Meet the Former Molecular Biologist Who Fought Cancer and Now Makes Amazing Coffee
Jack Benchakul used to work at some of the world’s largest biotech companies. Now, he makes vanilla-pandan lattes and strives to find the perfect balance of science and artistry to make the best cup of coffee imaginable.
All photos by Javier Cabral
"I worked on a lot of anti-cancer and cancer-fighting drugs before I got into coffee."
Jack Benchakul tells me this as he pours me a precisely measured tall glass of his vanilla-pandan iced latte, one of the coffee drinks at Endorffeine, his six-month-old coffee shop in Los Angeles. He meticulously wipes the countertop of his laboratory-like, U-shaped Modbar located in a 478-square-feet room in Chinatown's Far East Plaza.
The subtle, vegetally sweet, tropical flavor of his homemade pandan syrup—along with the light-roasted coffee sourced from Portland's Heart Coffee Roasters—is significant enough to make you stop and realize that you just sipped on something truly special in LA's highly competitive third-wave coffee scene.
You can spot this former biochemist's mildly insane, obsessive-compulsive dedication to both coffee and life a mile away—or simply when you walk by his transparent coffee shop and see him perfectly aligning his bench stools.
"I don't plan on hiring any employees, so there can only be one standard—I owe it to my customers," Benchakul tells me in a dead-serious tone just before he shakes his maple-bourbon iced latte made with a Bulleit bourbon syrup in a cocktail shaker for a patient customer. He then jokes, "Let's see how long this business model lasts."
Before he got into coffee, Benchakul worked at Genentech—one of the world's largest biotech companies—for a decade. After that, he worked at Amgen for another year. Nonetheless, the chemistry involved in making the world a less-shittier place with less cancer proved to be no match for his growing obsession with the everyday chemistry involved in food and drink—coffee and baking, in particular. One day, he finally enrolled himself in Tante Marie's night and weekend pastry program and then picked up a few shifts at Miette in San Francisco's Ferry Building.
Benchakul's life has been an endless pursuit of finding the perfect balance of science and artistry to make the best cup of coffee imaginable.
It was while Benchakul was working there when he had his life-turning coffee moment, when one of his coworkers went for a coffee run to Blue Bottle. "I immediately reached for some half and half, and my coworker smacked my hand saying, 'Why would you add something to something else without knowing what the base flavor is? I was embarrassed but that was my epiphany because I noticed how complex can be."
His decision to quit his successful career in molecular biology for one in coffee hospitality came when he realized that he was thinking about food and coffee more than biotech. "Toward the end of every conference meeting, I was always thinking: Where am I going to get the next meal or cup of coffee?"
From there on out, Benchakul's life has been an endless pursuit of finding the perfect balance of science and artistry to make the best cup of coffee imaginable. "There is still so much that we don't know in the world of coffee science. We are just in the beginning stages." Benchakul is starting to sound like Tim Cook introducing the Apple Watch and iPhone 6. That being said, he is fully aware of the pitfalls of making coffee from a purely scientific perspective: "When we rely too much on the numbers, we can get easily engulfed in a form of tunnel vision."
He then proves this point by listing some of the variables that most baristas will probably never think of when making coffee. "Aside from the ambient conditions outside a coffee shop, there are things to consider like: How many people [do] you have in a cafe? Is the door open? Is the AC cranking? How many shots are you pulling in a row? Are the burrs in the grinder heating up and causing the espresso to change? All of these things play a part in determining what your drink is going to taste like."
Before Benchakul branched off on his own at Endorffeine, he learned the ropes by working at Demitasse and Cognoscenti Coffee—two highly respected pioneers in LA's coffee game. (He also applied at Starbucks and got rejected. "I sent out multiple resumes and never got a response. It was very strange.") He credits his experiences with teaching him to let his molecular biology-trained brain rest a bit and just go with the flow. "I learned to not get hard-coded and cemented into numbers and let my senses guide me; this was mind-blowing for me."
And yet that doesn't stop the two of us going off on an extremely nerdy tangent about why neither water filtered by reverse osmosis nor spring water are adequate for making a good cup of coffee. Benchakul uses an Optipure two-stage filtration system that he installed in his bar because he concluded that its filtered water has the proper ionic content made for the best coffee. "I actually just sent some samples of my water for analysis."
I don't think he will ever be able to turn off his science brain, but he has learned to live with it. As I joyfully take deep sips to the dome of my ambrosial pandan latte, I am grateful for his mildly insane obsession.
"Eventually, I'm going to be doing a dessert tasting menu paired with coffee so my culinary school training doesn't go to waste," Benchakul tells me. He notices how I am enjoying myself, sip after sip. I spot things like sparkling coconut water infused with chrysanthemum and makrut lime milk cheese in the proposed menu. His Thai flavors are courtesy of his parents, who are from Bangkok. The menu is also an ode to Chinatown's quickly changing restaurant scene dominated by non-Chinese establishments like Pok Pok Phat Thai and Howlin' Ray's Nashville Hot Chicken, which sits across the plaza from Endorffeine.
As for what the future holds for Benchakul, he is adamant about being the only employee at Endorffeine. He takes one day off a week—and even then he's at the coffee shop, testing recipes for his dessert tasting menu coming soon.
"If things go well this year, I will be taking an inspiration trip to Tokyo maybe, to check out their coffee scene," he says. "I'll close the restaurant while I'm gone."