Leonora Belcher - Kaf

Photo: Jess Shurte
Next woman in coffee >>
Owner and founder of Kaf - Glasgow

What got you into coffee?

Leo had worked in hospitality for a few years and started cheffing in chalets & hotels in Austria during the winter ski seasons. Between these she worked for Kember & Jones (café on Byres Rd) where she says she learned a lot about working in a fast-paced café environment.

After her second ski season, Leo took a cheffing role in a new cafe. “I was given a lot of responsibility very quickly to make their food offering better - they’d already struggled with reliable chefs. Then a mild disagreement blew up and I was told I wasn’t experienced enough for the role. This really knocked my confidence and I took a year out.”

Over time, Leonora came back around, picked up her confidence and decided she really wanted to do something for herself. “I explored cafes and really enjoyed the atmosphere of places like Papercup and Laboratorio Espresso. Then I did a two-day training course with Machina’s Michael McCracken (he was doing Fun in a Cup back then) and quickly realised I didn’t know enough about coffee to run my own café. Coffee was far more complex than I had initially realised.”

Leonora I wanted to learn more about speciality coffee and “Brew Lab was advertising for trainee baristas - so I applied. They offered me the job and I moved to Edinburgh in a matter of weeks. I did a full 180 from planning my own career in food to diving into the world of coffee.”

After working at Brew Lab 4-5 months Leonora was allowed to go solo on the coffee machine. “It’s a tough environment, you’re receiving constant criticism but it was the best way to learn. I learned a lot from Emiliya , Nick, Louie and others. It was a completely different lifestyle but I really loved it - and Edinburgh. I fell in love with coffee at Brew Lab in a completely unexpected way. Being in a team of dedicated coffee professionals was really inspiring and it was fun to experience the buzz around Claire and John Gibson, when they were in competitions.”

What do you love about being in speciality coffee?

Talking to Leonora about what she loves about speciality coffee results in a wave stories and examples about different aspects.

“I love that coffee can still be really surprising - it doesn’t become mundane. Because I change the coffee at Kaf so often, I’m constantly trying different origins from different roasteries.

But sometimes, you can expect a coffee to taste a certain way and then it surprises you with a completely bonkers tasting note. One of my favourites last year was a Rwandan that tasted like Buckfast, it was mad and completely hilarious.

When something’s really different it’s nice to share with customers, to get them to try and be surprised by what coffee can be like.”

Leonora also loves the conversations she has with people because of a shared passion for coffee. “It’s amazing how many different sorts of people are interested in what we’re doing. Really nice chats through Instagram with roasteries and other fellow shop owners all over the UK are also fun.“
And then there’s the raft of complexities associated with preparing speciality coffee at the level Leonora maintains at Kaf.

“The real technical detail of perfecting coffee, tasting and exploring flavour really ties into my love of gastronomy. I love my 20-minute dial in time - tasting the first shots of the day with a good play list on in the morning before opening. It’s one of my favourite things in the day. When I start tasting espresso in the morning I feel confident in my palette – it focuses me.

Working at Brew Lab on their Black Eagle [espresso machine] was an amazing experience because it’s such an advanced machine so it helps the baristas hugely. But I found I missed the adrenaline rush of having to stop your shots manually in the time frame for your recipe. So, at Kaf, my La Marzocco Linea is the most basic model available. We have scales on the drip tray and every shot is weighed and timed, you really have to concentrate on what you’re doing.

I was once bickering with an old friend about this and he argued that this method had no real benefit and was purely for the ‘love of the craft’. Absolutely true - but I also argued that it creates a more focused barista with a greater skill for multi-tasking.

The craft is a wonderful thing and at the end of the day the most important thing is the taste and the quality of the product we’re using. Are we making the roasters and farmers happy with how their coffee tastes? Hopefully with this level of attention we achieve this.”

And finally there’s Glasgow - where Leonora’s shop is located. Leonora’s love of Glasgow looks to rival her love of speciality coffee – nearly! “The most amazing thing about Glasgow is how Glaswegians are so supportive of small businesses. I intentionally started small because I didn’t know if people would come, but Glaswegians love trying new things. They get really buzzy about the next new place to open or something new on your menu. I worry that sometimes we don’t have enough space in Kaf - at times there’s a queue out the door, a crush at the till and people sitting in each others’ laps. I always feel stressed when it’s like that because I think it can’t be comfortable and they won’t come back. But they do - they love trying new things and we change it up as much as possible.”

What would tell someone who was considering a career in coffee?

“Take it easy. Don’t rush. Learn as much as you can. I think I’ll be forever grateful that I didn’t presume that I could pick up the skill of making coffee overnight. I was able to recognise that it was really difficult and that I wanted to learn from others. Years of experience behind you is always a good thing. Take the time to learn how to do a good job.” 

What’s it like being a woman in the coffee industry?

Leo divides her answers into two parts. “Owning my own business has been brilliant for me. I own my business, therefore I’m the one to talk to, to deal with - the decisions come down to me. I’ve got good relationships with other women who run their own brunch spots and it feels quite empowering that more women are now coming through.”

But, on the other hand, “hospitality in general is a different story. I find the situation difficult to work through because I had no concept of sexism until a few years ago. In my household my parents did everything evenly – I had no concept of sexism or men and women having specific roles. So, it took me a long time in the industry to realise the sexism was there - and that it causes real problems.
I’ve long been accused of being emotional or reactive by men, when in fact I just have an honest and straight forward approach. It seems that this is an admirable quality in men but not so much in women. I feel it’s often expected that women should play the game to get their end goal - but I won’t play the game.

In my first hospitality job I was in a kitchen team of 16 and I was the only woman. Nothing in my upbringing made me think I couldn’t do something due to my gender. I was equally scared and intimidated by the men and women around who really knew their stuff!

I don’t hire for gender. I hire for hard work. I respect anyone who’s fair, kind and a grafter.”

Photo: Jess Shurte
Next woman in coffee >>

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