Nelson Phu: From Terrible Ideas to Championship Titles

Nelson Phu: From Terrible Ideas to Championship Titles

May is Asian Heritage Month in Canada. Get to know some of the talented Asian coffee professionals slinging spros, making history, and carving out a better future for the coffee industry. In our first feature, we chat with Rosso veteran Nelson Phu. Winner of the 2020 Canadian Coffee in Good Spirits Championship and 2020 Canadian Latte Art Championship, this barista is making waves in the coffee industry with his tenacity and unconventional ideas.

Who or what inspired you to go into coffee?

I think coffee has always had a big influence in my life. I was fascinated with coffee culture growing up, it seemed so mysterious. Like every time I tasted coffee it was bitter and I hated it. So I couldn't understand why everyone was drinking it! This was especially true with my mom, who drinks a lot of coffee by the way. She would offer me sips and it would always be so bitter to me.

What kind of coffee did your mom drink?
Like...Instant. (laughs) Nescafe, Vietnamese iced coffee, and stuff like that. It really wasn't for me. My mom would say, when you get older you'll drink coffee just like everyone else; it's just a natural thing. But since I was younger she didn't want me to drink any coffee. She would tell me it would stunt my growth. But look at me now. (laughs)

Barista Nelson Phu in a navy long-sleeved shirt, black slacks, and black sneakers

The final push that got me to pursue coffee as a profession was my sister. She saw an article about 'local Calgary man, top barista in the world' or something like that. It would have been Ben [Put] during that time. She sent me the article and kept sending similar ones to me. I was like, ok coffee is really cool now and I want to pursue that.

You won two competitions last year after competing for five years. Can you tell us what it takes to win a national coffee competition?
I think it takes a lot of stamina. For example, all of us work like eight hours and then you train for as long as you can go. You'll forget to eat, you'll want to sleep, it's really tough if you aren't prepared. So, definitely stamina.

Nelson Phu at the 2020 Canadian Latte Art Championship

Another important thing you need is a team you trust. I think without a team it would have taken me a few more years before even seeing the finals. Doing this competition stuff by yourself is so hard. You definitely need someone you can bounce ideas off of 'cause I have had a ton of terrible ideas. Without coach Dave [Crosby] my ideas would only make sense to me. (laughs)

Can you give us an example of a terrible idea?
There was one year I was really into the idea of bitter things and its power in balancing dishes. Like arugula, for example, by itself it's just ok, but on a pizza? It completes the dish. This actually turned into a cocktail idea that ended up being the winning drink I presented in Toronto. I double downed on umami flavours and a slightly dry gin. I had umami/earthy flavours from an Asian coffee (Pa-O from Myanmar) and sake, and combined those with gin (Strathcona Spirits Distillery). So that's kinda where that idea came from.

Nelson Phu, together with Stacey Lynden and Michelle Ocfemia, at the 2020 Canadian Coffee in Good Spirits Championship

Turned out to be a not terrible idea!
Yeah, but you need someone to help you develop it.

Can you describe one of your favourite traditions that is unique to your heritage?
Chinese New Year is probably my favourite 'cause of all the stuff you get to eat! My favourite is the New Year's dinner because you have to order like 12 courses, definitely the best part. There's a number of things you have to eat because of their symbolic meaning. For example, 'fish' in Chinese sounds like 'surplus' so you have to eat fish for prosperity in the new year. Dumplings are a big one, they look like ingots, so you eat those for wealth. Noodles symbolize longevity, so the longer they are the longer you live for. (laughs) There's so many more to explain, but I just really like eating.