SPECIAL REPORT

The Youth of Today: Ong Shi Chun

by Zara Zhuang
Photography by Chino Sardea
11 Jul 2019

Mr. Ong Shi Chun, 30, is a freelance barista

For Mr. Ong Shi Chun, coffee started out simply as a part-time gig when he was a college student. But this month, he is representing Singapore in the World Coffee in Good Spirits Championship in Berlin, after emerging the champion at the Singapore National Coffee in Good Spirits Championship 2019 in March. 

What keeps you busy these days? 
I am currently a freelance barista now, currently pulling shifts on a part-time basis at a few specialty coffee shops. I am currently working on my own new coffee brand, hopefully more focused on improving the coffee cocktail scene in Singapore! Also I had represented Singapore in the World Coffee in Good Spirits Championship in Berlin onn June 6–8.

To you, what are the elements that go into a perfect cup of coffee?
Lots of love, time, care and concern. And more coffee.

A perfect cup of coffee to me is a balance between sweetness, acidity, and bitterness. To me, it is a craft that seems simple to most people ("coffee is coffee" and "just something to wake me up every day", as they say) but once we delve deeper into the science of coffee, I realise it is just so much more to it. We need to give a lot more time to appreciate the hard work our dear coffee farmers have put in to produce such a beautiful product, and specialty coffee baristas give so much respect to that part.

From studying aerospace engineering and business management and then working in ZNO International, when did the idea of coffee as more than a part-time/weekend/side gig come to you? What did you see in it that convinced you there was potential in coffee, and what were your goals for yourself then?
Engineering has always been an interest to me and business management is definitely a logical choice (as I want to run successful businesses in the future). Coffee was just a college part-time job back in the day, and even when I was working in ZNO, I found myself hanging around the cafe I used to work in, sometimes even having my meetings there when I could, and pulling shifts in the weekends. I guessed I could establish a career in F&B as food is a big part of my life, and of course the intriguing specialty coffee world got me sucked in. As they say, the rest is history. Now I still tinker around with espresso machines for fun, starting my own coffee business again, and still making coffee cocktails, I guess it paints an accurate picture of what I have learnt in life so far!

 

What motivates you?
Contact time with my guests are usually really short in coffee, compared to bartending or project management. It really motivates me and makes me real happy when I see my customers slowly gain a deeper understanding of the specialty coffee world, not just coffee as being just a carrier of their daily caffeine dose. Sometimes I see the customers slowly change from a flavored coffee (such as mochas), to a milk coffee, and then get intrigued with our hand brew coffees. It's a fun journey between customer and barista, and I really appreciate that connection.

What are some challenges of choosing this path and of running an F&B business especially in Singapore? 
It's been five years, and some of my friends still ask me when I will "get a proper job." The F&B industry is a challenging industry, actually — long hours with low pay, high turnover rate, and being at the service front line, we also bear the brunt of sometimes unreasonable customers. I believe managing my own expectations coming into this industry and accepting the environment as is is the best way to overcome that. After all, it is a path we chose ourselves, chasing our dreams and passions in this line.

What's your take on the change in people's attitudes towards and appreciation of coffee? Is the interest in roasting and brewing techniques, provenance and flavor profiles, etc., a general trend or more of a youth-driven movement?
I believe currently it is a general trend, driven mostly by youths. Most of the customers I engage with are around our age, where we are more willing to learn about what goes into that special cup of coffee (compared to just flavored syrups in iced blended burnt coffee). It is an exciting world where new possibilities seem to be opening up, and people starts to appreciate coffee as a craft, instead of just a staple product. 

 

Through this journey, how do you define or quantify success, and what does achieving success mean to you?
Success in this journey to me means surviving well in this industry, to be able to reach as many people to understand and know about specialty coffee, while keeping the community tight-knit where everybody helps each other to achieve this same goal.

How has being a product of this era shaped the way you approach your craft and the concept of what makes a career or profession?
In this era, we are fortunate that we have a lot of access to new technology and knowledge, so things get developed faster, and we can share information with each other a lot easier. That also means that things will get harder if you compete head-on. I find that finding a niche is important, and to further expand your skillset from that, that becomes your new unique profession! For example, I found coffee cocktails to be my little niche and I am working on expanding my skillset to include coffee-infused cocktails and that also gives me valuable experience and time with the craft cocktail industry (and at the same time preaching my coffee love to the cocktail people).

What are some misconceptions about being a youth and a barista you've faced?
I always get "you are too inexperienced to start business so young," and "people won't listen to young people like you" recently, when starting my own business, and as a barista, you sometimes get judged for being not "successful" on their terms because it is not a corporate job and service is involved. 

Would you say there's been a shift in how the person working on coffee is perceived? 
I believe there is a slight shift, especially among peers around my age. To me, our guests need to recognize specialty coffee is more of a craft than a mass-produced commodity to have a real shift in this perception. We as baristas are working towards this aspect in our many little ways, just believe in our dreams, and love the craft!