October 31, 2011

Food Interview #8: The Ellusive and Creepy Tea Guy

Since it’s Halloween and I’m way behind on posting my interviews, I thought I’d get in the spirit with this little narrative of my encounter with the most awkward person I’ve ever admired, the ellusive, creepy tea guy.

[No picture. You’ll see why]

Imagine walking into an overpriced coffee shop on one of the ritziest streets in Santa Monica, expecting to be swindled into buying a tiny, delicately pampered, artistically rendered cup of cappuccino, only to find yourself mesmerized by a beautifully assorted tea collection with some of the best blends you’ve ever seen. This is exactly what happened when I stumbled upon The Art of Tea at Cafe Luxe.

All I had to do was smell it to know how good it was. I asked one of the coffee shop employees for more information as to who was responsible for this heaven. “This one guy but he travels a lot,” they said nonchalantly. From that point on I knew I had to talk to Steve Schwartz. After all, I am collecting some of the most interesting food people in LA for this interview series and I’m obsessed with tea as it is, so he was definitely a must.

Hunting him down, however, became something of a sport. Send out an enthusiastic email documenting my love of tea and my years of study leading to an extensive report on the industry, hear nothing in reply. Send out a fan-like Facebook message requesting a time to meet to discuss tea, no reply. Call him up on his extension, leaving a breathless message of unabashed tea passion, no reply. Leave word with a representative of his company, still no reply.

By this point, anyone following this lunatic journey would be thinking why I hadn’t given up. I’ll tell you why, it’s seriously good tea.

Resume. Send out another email with my 50+ page tea report along with my resume, hoping to get his attention that way, finally, a response of a brief two sentences telling me he doesn’t know how he can help me but that we could meet. Cue ecstatic jumping and squealing like a little girl on my part. This was my chance. I instantly reply and wait with bated breath.

Clearly, that was not the correct reaction because it generated yet another long bout of silence. This time, I decided to take action. I emailed him again, telling him that I was still interested in a chat with the idea that if he did not reply, I would call him up and demand a meeting anyway. Lucky for him, he did reply.

What would seem to be a dream meeting with my supposed hero of tea turned out to be a confused conference of mixed communication. I came into it with the sole intent of discussing tea from one passionate tea lover to another. He was of the impression that it was a job interview for some undefined position that he would consequently create should he find me suitable to work with. Needless to say, it was quite a bit more than distracting.

Regardless, somewhere between tea talk and the job interview, I learned more about the man behind the tea. He had started out in preventative medicine with the study of botanicals and the “alchemy of herbology.” His focus was herbs of China and India versus those of the West. It was through his studies and subsequent treatments administered to real patients that he was able to discover the various profiles of wellness. This knowledge quickly transferred to tea.

Pretty soon, Steve Schwartz was blending up a tea storm. With blends like Mandarin Silk, 1896, and Apricot Escape, his teas soon garnered the interest of the general public. His blending savvy comes from the multiple trips to China and India he has taken over the past decade, which he continues to take to this day, that allow him to find only the best ingredients.

Business, on the other hand, is a sensitive topic and in this writer’s opinion, something he could do to improve upon. Starting with treating fans with dignity rather than trying to milk them of their every skill in online marketing. Personal opinions aside, this truly is one of America’s best tea selections and I wish his business only the best of luck. If I could only shake the feeling of being pierced with unwavering and probing eyes from my mind every time I hear the name, Art of Tea.

So in the end, I got to meet “The Tea Master,” I got grilled in a new way yet unseen for a job interview, and I got a pretty nice stash of free tea samples. Lessons learned (and I should have known this coming from a Russian household)? You’re only welcome if the tea is poured, otherwise you best stay on your toes.

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