Getting to know latte art champion and Houston coffee pro Antoine Franklin of Blacksmith Coffee.
BY ASHLEY RODRIGUEZ
BARISTA MAGAZINE ONLINE
Cover photo by Tobias McFaul
If you have a chance, watch the final round of the latte art competition at Coffee Fest Portland. You’ll see a nail-biting final round of competition as Antoine Franklin goes head to head with Chris Lin. As the judges deliberate—and you watch the competitors looking on—the anticipation grows until Antoine is finally crowned the winner, beating out dozens of participants from around the globe. In this interview, we learn more about Antoine, who works for Blacksmith Coffee in Houston, and what brought him to coffee and latte art.
Ashley Rodriguez: What are your first coffee memories? Did you grow up with coffee in your childhood?
Antoine Franklin: My first coffee memories are mostly with my late grandmother. She drank her coffee with milk and a lot of sugar. Pretty much every day as a kid, I would ask her for some and she would always say, “Not until you get older, baby.” Then one day when I was old enough; I tried it and thought it was just OK. Didn’t love it, or have to have it every day.
What was your first coffee job? What are some of the most salient/memorable moments from your early coffee career?
My first job in coffee was at Caribou Coffee in Toledo, Ohio, while I was still in college.
One of the most salient moments in coffee was when I catered a private event with a company in Cleveland (Lake Affect Studios) that hosted the Cavs (Cleveland Cavaliers) and the Cavs’ season ticket holders. It was a meet-and-greet of sorts. Lebron James actually hopped behind bar and started serving drinks to people. It was pretty fun.
Early on, one of the most memorable moments was there was a guy who wanted to propose to his then-girlfriend and asked me to help him do it with latte art. My manager at the time went out and purchased a very large coffee cup (64oz I believe), and I etched “will you marry me” into a huge latte that I made for them. I think there’s a video of it floating around on the internet somewhere.
When did you first get into latte art? When did you realize you could win contests and make money?
I first got into latte art when I was hired at Phoenix Coffee in Cleveland and was trained by a guy named Stephen who showed me David Schomer’s latte art VHS tape! From there I was instantly hooked. It wasn’t until I followed Nicely Abel and a few others (on Instagram) that I even knew I could compete. The money was/has always been secondary, especially now! The pot used to be $5,000 when I first started, which was definitely a huge incentive for people to come compete.
Tell us about your first latte art competition. Can you talk about how you’ve improved and learned over time?
First competition was New York Coffee Fest 2013. I literally thought I could walk in and beat everyone (I had no chance haha). I didn’t know the rules too well, and just went in thinking, “Hey an easy $5k!” I believe that was the first thing I learned in competition: stay modest and informed. Nothing is ever guaranteed, especially when you’ve only been pouring latte art for about a year. A humbling experience to say the least.
What are your favorite designs to make? What are some of the most difficult for you? Are you working on mastering or reinventing any new designs right now?
My favorite design of all time is probably a rosetta (when executed well), but I pour mostly tulips. The most difficult for me are the “empty” tulips or “keyhole” tulips. Very difficult to achieve for me. They always end up being not so “empty.”
Not really trying to reinvent any pours right now, simply because there’s really only so many shapes you can pour into a round cup, but what I’ve been into lately is just making sure I understand on a fundamental level what’s happening while pouring latte art. Thanks to a mentor of mine I’ve been able to break things down a bit more methodically in a way that makes sense for me.
I just watched the video where you won the Coffeefest Portland Latte Art World Championship Open, and the zoom in they did on you when the first judge picked you is amazing—did you expect to win? How did you feel in that moment?
To kind of revisit a point I made earlier, I haven’t expected anything in competition since the very first one. That reaction was because there was one point (out of the 5 points) that I was like, “Ehhhh that could’ve went to Chris,” and overall felt that it could’ve went either way. When I got that last vote I felt like a little weight was lifted from my shoulders. I had been competing so long and to finally win one just felt good. I wish I could’ve done better but I always feel that way about everything that I do.
How do you approach teaching latte art to others? I imagine your title garners a lot of attention from people—how do you handle that?
Surprisingly, winning didn’t change much for me. I’ve really only worked with other Greenway baristas in terms of training them, or giving them little tips here and there. Also a few other baristas around Houston. Honestly though, not much attention from anywhere other than the Houston community (which is totally fine with me <3)!
Can you tell us about the coffee scene in Houston? It seems like it’s a special community a lot of people don’t know too much about.
I’ll start with Houston in general. There’s just a different mindset here than anywhere I’ve ever been. People genuinely support each other here economically, socially, etc. … Now more specifically, the culinary scene is pretty awesome. People take their craft here very seriously and it spreads throughout the service industry. From having one of the best cocktail bars in the country (Anvil), to having an exploding and thriving coffee scene, Houston is just a place where these kinds of things just click for people. Most baristas/coffee professionals here have an idea of what it means to put out the best that they can all while being as hospitable as they can.
What do you want people to know about you? What does the future look like for you?
I’m a huge dork. I love my fiancee and family. I also want to continue to grow and learn every day. Lately I’ve been focusing on talking less and listening more. Like really listening to people. Hearing and empathizing with their stories.
What do you do in your spare time?
Any time that’s not designated for work is spent annoying my fiancee and my dog Levi. Or reading/watching coffee-related books, articles, and videos.