Saturday, 30 June 2012

express yourself...

I don’t know much, but one thing I do know is that sport will find you out.  When you line up against 7 other dudes all wanting to bust your ass.  With a crowd of thousands. And perhaps a few million watching on TV, there is nowhere to hide.  You cannot lie to yourself.  Do so, and you’re toast.  It’s happened to many.  And will happen to many more.  
It’s why it is is so important to be true to your own personality in competition.  Many struggle mightily with this.  Think you need to be ultra-aggressive? Then pace around like Maurice Greene.  Or stare down the track intimidatingly like Linford Christie.  That didn’t work?  OK - try joking around like Bernard Williams.  Or Jon Drummond.  Or messing about, a la Usain Bolt.  

Hmmm.  That didn’t work either?  Now what?

In his excellent book, ‘The Art Of Learning’, former child chess prodigy (and the subject of the movie, ‘Searching for Bobby Fischer’), author Josh Waitzkin writes regularly about the struggles he had with certain coaches who didn’t share his general chess aesthetic.  They didn’t allow him to express his own individuality at the chessboard; in essence handcuffing him to a style he was not comfortable with.  Waitzkin was a creative, passionate, and attacking player, and just didn’t connect with the systematic strategy of a more conservative approach.  Where once he had forged ahead - trusting in his instincts - and playing with a natural freedom - the new, more rigid style led him to question himself, and his game.  Self-doubt had crept in.  His game suffered.    And, very interestingly, so did his passion for chess.  In his words, “it no longer felt like an extension of my being”.  It was not until he changed coaches, and re-connected to his old style of play, that his playing - and his love of the game - improved.
We see this all the time in the men’s sprints, especially.  The bigger the meet - the more the pressure - the further some athletes stray from their natural selves.  I saw it last weekend at the UK Olympic Trials, and I saw it again this morning, as I watched the 100m final of the Jamaican Olympic Trials, at which Yohan Blake absolutely roasted Usain Bolt.  

Watch the introductions.  Yohan reacts to the camera in his normal way.  Asafa just doesn’t know what to do - as usual. And Usain?  Hmmm....not really sure.  He definitely doesn’t react in the usual ‘Usain-manner’.  Clearly, he was feeling pressure - as he was in Deagu last year.  Perhaps he felt he needed to ‘be serious’ - as this was definitely going to be a test (it was probably the most competitive National Olympic Trials of all-time; PBs going in: Bolt: 9.58, Powell 9.72, Carter 9.78, Blake 9.82, Frater 9.88, Clarke 9.99).  In Deagu, he was his normal self, but it didn’t work for him.  And he’s been inconsistent this year, so maybe he’s beginning to question himself.  Questioning his natural personality.  His approach.  Self-doubt begets a lack of freedom, and you cannot run fast without freedom.  Watch his run.  Does it ever look ‘free’?

All conjecture, obviously.  But the point still rings true:
“one of the most critical factors in the transition to becoming a conscious high performer is the degree to which your relationship to your pursuit stays in harmony with your unique disposition...By taking away our natural voice, we leave ourselves without a center of gravity to balance us as we navigate the countless obstacles along our way.”

- Josh Waitzkin

Thursday, 28 June 2012

an open letter to the young strength coach...

Last time I wrote a slightly derogatory post, I got accused of ranting, so I’ll be careful.  But it will be difficult, because I’m going to write a little about the state of our industry.  

Like the rest of the world, the coaching profession (and in particular, strength and conditioning coaching) has been going through a rapid period of dilution.  I will write more on this subject at a later date, but for now, I just wanted to offer a couple of thoughts.

Chances are you have never heard of Matt Jordan.  Or Ian Danney.  Or Jonas Sahration.  Not because they’re not good; in fact, they’re three of the best and most successful strength and conditioning coaches in the industry.  You haven’t heard of these guys because they’re too busy being strength and conditioning coaches - not writers.  

To me, it seems there are three types of industry professionals:

1. The on-line gurus, who enjoy excellent reputations, write a ton of stuff, but don’t really have a lot of ‘in the trenches’ work in high-performance sport.  If you’re writing a couple of thousand words a day, when can you possibly have time to coach?  

2. The ‘in the trenches’ guys, who spend their time working with athletes, and learning how to do this better.

3. A combination of the two.

The first group of guys is what annoys me a little about this industry right now.  Because these are the dudes that people are reading, and  ‘learning’ from.  I’ve worked in high-performance sport - and in particular with speed-strength-power athletes - for two decades, and it was only until the last couple of years where I have begun to have close to the time needed to begin to write down my thoughts.  My time in my coaching career has been spent, well...coaching.  
The guys in the first group are well-known, so I won’t bother naming anyone here, and I’m not sure that I really blame them anyway.  They’re just trying to make a living, right?
...I’m not really sure this is the way one should do it.  I really feel that you should build your reputation doing what it is that you are actually supposed to be doing. I.E. if you’re a chef, you should develop your reputation by cooking good food that people really enjoy.  My reputation in this industry (good, bad, or indifferent) has been built by what I have done - coaching.  My twenty years of coaching athletes.  What they have said to others.  How they have competed.  How many medals they have won. By regular discussions with fellow coaches.  

My reputation as a COACH should NOT be based on how and what I write.
The on-line gurus have - with almost no exceptions - built their reputations while punching away at a keyboard from behind a computer screen.  I’m not saying that many of them are not excellent coaches - I’m sure that some are.  But how do we know?  

In what other industry is this present?  Do we judge a doctor by playing him 1 on 1 on the basketball court?  
The third group - I have no problem with.  Normally, these are the dudes that have put in their time.  Have had successful coaching careers, and perhaps want to spread their message a little.  Maybe leave a legacy for others (a good example here would be Vern Gambetta - legendary coach - who developed his reputation actually coaching - and is now spending more of his time writing; passing on his knowledge to guys like me).  Or perhaps they are guys in mid-career, and are combining the two.  This is difficult, but has been done successfully by a few.  For example, John Berardi began writing while he was in college - when he didn’t really have much ‘real-world’ experiences.  But 15 years - and a million or so words - later, he is also a well-respected coach; and I would argue that it is as a coach where he developed his reputation - the global domination of the nutrition industry via the printed word came later.  
So my take-home is this...

Instead of blindly following whoever happens to be popular on T-mag at the moment, read some studies.  

Read the classics.  

Talk to successful coaches.  

Ask them why they do what they do.  Who have they learned from?  Go to strength and sport science conferences, and ask why....not what.  

Constantly try your ideas on yourself, and whoever else you can talk into your wackiness.  Find some athletes to coach.  Don’t be afraid to experiment.  A little.  

And please...don’t worry about your ‘brand’.  Your ‘image’.  

Do good work.  Add value.  
...and build your reputation with integrity.  

read part two here

(if you enjoyed this post, please like it on Facebook and/or give it a Tweet...thanks!)

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

on embracing imperfection...

So, I'm currently in Jamaica.  Heading to 'Champs' tomorrow (the biggest high school freak show track meet in the world).  What I'm trying to say is I'm a little busy - doing nothing. So I've pulled this one out of the archives from last year.  Back to our regularly scheduled programming shortly...

One of the reasons it took me so long to start this blog, is that I was waiting until I had a whole bunch of fully-formed ideas, that I could consistently and expertly express in writing. 
Problem is - besides being a procrastinator - my fully-formed ideas are in a constant state of flux; thus rendering the whole idea slightly paradoxical - 'fully-formed fluidity', maybe?
So I delayed. And delayed some more. Totally missing the point of a blog. Journal articles, strategy documents, essays, books. These are the sources for 'fully-formed ideas'. 

Not a blog. 

A blog is a fully-formed idea under construction. A part of the process of formation. In the words of Felix Salmon, blogs should be “wonderful tools for generating ideas, rather than being places where your precious store of ideas gets used up in record-quick time.”
Possibly cliche number one in the Great Book of Cliches states that life is about the journey - not the destination. Writing - and idea formation - is the same. We are a product of all we read, think, experience, and write. We are the sum of our experiences. It is an on-going process. Our thoughts are a rough draft, with a constant process of revision. And it is in this process that success lies.
It is the same with sport. If you are waiting until the end-product of your work for your satisfaction, then you will be disappointed. Revel in the training. In your experiences. The challenges.  In the friendships you make. The relationships you build. With others.  With yourself. In the strength you possess. Your will. Your commitment. Learn from your failures. For there will be many. 

Don't be proud of your perfectionism. It is a flaw. The struggle to avoid failure is a fear-driven, exhausting, stressful way to live. Perfectionism will not lead to high-performance. 
High performance comes from embracing your fears. From confronting failure. From be-friending your imperfection. 
The baker can’t simply live for the look of amazement on the faces of those who behold his latest creation. There has to be some joy in actually baking the cake.” 
- Ta-Nehisi Coates

Monday, 25 June 2012

500words on...a few of my favourite things

500 words...
by Stuart McMillan

I am often asked where I get my information from - or what I read/whom do I study. More often than not, the answer to that question seems to be on-line resources. Being a traditionalist, I still read as may old-fashioned books as I can, but there is so many smart people writing so much great stuff on the web, that my 'top sites' section in my bookmarks folder is beginning to bust at the seems...
In this post, I share a few of the sites I visit frequently that are currently in my ‘top sites’ section (this does not include the numerous great articles I read each day on Zite, Flipboard, and Instapaper). 

I have been going to this site regularly since its inception, and continue to visit it every week or so. It was started around the turn of the millennium by a guy named Toby Walker, who seems to know pretty much everything about soul music from the 60s, 70s, and 80s - with a special interest in ‘rare grooves’. Real its best form - vinyl. Love it!
I have known Matt for over 15 years, and I can confidently say that he is one of the best strength coaches in the world. He’s worked with a ton of high-level athletes, including dozens of Olympic and World Champions and professional athletes. He’s recently started a so-far extremely informative blog; a great coach and an excellent writer.

JRoss is a chiro and strength coach based in Grand Rapids, Michigan....excellent at both, Jason operates a cool blog, where he writes on a number of topics around training and therapy. He’s pretty proficient - blogging almost daily, with a ton of great info.
The original training forum. Unfortunately this Yahoo Groups site has dropped slightly in quality since the passing of its founder, the great Mel Siff. But, with its massive catalog of archives, it’s still a great resource. There’s a whole heap of big-timers writing on there, and, if you’re interested in training and/or therapy, you could do worse than spend a few hours at Supertraining.
Owned by my good friend Dr John Berardi, PN has been on-line now for over ten years. The vast catalog of articles and busy forum continue to be a great resource for all interested in high performance nutrition. Also check out JB’s original site
Great almost daily blog, operated by fast-rising author, blogger, self-help guru, and former hedge-fund manager Altucher, who has also published a number of worthwhile (and cheap) books. I immensely enjoy his thoughts. Excellent alternative viewpoints. 
Maria Popova calls herself a curator, and describes Brain Pickings as "a human-powered discovery engine for interestingness, culling and curating cross-disciplinary curiosity-quenchers, and separating the signal from the noise to bring you things you didn’t know you were interested in until you are.". An amazing resource. 

Friday, 22 June 2012


"Every day, wake up and see what you can experiment with. Foods, lifestyle, exercise, people you associate with and how they make you feel, methods of meditation and self-improvement, methods of feeling contentment when everything seems to falling apart around you. It’s all experiment...Cultivate and nourish the feeling. You are the scientist and explorer of the life around you". 

- James Altucher

James Altucher is a former hedge fund manager, who now spends his time as a blogger-writer. He has written numerous books, which are mostly available on Amazon for free or very cheaply. I have read all of them, and continue to read his blog daily, where he shares his theories on how to live a happy and successful life. If you're familiar with Altucher, and read much of his work, his habit of ‘self-plagiarism’ - or recycling of his own work - can become a little wearisome (purposely, I’m sure).
But while the message may be non too subtly hammered home through seemingly never-ending patterns of repeated paragraphs, stories, and links, they always make you think, even when you don’t quite believe in the message.  
Recently, he blogged on a topic that has become quite popular: self-experimentation. What, in scientific parlance, is known as single subject design, or subject n of 1.

I have been a big believer in running experiments on myself for years, and have tried numerous eating, sleeping, and training methods in an effort to satisfy my curiosity. I have even managed to convince others to do the same on occasion, and as a coach, I am always testing out a 'mini-hypothesis'. 

For example...
One thing I am constantly experimenting with is my eating habits. A decade ago, I began to play around with various forms of fasting. As usual, I jumped in at the deep-end, and I began - foolishly - with weekend fasts, where I would attempt to go 48 hours without eating a thing. This lasted a grand total of two weekends. Two very miserable weekends. So I tried a 36 hour fast - not eating from Wednesday at 9pm to Friday at 9am. This was much more successful. Although quite difficult in the beginning, within a few weeks, I actually began to enjoy it. I didn't find that I got hungry at all, and began to really appreciate my food more and more each week. Initially, I really looked forward to my Friday breakfast, ensured it was of the highest quality, and that I focused on the specific taste of each bite. Eventually, I found that this carried through a little further into the weekend, and then even into the beginning of the following week. By the time Wednesday came around again, though, it was back to business as usual - taking my food and the eating experience for granted, and rushing through meals that were not carefully prepared, or grabbing some food on the go from somewhere. The other problem was - after almost 10 months of fasting - I had lost over 30lbs, and was beginning to look a little unhealthy (probably not an issue for most, but my default is pretty skinny, so I have to actively eat enough and train enough to not look like an anorexic super-model). By not really adjusting my caloric intake during the rest of the week, I was reducing my weekly calorie count by 1/6th.
So I stopped - declared it a success, and vowed to thereafter try to do a better job of appreciating my food on a daily basis. 
And it worked...for about a year. 
And then it was back to rushing through my meals - barely tasting what I ate. I still ate well, mind you, and really enjoyed a lot of meals - but these were mainly at restaurants with friends, where the whole experience is different. What about meals at home? Well, these were pretty hum-drum affairs, that mostly involved another self-experiment: designing the world's greatest smoothie (which we called, courtesy of my buddy Dr. John Berardi, 'super-shakes'). So supershakes and eating out became the standard. Which was OK, actually. I came up with a ton of great shakes, got to know quite a few different restaurant owners, and eventually was able to parlay these relationships into some nice food discounts, some sponsorships for my athletes, and even some good friendships. 
It remained this way until sometime in 2007. It was about this time, when I first began to read some of the research on 'intermittent fasting'. Almost all of the scientific research was done on mice - and it was pretty encouraging - but there was also a group of folks around the globe beginning to experiment on themselves, and others. Guys like Ori Hofmekler (the Warrior Diet), Martin Berkhan (Leangains), Brad Pilon (Eat. Stop. Eat) were devising their own theories on fasting, and offering some excellent results.
So I got back in the game, and started back with my old 36 hour weekly; this time better controlling what I ate the remainder of the week, and combining it with a weekly 're-feed' or 'cheat day', which would involve pretty much eating whatever I wanted (most Sunday mornings involved spending 3 or 4 hours at the local breakfast joint, wolfing down a couple of omelets, half a dozen pancakes, a few Belgian waffles, half a pound of beef sausage, and a loaf of bread with jam). 
Together, the fast and the re-feed gave me a whole new appreciation for eating. I really began to enjoy my food now, and though I still wasn't cooking and eating at home much, I would never eat poorly sourced or prepared food, as the restaurants we went to were always of high quality. My default was a new deli-style restaurant/marketplace near my home called 'The Main Dish', where I got to know owner, Jason Zaran pretty well. Through our relationship, he began to sponsor a few of my athletes, and to this day sponsors a handful of local athletes, and has developed excellent relationships with numerous National teams and the Canadian Sport Centre, and a sport school.
After my move to the UK following the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver-Whistler, I have continued to experiment with various fasting protocols, as well as messing about with sleep timing. My training history is one long self-experiment, which I continue to enjoy. I believe because of all this, at almost 43 years of age, I'm the healthiest I've ever been, and my healthiest days are still ahead of me. I continue to find out more about myself. Throwing away the things that haven't worked. Keeping that which has. My life continues to improve, and I continue to enjoy it more. 
But I can do more. I have viewed my self-experimentation just from a health perspective - i.e. eating, sleeping, and training. Altucher, in his recent blog post, writes about applying it to all areas of your life. Others do the same. Popular blogger, turned multi-million selling author Tim Ferris writes mainly about 'hacking' various things in your life; in essence, experimenting with your life as a means to improve it. 
Altucher agrees, suggesting viewing your entire life as one long experiment. Relationships. Associations. Education. Major decisions. All experiments. Like a scientist, develop a hypothesis. Then test it. You think you can get by on 3 hours of sleep? Try it out for a month. Didn't work? Try something else. 
The benefits of such self-experimentation are many; including:
1. Satisfying your Curiosity
We are all curious beings. Here is our chance to satisfy it. Think that you would be happier if you wore a dickie bow to work every day? Maybe you've always wondered what it would be like to be a vegan. There's only one way to find out - try it!
2. Mindfulness
When you view your existence experimentally, it is much easier to remain 'in the present'; I wrote earlier about learning to actually enjoy the process of eating. By developing and testing a specific hypothesis, this forces you to do the same with whatever it is you're testing. Because of my eating experiments, I challenge anyone to enjoy the process of cooking and eating more than I do now.
3. Sharing
There is a certain satisfaction we all get when we share information with others - especially with those we care about. If we can then help them make improvements in their own lives - even better. But whether you share your results on Facebook, Twitter, a blog, or the old-fashioned 'actually talking to someone' way, the satisfaction is the same.
My personal favorite reason for experimentation is to improve my self and my life - the on-going journey of self-improvement - whether it involves being healthier. Becoming wiser. Doing less. Doing more. It is all an experiment; one which I look forward to applying to ALL of my life.  FOR all of my life.
It's the reason I started this blog. 
It's the reason I don't eat rice, bread, and pasta. 
It's the reason I don't do cardio. 
I think it's the reason I coach. 
To play the role of self-scientist. To find out what works. For me. Subject n1.

"Every artist experiments. With colors, ideas, styles, everything. Now all life is your canvas. Make it a beautiful work of art".

- James Altucher

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Bed of Procrustes

Part I

Theseus was the mythical founder-king of Athens, who is perhaps best known as the slayer of the Minotaur. He was raised with his mother in Troezen, apart from both his mortal (Aegus - one of the primordial kings of Athens) and immortal (Poseidon - god of the sea) fathers - it is a popular feature of Greek mythological heroes to have both mortal and immortal parentage. Prior to his returning to Athens, Aegus left instructions for Theseus to also travel to Athens to claim his birthright once he became man enough. 

It was Theseus' 'journey of labours' from Troezen to Athens, that is most interesting. 

During his travels, Theseus encountered six dangerous adventures, where he had to defeat six different guardians to the entrance of the underworld. After defeating the first five adversaries, Theseus came across Procrustes - another son of Poseidon - who owned a small estate in Attica, where he offered travelers a meal and a 'magic' bed in which to spend the night.

Now, Procrustes is a really interesting character. His promise of a ‘magic’, perfect-sized bed for travelers came with a caveat. The manner in which the bed became perfect was not too agreeable to his visitors, I would suspect. The myth explains that Procrustes - after inviting guests in and feeding them, would offer a bed to each that was purposely - and unknowingly - ill-fitted (he kept both a large and a small bed). He would then proceed to stretch those who were too short for the large bed, and cut off the feet of those who were too tall for the small bed, in order to make them fit into this 'perfect-fitting bed'.

Procrustes, who's name means "he who stretches", continued his reign of terror until he was captured by Theseus on his last battle during his journey, who duly punished Procrustes by fatally adjusting him - by be-heading and amputating him - to fit his own bed.
The myth of Procrustes, and the unique manner in which he treated his guests, is now used in many contemporary forms. Procrustes analysis, Procrustes transformation and Procrustes solution are all mathematical constructs, while a Procrustean string is a computer science concept. 

A "Bed of Procrustes" is defined as any arbitrary standard to which conformity is forced, and is also the title of a book of aphorisms by acclaimed author - best known for his best-selling book "The Black Swan" - Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Most of Taleb's writing focuses on problems of randomness and probability, whilst his most recent work's thesis states "we humans, facing limits of knowledge, and things we do not observe, the unseen and the unknown, resolve the tension by squeezing life and the world into crisp commoditized ideas ...". 

In essence, he is saying that the metaphor of the bed of Procrustes is about the inverse operation of changing the wrong variable - in this case, the bed instead of the person.  Taleb gives many and various examples through the aphorisms in his book, including the perception of pharmaceutical companies “inventing diseases that match existing drugs, rather than inventing drugs to match existing diseases”.  He writes that “because our minds need to reduce information, we are more likely to try to squeeze a phenomenon into the Procrustean bed...rather than suspend categorization, and make it tangible”.
It is easy to see how the bed of Procrustes can be applied to sport; and in particular, training and program design.  All coaches have their philosophies, and all coaches fit their athletes into these philosophies, no matter how much we profess to ‘individualization’.  The question is not IF we are guilty of compartmentalizing - as our very nature is reductive - but to what depth.  We exist in a constant battle between rationalism and empiricism: we make the error of one, while being bound by the other.  
So how can coaches make like Theseus and defeat our beds of Procrustes?

to be continued...

Monday, 18 June 2012

caffeine cruise - part II

I reviewed the first four coffee shops is the second four.  In case you missed the intro:
Just less than a year ago, I had never had a coffee in my life.  Then I met Steve Hooker.  
Olympic champion Hooker, and fellow pole-vaulter, Steve Lewis, introduced me to the world of fine coffee.  Hooker is from Australia, where it seems a ‘flattie’ or a ‘stubbie’ are as popular as the ‘cuppa’ is here in Blighty.  
So I was welcomed at the door by flattie, shown inside by tall mach, offered a seat by piccolo, and got real tight with Mr espresso and Mrs ristretto.  My entry into this house was swift...and immutable.  
I was here to stay.
10 months later, I’m a coffee snob.  I have yet to taste a Starbucks, a Pret, a Costa, or a Nero, and I never will.  This ‘diluted for the masses’ philosophy is something I generally despise, and something I specifically have no taste for.  Especially in London.  There are FAR too many fabulous independent coffee shops here to ever set foot in one of these mass market dross-houses.  
So to all you Starbucks-addicts - what are you thinking?  Take a chance. Try something different.  Maybe somewhere where the barista has a clue how to make a proper coffee.  From a quality bean.  Roasted with expertise in an exceptional roaster.  Ground righteously in a great grinder. And perhaps combined expertly with quality milk.  In cool surroundings.
To help you out, today myself, and two of my roommates - Steve Lewis and Leah Vause - generously agreed to explore the City in search of the best coffee in London.  But there are too many to choose from.  So we just limited our tour to Shoreditch and the City.  Next tour will be the West End, and then perhaps the North.  But for now.  While my eyelids are still caffeine-pried apart Clockwork Orange-style.  Here are the eight that we chose.  That were open.  Part II.

Cafe and...

There are a bunch more quality brewhouses in Shoreditch (Nude Espresso, Taylor St Baristas to name two), but unfortunately many were closed, so we ended up going to one that just ‘happened to be there’.  
Located on Redchurch Street in between AllPress and The Albion (where we were going to go for a second breakfast, but couldn’t deal with the 6 hour wait), was this weird little shop cum coffee house ‘Cafe and...’. With no sign, and no indication whatsoever that there may be a coffee shop inside, we just sort of stumbled in.  Strange place.  Some cool stuff.  But strange place.  With a strange girl working behind a makeshift counter in the back. That doubled as a coffee bar.  
With not a heck of a lot to lose, I ordered an espresso.  They had a small little Gaggia machine, and she did an average job of puling it.  It tasted average.  But it was quick, and it kept me going...


We moved on to Clerkenwell - a couple of tube stops away in between Barbican and Farringdon.  For those of you that haven’t ventured down here, it’s definitely worth the visit.  Known now as the center of London’s design industry (it is thought to have the highest concentration of architects and building professionals in the world), it also is home to many great restaurants (St John is a personal favourite, but there is also Club Gascon, Bistrot Loubet, and The Modern Pantry).  
However, the best reason for a visit is undoubtedly one of my favourite coffee shops in the world - Workshop Coffee Company.  Until recently known as St ALi (they were originally partnered with a Melbourne company, but have recently broken away to be fully independent), Workshop serves some of the best coffee around in a space that I would happily live in.  Definitely the best coffee shop to settle down at with a good book. Or to study.  Or write.
They roast their own beans, and use two beautiful machines: a Slayer and a Synesso Cyncra.  The coffee here just doesn’t taste like any coffee I have tried before.  The coffee and the milk combine beautifully, and there’s a perfect finish to each sip - and sip is what you do at Workshop...savoring each patiently.
The space is huge - with three levels, including a full kitchen which pushes out some amazing food, and has a living wall full of plants and flowers, which is pretty cool.  We picked up three bags of the Cult of Done espresso blend, and this will now be our house roast, if you’re ever in our neighborhood...

Prufrock Leather Lane

An almost impossible task, but somebody had to follow Workshop, and if there was ever a coffee shop that could, it is Prufrock.  Widely revered as the best coffee shop in London, Prufrock on Leather Lane (a bit of a run-down street in Holborn, which is home to a week-day market) is the mecca for many a London coffee geek.  Opened in 2011, the minimalist-modernist space is the largest of owner Gwilym Davies’ three operations (see previous review of Prufrock in Present). Most coffee aficionados will tell you there are three prerequisites for a great cup of coffee: expertly roasted coffee, top of the line espresso machine, and a skilled barista.  I would add one more: I enjoy coffee more if it is in a sleek and styled room with a comfortable, welcoming atmosphere.  To be fair, most of the independent coffee shops I have been to in London (and I’ve been to many) hit this out of the park.  Its seems the standard is sleek, industrial styling, reclaimed wood, exposed brick, and original floorboards.  I have no problem with this, as it points to my particular taste as well.  But being sleek does not necessarily guarantee comfort.  I like to relax in my coffee shop.  Open up my iPad, and read my Kindle for an hour or two.  And as beautiful as Prufrock is, I just didn’t feel like I could do that there.  Being there felt a bit educational (which was probably not helped by the school-room-like tables and chairs).  That being said, the Prufrock baristas are probably the most educated in London; a sign on the wall points downstairs to BRAT - the Barista Resource and Training Center, where they run hands-on classes on everything coffee - in fact I felt I learned something just by walking in the door (though I will endeavor to take one of their classes, for sure).
So - while the coffee was exceptional, the space super-cool, it’s not my favorite in London.  That title belongs to Workshop, as I know I could easily spend a day there...

Caffe Vergnano

One of four in London, we visited its original location just outside of Charing Cross Tube Station, in the amazing Staple Inn - built in 1545.  One of the few buildings in London to survive the great fire of 1666, the building underwent major reconstruction after being bombed during the second world war.  Apparently what became a pretty beat up little locale was beautifully resurrected by owner Luciano Franchi in 2002.  I can fully appreciate the work, and it looks great - especially from the outside - but Caffe Vergnano is not a coffee shop I could get comfortable in.  I actually prefer their Southbank location, which also houses a restaurant.  But on to the coffee.
The first thing you see when you walk in is the stunning chrome Elektra Belle Epoque QC-1 espresso machine.  A beautiful work of art.  And the drinks (they have dozens of espresso variations - especially at their Southbank location - come on a nice little pewter tray with a glass of water and a piece of dark chocolate; which is much appreciated.  In between these two steps though - where the ‘barista’ actually has to make the coffee - was a major disappointment.  I have had nothing but good experiences at their Southbank cafe, but this was just poor.  It was the last coffee of the day, so I decided to jazz it up a bit and go for one of Caffe Vergnano’s ‘specialties’ - an Espresso Giacometta - basically, an espresso with whipped cream and hazelnuts (I originally was going to go for a chocolate-based drink, but their ‘chocolate machine’ was broken - puzzling, and another disappointment).  The ‘barista’ looked at me a little funny, and had to actually look at the menu to figure out what an espresso giacometta was!  It was fine, but unfortunately, I will not be returning.  It was a bit bitter for my tastes, and after 7 coffees in the previous 3 hours, a tad too strong.
Caffe Vergnano is apparently Gordon Ramsay’s favourite coffee shop, and was named as best espresso in London by The Times, and What’s On Magazine.  Respectfully, I say to these folks:  sorry....but you’re an idiot
The day was done, but my coffee tour is not.  I’m looking forward to visiting some of the places in Shoreditch and the City that I missed, or were closed (Nude, Caravan, Dose, Taylor Street Baristas, and Department of Coffee and Social Affairs), and then reviewing some of the amazing cafes in Soho and Fitzrovia.