chef interview: Thomas Peters
chef Thomas Peters
The Lab Handcrafted Coffee and Comforts
Friday, October 4, 2013
Interview by Katie Culbert
Photography by Denny Culbert
In the early morning hours as The Lab transformed from an empty space into a well-packed and well-oiled machine, we chatted with Thomas over coffee, naturally. In case you were wondering, he starts his day with a pour over, usually an Ethiopian blend that he describes as “drop dead gorgeous.”
When I was growing up, food was very basic. A lot of starches. Nothing really flavorful. My mom was pretty much career oriented. Her focus was her work and her children. She didn’t cook a lot. When she did, it was macaroni and cheese, hamburger helper, potatoes. There was really no food culture that I remember.
I got into a lot of trouble in high school. I was in heavy metal, thrash metal, speed metal bands. My hair was to the middle of my back. I had long hair from about age 12 to age 25, and then I shaved it off. I shaved it off on a bet, and I’ve never tried to grow it back since. I don’t think I could if I tried.
I didn’t drink coffee until college. It was around 1995. I was in school in Monroe (NLU) for an animation degree. I wanted to work for Disney. It was really long nights of drawing and doing a lot of spot paging. Things like that forced me to drink a lot of coffee. I went from high school drinking everything but coffee to college drinking coffee, and completely stopping all the rest. But it took a long time before I found my love for it.
I actually met my wife at a coffee shop. We both worked at CC’s . She is as much an advocate of coffee as I am, just in a different fashion. She’s the latte girl. I’m not a big milk person, so I don’t drink lattes or cappuccinos. If I need somebody to come back and test something or taste something, especially with milk, she’s my girl. I can’t do that. I feel like milk kind of changes the entire texture of it.
The concept of The Lab was actually “born in my brain” around 2005. After about 2 years of working for Community Coffee, they tapped me as the new training manager and sent me to Dallas for a little barista jam with about 12 other people. We sat down with the Mike McKim, owner of Cuvee Coffee, and he basically pulled a couple shots for us and then completely deconstructed them. He pointed out the flavor profiles and this is what happens and this is how you do it here and this is proper grind and went through the whole thing and at that point it just clicked. It was like WOW. I thought this is that intricate. It’s not just fuel. And at that moment, the wheels started turning.
Lisa Bourque was behind the whole design process for The Lab. She pulled this out of my brain. She is phenomenal. Basically it’s a barn inside of an industrial metal building with a spaceship that landed in the center.
At first there was a lot of confusion because we are in a location that two years ago was a CC’s. So there was a lot of requests for Mocchassipis and people couldn’t understand why we had two types of espressos and pour overs. There’s a lot of people that just want to get it and go. And cold sweet creams is a whole other world. They just want ice cream....vanilla or chocolate....and we don’t have any of that. So a lot of it comes down to the people behind the bar. I can’t promise that we are going to have something for every single person, but I can promise that we are going to create tasty things and we are going to be nice to you. And we are going to try to educate you, but not in a talking down kind of way. Not in a we are better than everybody else kind of thing.
The olive oil sweet cream has been the most successful. We went through five different types of olive oil to find the right combination. We went through different salts too. At first people are not really sure if they want to try it. But once they taste it, they understand and like it. We recommend it with an affogato. It’s phenomenal. It just becomes this buttery beauty.
I make everybody who works here taste everything. They have to taste it. They have to know the profile. And they have to be able to describe it. So you have to kind of like coffee. One girl we hired is not a huge coffee drinker, but she’s a huge tea drinker so she adds that component. All of us like tea, but she loves tea. It’s crazy. Like she will sit there and she will just rattle off these teas and you’ll just stare at her. I guess it’s how I sound with coffee. So I totally get it.
I like savory things. I’m not a sweet person. Never have been. Which is funny because I make the cold sweet creams.
Lately I’ve been playing around with black truffles. They are terribly expensive. They are pungent and earthy and weighty. I’m looking into playing with that with the creams. But it’s to find the right combination, because truffle straight is terrible. I’ve done so many variations, and the last one I did was truffle and tarragon. It was so terrible. It was maybe the worst thing known to man.
It’s all a learning process, and that’s the fun part about what a lot of people are doing now. It’s testing the waters. Every time you learn you evolve a little bit. And if you don’t evolve, then you are doing it wrong. If you don’t learn something every time, then you are doing it wrong.
The best part of this job is talking to people. I love talking to people. I hate to say collecting stories, but that’s kind of what I do. This place is almost like the modern bar. So you kind of get to meet people and learn about them and see what’s going on in their lives. It’s like Cheers, you know, everybody knows your name. And everybody has their certain spots.
A lot of it is just in the subtleties of how we approach somebody. We ask questions. Do you like wine? Do you like tea? Do you like sparkling water? Which kind of throws people off. But the reason we ask that is because the carbonation you get and that zest and that pop...if you like that, we have coffees that can kind of do the same thing. It’s a lot of breaking down barriers. That’s the key. And it’s a lot of eye contact. I hate having machines off the bar because that means we have to turn our back to you.
I’d like to see more green space in Lafayette. More focus on families and places for them to go. Those guys with the horse farm are doing a great job. Being involved with the farmers market over there has been really nice because I know that my money is going to the future development of that green space.