by Chérmelle D. Edwards
Nearly three years ago, biochemist Jack Benchakul switched professions and became a barista. Applying science to the craft of specialty coffee, he’s popped up in in at least 10 Los Angeles locations since then. Under the helm of Cognoscenti Coffee, a Culver City coffee shop whose newest outpost is at Scoops in Chinatown, he’s now moonlighting in its 500-square-foot space, on a customized cart, with the utility of the sleek Modbar. We talk with the chef about chemistry, Chinatown’s culinary renaissance and his signature beverages.
Tell us how being a biochemist factors into being a barista in specialty coffee?
When I made the transition from the world of biotechnology as a biochemist into coffee, I thought perhaps with my background I could contribute in some sort of way and make the movement grow and continue with more exciting and tasty discoveries. Initially, I thought I could lock in variables with espresso, but unlike a laboratory, this is real life and everything changes second to second to affect a drink. So, I need a foot in science and to also be creative to tap into coffee’s artisanal side.
What do you like about the coffee pop-up structure that you’ve become identified with in the Los Angeles community?
A chef’s dream is to have a brick and mortar space, eventually. It wasn’t until Good Girl Dinette—a former pop-up space—that I realized it’s really an amazing thing, the coffee pop-up culture versus a stand alone shop. The atmosphere is different, its always changing and I get to experience different guests in the neighborhoods that I’m in. A lot of people will make the trek for the coffee and the experience. And, it’s just a cart.
Your newest pop-up is at Scoops in Chinatown. Why did you choose an ice cream shop for your next mobile adventure? And, why in the historic Chinatown neighborhood?
There were some entities asking us about the area. There’s also Roy Choi’s Chego, and Andy Ricker’s Pok Pok. With a renaissance happening down here, especially in the culinary moment, I had to think about it. Scoops is in the far east plaza inside of Chinatown and George Yu is curating the food businesses that are really making a name for themselves with formats that are approachable and affordable. I like to think of the pop-up coffee cart like street food, bringing coffee to the people.
Speaking of coffee, while containing standard drinks, your menu includes some hand-crafted signature beverages. What inspires your menus and what can customers experience currently?
I go back to my culinary background. I ate a lot of Thai food growing up and continue to do so. Coming to Chinatown, I wanted to keep the flavors in terms of Asian flowers and spices that I’m familiar and integrate those into the drinks. So, there’s pandan, a leaf originating in India and used for aromatics. I wanted to highlight it and make it more approachable and adventurous in an iced latte. The leaves are cooked down into a simple syrup along with vanilla for a vanilla pandan cold brew latte. The other signature drink is the makrut lime and Malbec cold brew. I make this with limes from my backyard, cooked down with a Malbec simple syrup, pairing nicely with the acidity of the makrut and without the alcohol—it’s sweet, refreshing, romantic.
What inspires you to continue exploring coffee through chemistry while popping up location after location?
It’s a nice grassroots methodology. If you could deconstruct a café, this is what it would be. We can’t get away from it; it’s part of who we are.
Find Cognoscenti’s Coffee Cart at Scoops Monday through Friday, 8AM to 5PM and on Saturdays and Sundays, 9AM to 5PM—until it moves to its next location.
Images courtesy of Amparo Rios