Cover photo for Philip I. Thomas

Slow Travel in Paris: Discovering Substance Cafe

Philip I. Thomas
I just returned from two weeks of "slow travel" in Paris. Instead of visiting museums and attractions, "slow travel" consists of living my everyday life, but in a different city. My trip generally consisted of working during the day, then going out to dinner at night. Every afternoon, I would take a break from work and walk to explore a local coffee shop. Throughout the trip, I visited numerous cafes and had much delicious coffee. But, one place stood out as particularly special - Substance Cafe.
Located in the heart of Paris, Substance Cafe is the brainchild of Joachim, a competition barista who has transformed his passion for coffee into a unique and captivating experience.
I am consistently captivated by independent creators operating at their peak potential. Joachim is one of those people. He flies around the world to participate in coffee competitions, then returns to Substance Cafe as his workshop to train and hone his skills before the next event. He operates the cafe mostly alone, and has worked meticulously to control and optimize every step of coffee-making from the farm to cup. He sources and roasts the beans himself, formulates custom water recipes, and rebuilds his equipment in pursuit of the perfect coffee. At Substance Cafe, guests are offered a front-row seat to Joachim's creative pursuit.

Substance Cafe is a far cry from your typical neighborhood coffee shop. You won't find people queuing for their morning caffeine fix, as the doors only open at noon. In place of tables, takeaway cups, and sugar, you'll discover 15 stools at a bar arranged around the espresso machine, inviting guests to become an audience to the coffee-making process. While a concise standard menu of familiar cafe drinks is available, the pièce de résistance at Substance Cafe is the Omakase experience.

Joachim curates a symphony of flavors through a rotating selection of a dozen specialty coffee beans, personally chosen to transport patrons on a sensory tour of the coffee world. This Omakase menu lies at the heart of Substance Cafe's ethos – a celebration of the finest coffees, brewed to highlight the unique terroir of the farm where it was grown. The experience is akin to a tasting menu at Noma, where every course challenges your preconceptions about coffee. While the price of an espresso can reach $20, it's a small investment to partake in an experience that is among the best in the world.

During my trip, I went to Substance Cafe three times, pulled in by the allure of its exceptional espresso offerings. Although Joachim is equally renowned for his V60 pourover coffee, I focused on espresso - a complex art form I'd never dare to attempt at home. Furthermore, it's a rarity to find cafes that can expertly pull shots from specialty light-roasted beans. Within the walls of Substance Cafe, I experienced the pinnacle of espresso – a Geisha from Finca Deborah in Panama. According to Joachim, this remarkable coffee is the only one he has ever bestowed a perfect 10 out of 10 rating for flavor. Each sip was akin to a kaleidoscopic journey, with a dynamic array of tastes unfurling on my palate – from vibrant orange to delicate jasmine. As the coffee cooled, its floral notes gracefully emerged, adding yet another layer of complexity to this unforgettable espresso experience.

In an age where remote work and digital interactions dominate our lives, Substance Cafe serves as a refreshing reminder of the power and beauty of purpose-built physical spaces that foster engagement and connection. The cafe itself is a living testament to the artisan's relentless quest for excellence and the enriching experience it offers to its patrons.
I can't help but dwell on the role the Internet plays in Substance Cafe. It enables Joachim to find and connect with niche community of coffee aficionados who share his values and devotion to the craft. These customers are willing to spend $20 on an espresso shot, visit the cafe only on weekday afternoons, and dedicate an hour to appreciating a cup of coffee. In this sense, the story of Substance Cafe serves as a testament to the positive effects of technology, enabling passionate individuals to create unique and meaningful work that resonates with a global audience.
Ultimately, Substance Cafe exemplifies the remarkable potential that lies at the intersection of passion, craftsmanship, and technology. It serves as a beacon of inspiration for creators everywhere, reminding us that in a world that often moves too fast, there is still room for those who dare to slow down and strive for perfection in their craft.