The Girl In The Cafe with Celeste Wong
On being a barista in London, connecting with strangers, acting, The Girl In The Cafe brand and how she sustains her mind and body while living in a big city.
Today’s guest is Celeste Wong, an actress and renowned coffee barista from Dunedin, New Zealand. For over a decade, Celeste has held positions in leading artisan cafés all over the world. Since migrating to the UK, she’s been listed as one of London’s top five baristas in The Financial Times and had multiple successes in her roles in front of the camera. Celeste’s last feature film won multiple awards and was the highest grossing independent film of the year in New Zealand.
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Celeste, welcome to the show.
Hi, thanks for having me.
You’ve been in London for a decade now and the independent coffee scene ten years back was pretty different to how it is today. I love hanging out in cafés and I love drinking good quality coffee. I’m interested to know from you as an insider, what you have noticed in the ten years that you’ve been working in London cafés around how people interact with each other when they’re waiting in line? How they interact maybe with you as the barista, with whoever is on the cash register? Do people seem open to conversation or are they in a hurry or is it a mixture? What things have you observed and has anything changed substantially from the beginning of your time here to your more recent months here?
Part of the skill of a barista is not just about making coffee, it’s about being able to gauge where that person’s at. When I was a non-experienced barista, I didn’t really know what that etiquette was. As I got into it more, you can gauge whether people are in a hurry or whether they want to talk or whether they don’t want to talk. I think when I was first starting out, I was concentrating so much on what I was doing that you can’t really multitask too much because it’s thinking about, “How much change?” but also, “I’ve got to make this coffee. What’s the volume? How is it extracting?” As you get better, you become more autonomous and then you’re able to do two things at once and maybe have a conversation.
There are a couple of things that can affect that. It can be the culture of the café. If it’s a place that is really like, you come and you get your takeaway, there’s no mucking about. Those places will tend to get customers that don’t really want to necessarily engage because they’re in a hurry and that’s the service that they want and that’s totally fine. Then there are other cafés that are a lot more relaxed. Maybe they’re in a slightly suburban area where people’s time is not as tight. In those places, it falls as a situation where people would be more open to having a bit more of a conversation. Especially in the city, I would imagine that people have a short time to come and get their coffee, so they don’t really want to be chatting away, and also they’ve got stresses.
On the other hand, a lot of people, which I think is great, they tend to go to cafés for the break, for the escape, for the conversation, for the different scenery. I think that is such a wonderful thing that cafés could do as a space to change people’s headspace and to change someone’s day, make it better, make it more interesting. That’s why I think cafés and coffee are so fascinating.
Celeste, what is The Girl In The Cafe?
The Girl In The Cafe is basically about people and how we’re all connected, especially through coffee. Personally, I’m really emotionally connected with coffee in a way that I think that coffee brings about amazing experiences and conversations. If you’ve ever drank coffee and you’ve had these incredible thoughts, or maybe you’ve sat with a friend drinking coffee and you’ve been crying over some problem that you’ve gone through or some heartbreak, or decided to change your career or move countries. I was thinking about how much coffee plays such as huge part of our lives and how it’s such a connector. That’s really what my brand encompasses, all of that through learning about yourself and through other people, my interviews, self-reflection, self-love, questioning, and being inspired by other people and being inspired by the things that you see, and being real. I want people to be entertained as well not to take life too seriously but with a little pinch of salt.
As I progressed, I wanted to combine all the things that I love together, which is film, media, people and of course coffee, which has been the thread throughout my whole life. When I realised that, I wanted to incorporate everything together. That’s what led me to The Girl In The Cafe, which was originally just going to be a web series that I was going to produce and present. It involved interviewing customers that I’d met that inspired me, but also people in the coffee industry that I thought were living and working with a certain positive ethos that I was also discovering and experiencing myself.
What was some of those key lessons that you learned from interviewing those regulars at the cafés?
Some of the key things that I learned from the people that were customers in the café, they actually became friends of mine, that’s why we were able to get into deeper conversations. If you do go and watch some of the interviews on my website, the interviews actually go quite deep and insightful quite quickly. I think that’s also reflective of the type of people they are. What I learned from them was that, I guess they were people who wanted to be successful, and they were successful, but they weren’t just successful out of nowhere. They’re people that worked really, really hard. They had a super dedicated attitude and they were open to learning more about themselves. They were open to also sharing that with me. That was great to take away. I only wanted to interview people that I truly was inspired by. They are inspirational people for sure. Obviously, if they inspired me, they’re going to inspire my audience. That was really, really important to me.
It evolved into this brand that I became the face of, I guess. Originally, all of my social media and my blogs and things were all to really champion the web series and the people that I was getting on my show. As I was developing, it was developing because it’s a representation of me, my life, what I think, and the people around me and the conversations that I have and the work that I do. That’s where the brand has driven actually.
When you talk about the brand, there’s coffee that people like me can buy, caffeine addicts like me who like really good quality sourced coffee beans. I can just go ahead and buy those and you’ve got the most beautiful branding. How did you reach the point where it seemed really an obvious next step to have your own coffee line?
I think everything with The Girl In The Cafe has been quite organic. As I said before when I started, it was the web series. I went backwards and I started doing blogs while I was filming the show, because that took quite a while to produce and involved a really great team of people that were giving me their time and their expertise. That was the start. I started blogging and doing stuff on Instagram and Twitter. I have a design background as well. I wanted to design some t-shirts and merchandise and stuff but I really stick with four concepts. I won’t release anything unless it has a concept. Any project that I have will have an idea behind it or it will be me trying to say something about something that I feel strongly about. The t-shirts came next and it was also a way to try and fund the web series because I was looking at new sources of revenue to try and help me produce this thing independently, without getting outside help. Therefore, that’s when I started the shop online.
I wanted to start collaborating with other people and I started doing pop-up cafés. My first pop-up café was in a skate shop. I was working full-time in a café as Head of Coffee and doing all this The Girl In The Café stuff on the side. I started this pop-up and I realised, I didn’t actually have a huge following compared to now, but even then, I was able to draw a really good crowd and it was super fun. It was just really representative of what I wanted the brand and who I wanted to be. That was the first time I realised the power of social media and what I was doing basically. It’s developed really organically and naturally.
Now, I have my own coffee beans, which I’m collaborating with The Roastery Department. They’re an amazing roastery. Again, it all comes down to people. Dumo, who I’m working with, he owns and runs that roastery. He’s just incredible, just so open, and willing for me to try new ideas. That’s the key thing about everybody in my web series, everybody that I interview, anyone that I work with, they all have this thing in common, which is just the openness and willingness to let me create and for them to also be able to put their mark on it as well.
I’m really interested to know how you sustain well and look after your body and look after your mind while living in a huge city that’s fast, while juggling acting, with running your own brand, with running pop-up shops here and there, running a couple of cafés, and juggling all this stuff? How do you look after yourself?
A few months ago, it was quite well-documented on my Instagram and on my blog, I wanted to change the way that I ate and the way that I moved. At the same time, I didn’t believe that personal trainers really did anything and then I thought, “I really don’t have any basis to say that,” because I’ve not experienced it myself. I am one for experiencing something so that I know what it’s like and I can give my opinion. I got a personal trainer. Her name’s Penny and she’s a holistic health fitness therapist, if anyone’s interested. She’s awesome. I had no idea what a change it would have on my life. In three months, I lost six inches of my waist, which I didn’t even know that I had. I was exercising with her twice a week and then I was doing my own exercise. It wasn’t hugely strenuous.
What was really interesting was how much I was able to fit into my day, the dedication that I have, and changing my diet in the way that I thought towards food was really, really interesting in terms of changing my habits. That at the moment has been a really big focus, just getting some really good habits so that my mind and my body can be really just on because things can happen all the time. I realised, if something happen that was stressful, would I be able to still handle it as well if my mental and physical state was not at its best? Now, I do try and run regularly. I’ve gotten into riding bikes a lot so I’ve got a new bike. I like walking and I’ve started doing a little bit of yoga. It sounds extreme that I‘ve just gotten into that. For me to change my habits, I knew that I had to do something quite drastic. It was really surprising as to what the results were and also as to my own dedication because I didn’t think that I was going to stick to it all. As you get on, you see some results and you start feeling better and it’s really good.
In that crucial first 21 days of creating those new habits, before you start to see significant changes and benefits I guess, how did you motivate yourself to stay on track while you were forming those positive habits?
For me, the one other thing that I learned by having a personal trainer was actually having someone to be accountable for made a huge difference for me. Now that I’ve learned that in my fitness and health side, I actually want to apply that in my entrepreneurial business side as well because I didn’t realise having deadlines or making sure that I turn up to my training session, because I don’t want to be wasting her time as well as my time. That was a huge motivator, just to show up and to be on time, because I’m notoriously late for everything, embarrassingly. I’m working on it. I think I was late maybe once by five minutes for her because I wanted to show her that I was serious about it. She was only going to take me on if I agreed to do her programme at least for four weeks to see whether we were getting any results so that we can adjust things. That was a huge motivation.
Also, one of the biggest motivations is just my curiosity. I just wanted to see if any of this stuff that I was doing was even making a difference. The only way I’m going to be able to do that is to actually follow something. You have to follow it through for a decent amount of time to see anything. I knew that even if I didn’t know whether anything was shifting, that something would because it’s just the way exercise is I guess. I made some rules on my discipline, like I wasn’t going to drink alcohol, and I was going to do everything that I could to help my goal basically.
This still sounds to me like there’s a lot going on in your average day. I know you said that it has been surprising how much you can squeeze in when you commit and dedicate to something. I love that you mentioned your curiosity in there and how that had a positive impact on your fitness and diet journey. What things do you try to do each day, if at all, that are around stillness and slowness and making space for reflection?
I think going for a run or a jog. Even though I hate the process of getting dressed in my gear and getting out the door, but once I’m out and I’ve done the first ten minutes of mentally fighting against myself, “I don’t want to do this. Why am I out here?” and then I get into a zone and I start thinking about a whole lot of stuff and my mind gets really busy. Before I even realise it, I’m noticing the trees and the light then I’m literally relaxing even though I’m exercising. I do find getting out into the parks or into nature in some way really relaxing. I’m not very good at it yet, but I’ve been trying to do a 15-minute meditation before bedtime, just using a YouTube video that someone has suggested to me. I think that’s been good too.
Celeste, you mentioned earlier that you’ve recently really got into biking and you also like walking, is there a favourite route that you have here in London that you would like to share with us?
I absolutely love Victoria Park. It’s just such a beautiful park with amazing trees and people to look at and just open pubs. It runs along the canal. I just do some loops around Victoria Park. Anytime I want to get away from anything or just de-stress and decompress a little bit, Victoria Park would be somewhere I would go, or maybe even walking along the canal, just being by water or something like that. I would like to say I go to cafés, but sometimes cafés are work for me. A lot of people go to cafés to chill out and relax. Sometimes I go to cafés and it reminds me of work.
You’re an actress. I’m really interested in how people cultivate resilience. As a writer and creative entrepreneur, that’s been something that I really have to focus on more consciously in the last couple of years. I’m curious about how you, as also both a creative entrepreneur and someone who writes as well as being an actor, how do you ensure that rejection and imposter syndrome don’t paralyse you at times?
Rejection is a huge thing for anyone regardless of whether they’re in the entertainment industry or not. It’s something I realised quite a long time ago. Obviously, it’s not a nice feeling for anybody to be rejected. But I knew if I wanted to continue experiencing and furthering my curiosity into acting, I would have to just go through stuff and figure out a way to be okay with all of that. I went to a lot of auditions. I started going to a lot of commercial auditions, some TV auditions, some film auditions. Some were really horrible, and some were really amazing and those ones I still didn’t get. It made me question, “What’s wrong with me?” and all of those questions that we all ask ourselves when we get rejected, whether it would be from a person that you’re interested in or someone that’s going to give you a job or not.
I realised that it’s not me. It’s just I’m not the right person for that job at the time. I guess you can also apply that to dating, which is what I do and did. The thing with rejection is about doing your best, trying to prepare as much as you can. If you don’t get the job, then it’s not necessarily to do with you, because there are so many people’s opinions that are actually part of that decision-making process. It’s not just down to one person, there’s producers, all sorts of things. I guess learning to accept yourself. That’s a really huge one.
I had a TV audition the other day and I thought that I had prepared really well and I had enough time and everything. I felt really quite positive about doing the audition. When I got in there something threw me off a little bit. Self-doubt started going in my head and it wasn’t until the lady who was auditioning me was like, “Your shoulders are really up here,” and I just looked to her and I said, “I think I’m a bit nervous actually.” I shook it off and we carried on and it was much better. It just took me a little while to warm up, which is not really something that I normally would do, but it’s a slightly different audition where it was two different languages. I was also having to translate. I was a bit rusty. In the end, whether I get the job or I don’t get the job, it could be down to a lot of things. Ultimately, you just try not to beat yourself up and just accept that that’s how it went, but it’s not a reflection of the potential that you have.
Celeste, where would you live if you didn’t live in London and you couldn’t live back home in Dunedin?
There are two places I would choose. It would either be Sicily or Barcelona, by the beach. Barcelona has some really great coffee and it’s also near the beach. It just has a really nice culture. I’ve always enjoyed my time there and felt pretty relaxed and free. Maybe this is just in the coffee industry, but there’s a growing entrepreneurial vibe going on there, which is cool to see as well, in terms of food and everything else along those lines.
Sicily, that’s obviously quite a different vibe altogether.
I, basically, would just like to go to Sicily and just lie on the beach and go out in a boat. I had a great holiday there once. I went by myself. It was my first solo holiday. I was a little bit apprehensive about it, “Am I going to hate my own company? Am I going to get bored? Is it dangerous?” All of those things and I ended up having an incredible time. The moral of that story is definitely go and get some alone time. I got off all my devices and stuff. It was really interesting. It was productive as well. I was able to do my own work and have a clear head. I met some great people. I had an awesome sailing experience. I just have a bit of a fond memory of Sicily. It was only four days but it felt like two weeks.
Celeste, what are you curious about right now?
I’m curious about how I can grow as a person but also as an entrepreneur. That is something that actually motivates me every day. I’m also curious about success. What it feels like? Are people actually happy when they’re successful? What is success? I’m curious about that, but I’m curious about that not just for myself but curious what that is for other people as well.
Where can people find out more about you and your work?
You can go to TheGirlInTheCafe.co.uk. I’m mostly active on Instagram. Basically, if you go to my website, everything is on there. You can link through to my YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, whatever platform is best for you.
Thank you so much for being a guest today on Urban Curiosity Podcast.
You’re welcome. It was really great. Thanks.