Parlor Games with Steve Razzano
Every now and then, we'll be highlighting a member of Parlor's team with a bit of coffee talk. The format is a play on the 18th-century parlor game that would later become popularized as the Proust Questionnaire, centered around questions to review one's personality. (Admittedly, our version has a coffee-influenced twist.)
Steve Razzano, Production Manager + Roaster
Hometown: Lake Ronkonkoma, New York
Current roastery jam: The Stone Roses, "I Wanna Be Adored"
How would you describe your hometown?
Lake Ronkonkoma is the largest lake on Long Island. It's about a half hour drive north or south of either shore. Like many places on Long Island, the town is named after the Native Americans that once inhabited the area. Growing up, they told us the lake was bottomless. A boy would drown in the lake every summer, the subject of many urban legends. Maude Adams [famous Broadway actress from the early 1900's] used to have an estate there. It was a popular vacation spot through the 1950's, but the summer bungalows have since mostly disappeared. Very suburban, strip mall, Irish pub vibes nowadays.
When did you move to New York City?
2008. I started attending the School of Visual Arts, studying cinematography.
What drew you to filmmaking?
It grew out of a love for still photography. My high school had a strong art and music department. We still had a black and white darkroom at that time. I heard they replaced it with a digital lab! I took darkroom classes every year. When it came time to apply for schools, I started thinking about how I could turn photography into a more "clear" and "stable career path." The film industry turned out to be anything but stable.
How did you start working in coffee?
Through SVA. I was still commuting and working at a grocery store on Long Island for my first semester. Second semester I moved into student housing at the old George Washington Hotel on 23rd and Lexington. A friend in my production class connected me with a job at a cafe in Kips Bay called Oren's Daily Roast. That was my first coffee gig.
Do you consider yourself an extrovert or an introvert?
It's funny, I bartend on Friday nights and a regular asked me that last week in front of my partner. I had them answer for me. They said, "I feel like you're tapping on the door of being an extrovert. You're almost in the middle, but leaning towards extrovert." I think that's true. I'm pretty outgoing, but I don't like talking for the sake of talking. Small talk bores me.
Do you think that relates to your approach to film? What type of work were you making?
My early work was experimental and non-narrative, short vignettes. When I got to SVA, I had trouble shooting dialogue. Photography is about moments, and trying to capture a feeling through direct experience with a subject. In a narrative film with dialogue, not all of the shots are going to be beautiful. There's bound to be a lot of talking heads and over the shoulder shots that are necessary for driving the plot forward. So I directed my attention towards shooting more music videos.
Who are some filmmakers and photographers that you admire?
Being queer, Kenneth Anger, Peter Hujar and Pier Paolo Pasolini were my heroes. Stan Brakhage's "Dog Star Man". He was literally painting and poking holes in the celluloid... that's so gangster. Helen Levitt's street photography. Vivian Maier was a recent revelation. She had such a strong sense of framing and an unmatched understanding of humanity while also being incredibly introverted. Maybe it was really necessary for her to exist as a wallflower to create that level of work.
How did you start roasting?
When I finished school I started freelancing in film, but I was really unhappy. I found it be a fairly uncreative environment filled with stress and anxiety. All the while, I kept a part-time barista gig for pocket money. Eventually I started turning down film work and took on working in coffee full-time. I was managing a Cafe Grumpy location, but eventually left to work with a New Zealand cafe in Nolita called Happy Bones. I was trying to climb the "coffee ladder" and felt like I hit a ceiling working in cafes. In 2016, I took a production assistant position with Parlor, just bagging coffee. Two years later, I'm managing production and roasting half the coffee.
What's the most challenging thing about roasting?
Each coffee has a target and we're trying to hit the bullseye for every single one. For some, the targets are bigger and for others they're smaller - and sometimes it's moving and you're constantly chasing it.
How did your first trip to origin change your experience of coffee?
It removed the veil of abstraction from the entire process. Here, it's so easy to walk over to a pallet, drag a bag [of coffee beans] over to the Probat, and start roasting without really thinking about how it got there. Colombia is incredibly beautiful and complicated. We visited a number of producers we've worked with and I saw how challenging it is for them. It bums me out when I hear people blindly write off certain coffees or brands. I think if they truly understood the work behind it, there might be a bit more humility and kindness surrounding their experience with that product. Not every coffee is going to be an 88 point coffee. You have to make time for the humble, unsung heroes - some of those straightforward, chill, chocolatey vibes, too.
What would your ideal cafe be?
A place for stimulation. Coffee would just be a device. Good art, good music, a comfortable place to collect yourself. The neighborhood haunt.
What's on your playlist right now?
I've been into a lot of 80's/90's UK rock lately: Slowdive, The Stone Roses, The Cure. I am so in awe of Robert Smith. He's maybe not so conventionally good looking, but he's so intentional as a singer. That's paramount for me. If I can tell you don't mean what you're singing or if an actor in a film isn't reading as natural, I'm immediately turned off. Robert Smith is so real. He's got that wiry hair and the bright red lipstick. Big middle finger to heteronormativity. Totally on the verge of not pulling it off. He's such an icon.
What have you seen in New York that's impacted you recently?
The Peter Hujar retrospective at the Morgan Library. I took Warren to see it for his birthday. His work is so poignant and personal. He never really received the recognition he deserved while he was still alive, so I was happy for this show. I became aware of Hujar when I saw the photographs his partner [the artist David Wojnarowicz] made of him on his deathbed, just moments after passing from AIDS-related pneumonia. That shook me. I feel like... queer people are visible and there's a certain level of acceptance, but there's still a lot to do, right? It's work like Hujar's that I see as a catalyst for change.
How do you think about coffee culture and the idea of inclusivity?
One of the most obvious things about working in coffee is that there are a lot of white dudes. And I'm a white dude, so I guess I'm part of the problem. As far as the LGBTQ community goes, there's really not a large or visible presence. If my visibility—in my life and my work—can provide solace to people struggling with their sexuality, then I'm happy being present. Parlor has been nothing short of accepting and kind to me, but outside of New York there doesn't seem to be the same level of acceptance. Take the SCA championship being held in Dubai. Even after the industry raised concerns about serious human rights violations in the UAE related to the LGBTQ community, the SCA decided to proceed anyway. I have zero interest in "coffee competitions" but that one rubbed me the wrong way. I won't forget that.
What are the characteristics that you appreciate most in others?
Sincerity. Realness. People who know who they are.
What is the thing that you most despise?
Blind faith. A liberal value for the sake of liberalism, or a conservative value for the sake of conservatism. Have some integrity and know why you stand for the things that you stand for. It goes without saying, but this is an important time to be paying attention. If you're adhering to dogma because someone told you to, that's infuriating.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Well... I feel really happy right now. It took a lot of soul searching through dark times to get to this place. Showing up, being present... unbridled freedom. It's just doing whatever it is that I want to do, and I'm here for that reason. Working in coffee is such a unique and beautiful opportunity to present a product that, to me, encapsulates the human experience and triumph. Another human is out there in the tropics, growing this fruit - not even growing it for the fruit, but growing it for the seed - that's washed, fermented and dried. Then it's transported across the world for somebody else to transform that product into something drinkable. Roasters are like translators, unlocking the potential of each coffee. I think that's the most interesting thing about roasting; that's also what drives me and makes me happy.
What was in your cup this morning?
Ethiopia Nano Challa. Ethiopians are generally not the first coffee I reach for in the morning because they've got a lot going on. I want something a bit more straightforward and understandable when I wake up. But I think Nano Challa is the exception to that. It's the chillest Ethiopian I've met. Floral, honey, lilac. Mellow and lovable. Just like me. [Laughs]
Images feature Parlor's recent origin trip to Acevedo, Colombia. Photo credits: Rich Gilligan