If you're going to have an epiphany at a Los Angeles restaurant, the gorgeous open dining rooms at A.O.C. and Lucques are likely candidates. There's the light flickering from the fireplaces, the open sky above the patios, the sudden moments of culinary inspiration on the plates. But if you order a cappuccino on a good night, when the La Marzocco gods are working and the foam is just right, you may actually see Jesus in your coffee cup.
Because the face of Jesus can appear, like an unfurled Shroud of Turin in creamy Altadena milk and pulled shots of Equator, if barista Jesus Morales happens to see it in the cup when he makes your after-dinner coffee.
Morales, who has worked for Suzanne Goin and Caroline Styne for the last 15 years and who is a barista at both A.O.C. and Lucques, has been experimenting with latte art for the last year. It's the way the milk pours in each individual cup that determines the art, Morales said recently over the loud engines of the La Marzocco at A.O.C.
Imagine staring up into the sky and waiting for the clouds to coalesce into an image, then being able to pull a brush through the cumulous or cirrus trails, coaxing the art out and drawing it yourself. This is what Morales can do with a cup of coffee and the clouds from his pitcher.
Morales doesn't just draw the face of Jesus in his coffee. He also likes to form owls and little birds (sometimes trailing a fine thread of chocolate through the foamed milk) and stunning three-dimensional cats and pandas, the milk foaming up like meringue. On his phone he's got an entire gallery: pigs and even dragons and of course the face of Jesus in many incarnations: happy, thoughtful and even on occasion a “sad Jesus.”
Depending on how many people order coffee in your dinner party, you might get a menagerie, like a stalking cat peering over the edge of one cup at a school of swimming fish in another. Or a playing cat or panda or puppy, paws up, Morales forming the eyes and whiskers and tiny claws in the tiny coffee station with toothpicks, a small meat thermometer or a pair of teaspoons, shaping the foam as a pastry chef makes quenelles. Morales, who is originally from Oaxaca, says that “you have to get the foam just right, otherwise it drops” into the espresso.”
Turn the page for more about Morales, and more photos of his art.
A self-taught barista, Morales first started making art in a cup for the staff at Lucques as a hobby, a way to be creative while keeping everybody in the kitchen caffeinated. He says he was nervous at first to create the works for diners, but now loves sending out cups of coffee with little cats on the top, or recumbent pandas peering out at accompanying plates of dessert.
He first pulls espresso shots and foams the milk, pouring it out into the cups and then carefully shaking the cup to let the milk cool and settle in. From this canvas, an image or shape appears like a suggestion. For all of us who've seen Jimmy Carter's face in a potato or the image of the Virgin Mary on the side of a barn or a tortilla, seeing a three-dimensional cat – or the face of Jesus – emerge from the foam is like seeing the future of barista art. It's excellent coffee, to be sure, and a whole lot more fun than any pretty heart twirled into a cup. And maybe even, on the right night, downright revelatory.