Over the years if there’s one thing Phil Vickery has become known for, it’s being one of the originators of the gluten-free recipe.
“That was primarily because nobody else had done it and my hand was slightly forced in that we had a [Christmas pudding] business and we couldn’t get flour, so I used rice flour and that made them gluten-free,” he explains.
Since 2015 he’s been a judge for Costa Coffee’s Barista of the Year awards, so how did the TV chef end up landing the gig?
“It was a bit of a laugh but it’s turned into something quite big,” the 56-year-old says.
“I go to my local Costa in the morning, do my emails and texts and stuff at about six o’clock in the morning. One day I took a picture of my coffee and I just put on Twitter ‘one of life’s great pleasures’ and it went mental.
“I had people texting me their coffees, saying ‘where is it Phil?’ and over the past three years it’s escalated so wherever I am in the world, whether I’m in India or Vietnam, I take a picture of my Costa Coffee and it just became a bit of joke really. They then approached me and asked if I’d like to become a judge on Barista of the Year.”
But he wasn’t always a coffee lover, and the story of how his love affair with coffee began starts much like many of the best of your friends’ anecdotes do: trying to impress a girl he fancied.
“I didn’t drink coffee, I hated coffee. I really fancied this girl and she said ‘Do you want to come back for a coffee?’ and I went ‘Go on then’, and that’s how I started drinking coffee.
“That was 1982. We were together five years but then she blew me out, but the coffee stayed,” Phil laughs.
Speaking to him now, you wouldn’t suspect he was ever anything less than passionate about his cappuccino – his drink of choice – and you’ll be hard pressed to find someone more excited about coffee. He even went to the London School of Coffee to retrain.
Despite not liking the taste at the time, he has fond memories of the smell of coffee in his parent’s house growing up after his father would bring fresh coffee back when he came back from working in France.
The coffee trends from around the world have continued to fascinate him as an adult.
“In Italy they’re very devout, they won’t change anything. I worked in Italy for about five years on and off. I’d stay in a hotel and then come back. Each morning I’d go down for breakfast and there’d be this stern-faced old Italian woman and I’d say to her: ‘Can I have a cappuccino?’ and she’d say ‘No'. I’d say why and she said ‘Two things: a cappuccino is for woman only and you don’t have a cappuccino after 10 o’clock’.
“Over a few months I got to know her and she’d come over and put the coffee down and say ‘Cappuccino for woman’.
“If you go to India, if you go to Cambodia, they’re quite trendy in the way they approach their coffee. But to me the base has to be right. I don’t want to have, for instance in Malaysia, a rose latte. Rosewater can kill everything. It’s very interesting.”
Having sampled all kinds of coffee all over the world, he’s narrowed down the favourite places he’s sipped a cappuccino to a top four.
“One was in Phnomh Penh in Cambodia. My brother was a doctor there so I went there and I’d go in my tuk tuk, it was a few years ago now, and they’d park your tuk tuk, open the front door, fabulous coffee. That stands out more than anything,” Phil says.
“The other was on Byron Beach in Australia. I remember sitting there, it was a perfect cappuccino, perfect cup, it was fantastic and I had another one on Bondi Beach, and I took a picture of it holding it out in front of the beach. It was absolutely perfect. It’s about surroundings.
“However, I’ve also been to the Costa Coffee in Newark in Nottinghamshire and had a fabulous one there. It just depends on your mood and also Cambodia is pretty cool isn’t it.
“Although I had one in Delhi airport in India and it wasn’t particularly good,” he adds.
Despite all this, he insists he is a coffee lover and not a coffee snob, explaining: “If they were making coffee behind a shut door and you didn’t know how it was made and it came out and it was great, I don’t have a problem with that.
“I do like the physicality of someone making it for me who knows what they’re doing, however, I do have a machine at home, it produces fairly good coffee. You must go to most petrol stations, you’ve seen the machines, coffee from the machine, it’s not the best coffee in the world but it is consistently okay.
“You can relate that to the food world: one Michelin star is great, three Michelin stars and you’re on a knife-edge – you’re either going to be brilliant or an absolute disaster. I’m not after it being super super super, I like it to be consistently very good.”
As one of the early adopters of the gluten-free movement, Phil’s now looking into alternative milks and how they behave in coffee.
“Soya milk’s great but it has a chalky texture to it, it’s like liquid chalk. Almond milk is fantastic, but obviously if you’re allergic to nuts that’s a problem. Some of them foam better than 4% cows' milk. The higher the protein, certainly the better the structure. I’m still researching it.”
As someone clearly so passionate about his coffee, I ask him his thoughts on the Swedish concept of 'fika' – another cool untranslatable Scandinavian word which essentially encapsulates the feeling you get when you meet friends for coffee and a chat. He’s not familiar with the term but can identify the feeling.
“I’ll go to my Costa Coffee in the morning – every day at 7 o’clock I’m in there – when I come out with that coffee at half past 7, I feel better than when I first went in certainly.
“It puts me in a better frame of mind, I feel like I can approach the day with an open mind rather than being tunnel-visioned and sometimes I meet friends of mine.
“It’s like your first sip of a pint of beer is always the best bit.”
Phil Vickery is a guest judge at Barista of the Year competition, which takes place in London. The annual competition sees twelve baristas from all over the world showcase their passion and flair for coffee for the chance to be crowned Costa’s Barista of the Year 2017. The final involves a series of challenges to create hand-crafted coffee to an exceptional standard.
Photo credit: ITV/REX/Shutterstock