Slippery Ingredients

The similarities of handrails and milk hearts.

To grind a rail on skis or pour a latte heart, the results can’t be forced — it requires accepting that the instability is not only always present, but necessary.

The other day I went skiing in Wisconsin: a type of skiing that is so short that the riders are forced to improvise. Out west, I will ski mile long runs and powder all day without change but in the Midwest, I find myself in the terrain park, attempting to learn and master new tricks almost out of boredom. I am growing up, and doing rails and jumps has become something I only do a few times a season (unlike when I was younger). Grinding these rails last Tuesday gave me a strange discomfort, a discomfort I was not used to feeling even though I was used to the skis beneath my feet.

That was Tuesday, and on Wednesday I began my third barista shift at a coffee shop I am starting at. I had brought in my own gallon of whole milk to practice pouring latte art with old beans with hopes of catching up to the standards of our shop. Four years ago I was a barista, and found myself comfortable with most of the tasks: grinding the beans, pouring water, cleaning dishes, tamping grounds, pulling espresso, and talking to guests. The one task that was unusually uncomfortable was pouring milk controllably — making latte art.

2 shitty latte hearts I poured

My heart felt a little quick each time I dipped down to pour the milk onto the surface of the recently ground coffee, and in that moment I recognized this familiarity. I had just noticed this same unsteadiness recently. It was then I realized that I had felt that same insecurity, that same lack-of-control the day before while trying to land a rail I had never tried before.

Lattes and ski-rails have a critical trait in common: they are both inherently unstable. To make a quality latte, you have to pour a liquid onto the surface of a another swirling, colloidal liquid. To make it to the end of the rail, it is not a matter of removing the instability, but living with it.

It is easy to understand the steps, the process to make a heart float on top of espresso, or spin 270 degrees off the end of a pipe.

1. Pour from a height to mix milk throughout the espresso, sinking it below the surface, 2. Dip the carafe towards the espresso to force microfoam onto its surface, keeping both containers steady, 3. Elevate your pour to cut through your design and fill the remaining volume with milk.
1. Approach the rail with comfortable speed, 2. Pop, rotating 90 degrees, feet spread and parallel, eyes forward and on the end of the rail, shoulders loose, 3. Pivot skis to grip the rail, pop again, spinning the same direction the final three-quarters, spotting the landing with 90 degrees to spare.

It is easy to visualize; it is easy to internally mirror someone when watching it in a video.

Starting at 2:31, the first trick Jesper does is a 450 off, the trick I was attempting to learn (Jesper is lightyears better than me).

Succeeding at either of these things is not a matter of understanding. It is about moving past the understanding and letting your muscles accomplish the task at hand. In the end, whether it is milk or your body that is doing the landing, the surface is going to remain slippery, and making it to the end requires adjusting on the fly — letting your muscles react, not act.

It is not about relinquishing your sense of control, or eliminating instability, but rather feeling in control amidst a chaotic environment. And I mean, that’s life.

Thank you to each and every one of you for reading this post. Please reach out and lets chat if you are interested: Mike Fix. Would love to hear from you guys.

Twitter: @fixitup2