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Doctor Espresso: the world’s best coffee machine engineer
Posted by Space Station, Friday 8 May 2020
In conversation with Doctor Espresso, the world’s best coffee machine engineer.
Thousands of nails punctuate the façade of a Fulmham High Street coffee shop. Inside, the same efforts have been replicated along the bar. The nails spell out “Doctor Espresso” in large letters. The nails spell out “Doctor Espresso” in large letters and were painstakingly hammered in by hand by the “doctor” himself: Russell Kerr. As this labour of love would suggest, he’s not one who goes about things half-heartedly.
Along with his partner, Vanessa Lancellotti, he now runs three cafes in southwest London, the other two in Putney and Clapham.
The hub of the empire
The Fulham branch is what he calls “the hub of the empire”. Not only is it his biggest shop and host to his office, but it is also essentially a museum for Russell’s most prized possession: a collection of vintage espresso machines spanning about 30 years from the 1930s onward.
“These were all by top designers,” Russell said, pointing to a collection of about 20 shiny machines lining one wall. “There’s very few of these left in the world. Most have gone to coffee machine heaven – a big scrapyard in Italy – but there is a handful of us who have grabbed all the machines we could find.”
Apart from the machines on display, about 15 others are sitting in Russell’s Wandsworth Bridge workshop where he restores them as best as he can. This, he explained, involves sledgehammers, patience and an (sometimes fluctuating) enthusiasm he’s had for this work since he began 30 years ago.
There are plenty of stories if you care to ask: the one with the eagle on top is the only one of its kind left in the world and was rescued from the cobwebs of a dusty restaurant basement in Aberdeen; another is one of few that have English writing (most are in Italian) which had been thrown into a skip in Stratford-Upon-Avon, rescued and re-constructed into a work of art; a third came from eBay when Russell placed a bid of £5,000 – a number far above other bidders.
It wasn’t a shocking price to pay considering the number of times he’s been approached by MUMAC (Museum of the Espresso Coffee Machine) in Milan (which owns the largest collection in the world) offering upwards of £10,000 for just one of his machines.
Other cafe owners have bought espresso machines that have passed through Russell’s workshop. Among other places, find them in London’s Scootercaffè on Lower Marsh Street and Soho’s Bar Italia (said to have some of the city’s best coffee and the oldest working coffee machine).
He laughed when asked about the state of the current coffee culture in hipstervilles around the world – the sleek, minimalist, industrial look, the Shoreditch blend. “The wave in Shoreditch at the moment is about making latte art to entertain you even though it doesn’t make it taste any better or any worse.”
Machines that serve up the moustachioed masses of the east end are typically based on a 1938 Gaggia, he explained (or they have curves or the big pillars underneath like the Eterna), but they’ve been fitted out with computers and electric pumps to mimic the action of a spring being compressed and override the need for true barista talents. He admits that even the Dr. Espresso machine has been reconstructed for an automated pour. Employees can engage with customers instead of constantly monitoring the steam pressure, water level, etc.
Russell and Vanessa have travelled to exhibit their collection and he shared an amusing memory: “When Vanessa and I went to Amsterdam to show our machines, 20-year-olds asked us, ‘What have you done to this? You’ve pimped it out!’ and we said, ‘No, this is an old machine. This is your history. This is where it all started.”
So where do we go from here? “I think the Shoreditch scene will move from using new machines that are replicating the old machines to next putting the old machines back to work. There’s no other challenge left,” Russell said. “When the baristas want to show off their skills, they will really have to show off.”
If that happens, Russell’s espresso machine collection will no doubt garner plenty of attention.
The right vibe
Back in the Fulham hub. The vibe is far from hipster minimalist. Every inch of wall and shelf space is covered; if not by his chrome-covered machines, then by old cameras and photographs (another of his passions), and children’s toys tucked into various nooks (presumably for the entertainment of his two little ones who spend plenty of time running around there). “I didn’t want it looking new,” he said. “As much as it would be nice to have the floors completely spotless and the walls without a mark on them, it just didn’t feel right, you know?”
100 kilos of coffee each week
He’s taken a different approach with the coffee as well. For two years, he used to buy Cravendale milk “from happy cows” and use a wood fire roaster from Rome. One day, he switched to milk from Sainsbury’s down the road and said no one could tell the difference. At half the price, he has stuck to it. “Those things were nice, but people didn’t care. They just wanted the taste of coffee, a kick in the morning; it’s good enough.”
And apparently so: Russell and Vanessa have gone from buying 10 kilos of coffee each week to 100 kilos. There’s a queue outside of the Putney Bridge branch every morning, without fail.
The focus is not so much on being cool and trendy, but on sharing his love for the vintage machines and fostering community. “The community in the shops is infectious. People who would not normally talk to each other? Now it’s all hugs and kisses and good mornings. Everybody mentions the names of people, not just hello. It’s ‘Hi Sasha’, ‘Hi Tricia’, ‘Hi Vivian’…”
Serving up a friendly enough vibe with our morning coffee to encourage a breakdown of the stereotypical silence of Londoners so we can meet our neighbours Sasha, Tricia and Vivian? If that’s not what cafe culture should really be all about, we’re not sure what is!