life lately

Global Leadership Conference 2012

At 5:07 am this last Wednesday I was making my way to 32,000 feet, headed south bound for Houston, Texas. The 2012 Starbucks Leadership Conference drew more than 10,000 of us into town for four days of service, learning, networking, team bonding, and corporate gospel.

For the most part the conference was a glorified pep-rally. Yet the planners did a great job of structuring learning and development into the agenda.  The lab, for instance, brought the industry of coffee to life in ways most of us had never experienced. Short of enjoying a trip to origin, the lab brought us closer to the process of growing, the process of blending and roasting, and the process of marketing than anything I can imagine. My knowledge of coffee and tea is relatively extensive – I didn’t advance to my position without it. But up to now my knowledge has largely been theoretical. I’ve read about coffee; I’ve heard stories about coffee; I’ve seen pictures of coffee. This was the first time I got to see rows upon rows of baby coffee trees or dip my hands into a barrel of unroasted coffee beans and take in their aroma. It was my first experience listening for the second pop of the beans as they roasted to perfection or seeing the components of a tea blend separated out, identified, and made available to touch and smell individually. It was cool.

We also got to learn about some of the new things Starbucks is doing – – new products, new partnerships, new strategies for growth. For anyone on the inside, the momentum and movement in the company is already known and felt. In fact, there are often so many things happening on a corporate level, and happening so fast, that we don’t even have advance knowledge. Customers come in with news and information that we haven’t even heard yet. Sometimes it’s work just to keep up-to-date.

On the whole the planners did a fantastic job of coordinating and prepping the logistics of the event. They put us all up in hotels around the city – – I stayed at one of the Marriott locations. They fed us very, very well and were prepared for all sorts of dietary concerns (vegetarian, vegan, even gluten free!). Not only were we served extensive meals three times a day, they set up elaborate snack and beverage bars around the convention center in-between meals with fresh and dried fruit, nuts, popcorn, chips, coffee, tea, water, sodas, refreshers, VIA… One could not starve! The last night was party night and they set up margarita bars, a food truck rodeo (which was really, really fun!), and multiple stages featuring live music from local bands. Transportation, however, proved troublesome and problematic. Because our hotels were scattered across the sprawling city many of us faced 45 minute to an hour commutes (and for anyone familiar with Houston traffic, it goes without saying that sometimes the commute doubled!). As a result, those in my situation had to be ready and boarding the bus by 6 am and couldn’t expect to be “home” until 9, 10, even 11 at night.

We  got an exclusive night at the ball park complete with karaoke, photo-booths, and a night of free-all-you-can-eat ball park food (which I have to say wasn’t my favorite dinner) and were welcomed heartily to Sambuca and the House of Blues.

And a Starbucks convention wouldn’t be complete without a coffee tasting… so we had three! Two in Toyota Center amongst 10,000 other partners and one in the lab from the new verismo machine.

In addition to everything else, each partner had at least 4 hours of community service scheduled during their stay. Collectively we helped build parks, refurbish houses, plant flowers, build and paint birdhouses and wildlife enclosures, assemble hygiene kits for the homeless, write and decorate holiday cards, paint artwork, facilitate a food shelter, and more.

Most of the speeches at the general assemblies were just ra-ra-company but there were a few speeches that were incredibly good and made up for the others we had to bear. Nancy Koehn, a Harvard professor and historian, gave a great speech on leadership through the story of Ernest Shackleton. Even though she has published this story and its message for leaders before, I was honored to hear her speak because she is so animated and funny and just fantastic. Reverend Calvin Butts III gave a sensational speech on what it means to lead in our world today and motivated the crowd to see ourselves as leaders in the world at large, not just in our stores. I was skeptical and quite surprised when he was introduced to the stage. A reverend? I thought. Why is a non-religious company bringing a baptist preacher from Harlem to the stage? Less than a minute in and I was completely overcome. Not only was he engaging and inspirational and funny, his prose was poetic and his message went far beyond anything corporate or coffee related. His speech was powerful, it was political, it was social, it was real. He was really amazing. And, of course, Howard Schultz gave a great speech about social commitment and responsibility. I will say this about the company I work for: I believe Howard Schultz is sincere, genuine, and has a good heart. You see it in his actions, you hear it in his speeches, you read it in his books, and when you talk to him you know. I have my doubts about a lot of the others, from all levels in fact. But at the very top of the pyramid there is an eye for good. {That being said, why he why revered like a rockstar and hounded like a celebrity throughout the entire weekend, I will never understand. What is the obsession with getting a photograph with him or an autograph? I don’t see the point.}

It was no surprise to me that there was a large percentage of the assemblage that was insincere and, well, comprised of jerks. Maya Angelou once said you can tell a lot about a person by the way they handle these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights. So true. And, this last week I learned you can tell a lot about a person by the way they handle waiting in line, walking in a crowd, and arriving late to the airport. It was no small irony to me that three days into a conference in which our egos were perpetually rubbed and we were being told over and over again how wonderful and considerate and socially aware we were, that more than 2 people were literally trampled to the ground as others pushed their way through Toyota Center frantically racing for a front row seat so that they could hear more lectures on the virtues of our company and its management team. Yes. Soo considerate we all are. And, of course, how it warmed my spirit to hear managers from across the country cuss out a poor, minimum-wage bus driver for doing his job well and following directions. It’s a longer story than I really want to go into. But, honestly, wtf. The whole message, the whole point of this thing was completely lost on some ’em. But who knows… maybe they’re good at selling coffee.

The most valuable thing that has come from my time in Houston is the enriched relationship I now share with fellow managers in my district. We discovered that despite our deep differences, we have more in common than we’d ever realized and many of us are up against similar frustrations, challenges, and day-to-day crises. Coming home we have a newly enriched support system and empathy for one another.

Despite the propaganda/brainwashing element of it all, I learned more than I’d anticipated and had more fun than expected too, though I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t happy to be home.

food ethics, recipe box

Texas Barbecue

There’s nothing like a few years of eating vegetarian to bring out the deepest seated affection for succulent steaks, burgers, bacon, and, of course, barbecue. I still like to distance myself from the whole this-is-the-flesh-of-a-real-animal thing but, then again, I always did even before I went vegetarian. In truth, I think the violence of eating is something that humans are alone in having to grapple with and it will always affect some more than others. It’s both the blessing and the curse of modern society that the majority of people in the developed world are detached from the way their food is grown. In the United States especially people don’t know and, I think, don’t really care where their food comes from.

My turn to vegetarianism in college wasn’t really as deep and meaningful as all of that though. I eased into a vegetarian diet slowly. There were a lot meats (and meals made with meat) that I simply didn’t like the taste of. The ones I did tended to challenge my culinary talents to the point that the list grew smaller and smaller. Plus, meat is expensive.

My trials in the kitchen and with becoming a financially independent adult coincided with an academic environment in which ethics, philosophy, and politics took center stage. And so, before long Luke and I decided we would be fine eliminating meat – – as well as our contribution to the bloody side of corporate agribusiness – – from our diet all-together. And we were.

While we never intended to approach our new dietary choice like zealots, the surprising resistance to vegetarianism by a handful of family members and friends did imbue our lifestyle with a certain degree of fervor.

And then, this last Spring after a long day’s work in the garden, we both ordered bacon cheeseburgers at The Cheesecake Factory like it was nothing at all. A very fitting turn of events given the nonchalance of our journey towards a meat-less diet years before. That was the spark too. Suddenly we craved burgers and bacon like it was no one’s business. We began a quest for the best burger in Durham and did our best to make up for all the cholesterol we had avoided in the previous 5 years.

I still dislike the same meats as before. Pork? No thanks. Rib-eye steak? Nah, that’s alright. Carnival turkey leg? Umm, eww.

But I digress. This post is about Texas barbecue. I. love. Texas. Barbecue. Yes, I had forgotten about it for a while there but the weakness is back in full force. Though I only discovered recently how important the Texas part is in Texas Barbecue. I’m a Texan and as far as I’m concerned barbecue means brisket. My understanding though is a regional one for sure because Luke didn’t even know what brisket meant. I’ve asked around at work too. Co-workers, customers, vendors… I’ve found a total of 2, yes two people who knew what brisket is.

I thought, surely these people have had brisket but maybe they just call it something different. So, I asked around and did my google-ing until I’d determined where the best barbecue place in Durham is and I gave it a go. There was only one option: barbecue. By the pint. Yes! I was ready. Imagine my surprise when I got home and saw this:

In case the picture doesn’t do it justice, let me say it looked gross. Very, very gross. Luke was all, “what did you get???” with a great stink-eye expression. To be fair, it was edible… we got it once again a week later. Buttt, not exactly gooood…. and not what I would consider real barbecue.

So, without my beloved Railroad Barbecue nearby, I had to take matters into my own hands. Its hard to make great brisket without a smoker or a grill but I found a great way to approximate the real thing in the oven. And because I believe in sharing the love, I’m gonna walk you through it here so that you can make your own.

Here’s what you’ll need:

2 tbsp ancho chili powder

1 tbsp salt, I like fleur de sel

1 tbsp garlic powder

1 tbsp onion powder

1 tbsp ground black pepper

1/2 tbsp brown sugar

1/2 tbsp white sugar

2 tsp Colman’s mustard powder

1 tsp cayenne pepper, optional

1 tsp oregano, optional

1 bay leaf, crushed up as finely as possible

a 4 pound-ish beef brisket with a nice layer of fat about 1/4 inch thick.

a big cast iron skillet with a lid or a dutch oven

a handful of carrots, optional

2 cups beef stock (or beer) and about a cup or so of water

3-4 tsp liquid smoke

3-4 tsp Worcestershire sauce

*This recipe can be easily expanded or reduced. The photos below are from a 2.25 lb brisket I made the other night and just halved the other ingredients.

What you’ll do:

1. Preheat your oven to 350.

2. Make a dry rub by combining the first 11 ingredients (the cayenne pepper and oregano are optional). You can buy barbecue rubs in the store already mixed together but I think this combo not only tastes way better but is super easy too.

3. I like to rinse the brisket under cold water and then pat dry before rubbing it well with the spice mix. Be sure to season the brisket well on both sides and on the edges and use your hands to really massage it in. You shouldn’t have any of the rub left over.

4. Transfer the brisket with the fat side up to your cast iron dutch oven or skillet and roast in the preheated oven uncovered for 1 hour.

*The fat on the brisket is really important here because it not only gives the brisket a better flavor it keeps it from drying out while you cook it.

5. By now you’re going to be enjoying the most incredible aromas wafting from your kitchen. Add the beef stock (or beer) and enough water to fill the skillet or dutch oven with about 1/2-1.5 inches of liquid. Add the carrots, if using. (I usually toss in a handful of baby carrots because its easy.) Use a little less water if you’re not using carrots. Add the liquid smoke and Worcestershire sauce.

* Beef stock makes the brisket taste a little more like pot roast, beer gives it a slightly different flavor. I haven’t tried using wine yet but I’ve read that some people like to use beef stock and then substitute dry red wine for the water.

6. Lower the oven to 300, cover your cast iron with a tight fitting lid, and continue cooking for 3ish hours. At the 3 hour mark you’re probably good to go but if you’re not ready to eat yet just turn the oven off but leave the cast iron inside for however long. I’ve left it for a few hours and it was still ah-mazing.

7. I like to scrape the fat off the top before cutting and serving but its really up to you. Be sure to cut across the grain and top with some of the juice from the pan.