Latte art champion UM Paul shares candidly on humble beginnings, fond memories and his favourite coffee.
Clad in a white t-shirt and fitting jeans, UM Paul strode into INCH Coffee like a ray of sunshine. Grinning from ear to ear, the South Korean barista and World Latte Art Champion 2016 was ending his visit to Kota Kinabalu on a personal note — he wanted to share his story.
UM Paul grew up having many dreams, but never taking them all the way. From dancing to cutting hair for the navy, the only constant was that he was creative. “I was studying automotive engineering in college and hating it when I walked by a small coffee shop and saw the latte art. It was like my two loves of cooking and drawing came together, and I wanted to try [at it],” he said.
He became a barista, loved latte art and practised until he had calloused hands. A coffee-drinker since age 13, UM Paul enjoyed modifying his pitchers for more accurate pouring, something he does to this day. However, he didn’t have much support.
“When I first started, my family didn’t support me and neither did my friends. My mother thought I’d chosen to ‘sell water’ instead of finishing my engineering studies, while my friends thought it was one of those things I start but never finish,” he shared.
But he didn’t give up. The barista’s big break came after he began training Italian barista Chiara Bergonzi. Under his training, she rose to become the world #2. When he visited Italy, he had the chance to meet latte art pioneer Luigi Lupi, who has since become his ‘Italian father’.
In 2016, UM Paul entered the World Latte Art Championship for the first time and won. Last year, he won the Coffee Fest World Latte Art Championship 2017. How? He says he doesn’t really know, but that his habit has been to make mistakes. “I have spilled many drinks and dropped things during practice. It’s taken me 14 years to get to where I am, but that means you can do it too. If you have callouses, you’re good,” he told the young baristas.
Today, whenever he fails in competitions and thinks about giving up, it’s his friends who encourage him to stay in the game. His mother stepped into his cafe recently for the first time in 10 years, and now whenever she visits a coffee shop her order is, “Americano, please. Do you know UM Paul?”
While latte art is his life, UM Paul says the taste of coffee is without doubt more important than art. “Taste is more important, because coffee is coffee. Customers want coffee first, then only enjoyment of art. I would say 80% coffee, 20% art; latte art is an accessory,” he said.
And taste is dependent on memories. Ironically, this world-class barista’s favourite coffee is his mother’s instant coffee! Her 40-year recipe: Maxim Mocha Gold instant coffee mix and boiling hot water, mixed thoroughly using the sachet as a stirrer. “For some reason, when I think of my mum’s coffee, I think of warm memories. That’s why it’s still my favourite coffee, but Italian cappuccino is good too,” UM Paul said.
“I was looking for someone qualified to bring my team to a higher level as well as create awareness about coffee and latte art here as there is a growing appreciation for it,” said David Lee, owner of INCH Coffee and certified Q-grader.
He added that while the visual element of latte art is important, it’s taste that invokes emotion and that creates memories. Chef Jimmy Boon of Adelphi & Co agreed, highlighting the need for balance between creativity and memories. “Every dish (whether coffee or food) comes from a culture. When you change a dish, you have to retain the soul and essence of the food and culture it represents,” he said.
Adelphi & Co co-owner Roy Chiew said that the local standard of coffee is quite high and comparable to other cities in Asia, but this was an opportunity to bring someone of world-class standard to train local talents. “Having training from a world champion lends more credibility to what we’re offering. Food is about taste, and I find it incredibly humbling for UM Paul [as a latte artist] to say that taste is more important than latte art,” he said.
UM Paul was in KK for five days, training local baristas and holding bar service takeovers at both cafes.
As a barista, your job is to think of solutions. That’s what UM Paul believes. Don’t focus on how inexpensive your coffee machine is, or that you don’t have a steam wand. Think out of the box and get creative. But first, you have to know who you are.
“The best way to find your dream is to know what kind of person you want to be. I (UM Paul) want to be a person that makes other people happy, to make them laugh. I always want to be a friend, wherever I go and whenever I meet anyone,” he said. Known and loved by many, this charismatic fellow with comical flair is known for singing “I believe I can fly” at the world championship in 2016.
To him, these three values are important: trial and error (perseverance), gratitude and idea generation; he says the best ideas sometimes come when you’re in the shower or on the toilet seat! Always in a posture of learning, he encourages aspiring baristas to find their talent and practise it often… but not too often that you stop enjoying it.
At the end of the day, however, UM Paul wants everyone to be themselves. “Know the kind of person you want to be. When people talk to me, they say, “You are crazy; you’re unique, UM Paul!”,” he says with a laugh.
Yes, UM Paul, you definitely are. Thank you for coming to KK and sharing your story with all of us. We wish you all the best; continue rocking the latte art world!
Are you a latte art fanatic? Let us know your favourite design in the comments below, and share with us your best coffee experience.
Learn about KK’s coffee culture and read up on the KK Coffee Festival