want to play with.”
The feeling that this driven Taurean aspires to evoke in his customers when they sip on his beverage is the sort that one would have when listening to a favourite piece of music. “I’m inspired by music and I’ve always been intrigued by how music makes us feel,” he attempts to elaborate. “I don’t just want you to walk in here simply for the coffee; I want you to associate being in my place with pleasurable feelings.”
With a wistful smile, Chin adds: “I think the gods were smiling on me that fateful day when I saw this empty shop lot. I knew immediately that I wanted to start something, even though I had no idea how things would turn out. It has certainly been a challenge but no one ever said a barista’s life would be easy!”
Chuckling, he poses: “You know what I want to happen maybe three years down the road?” I couldn’t possibly know, I retort good naturedly. Those eyes behind the glasses dance again before he replies: “I want to create a movement! Those who subscribe to my philosophies (on coffee) and ideas would be wearing my T-shirts and caps (he designs these too along with various other merchandise), and the baristas would sport my special stickers. To create a ‘culture’, people need to have a sense of belonging, am I right? So they wear this ‘identity’!”
Wow, in three years’ time you’re going to have a movement? I exclaim to Chin, desperately trying to contain my amusement.
“Well, it depends... my ego says time will tell, but my profit margin would probably be saying, ‘helllooo, wake up!’ But so far so good lor!” concludes the maverick maestro, his hearty chuckle mingling with the boisterous laughter in his kingdom of RINSE. firstname.lastname@example.org
Where 15, Jalan Damar SD 15/1, Bandar Sri Damansara,
Hours Tues to Sun, 11am to 10pm