WATCHING E-Gene Soh at his craft is a phenomenal experience.
With the grinder humming in the background and the smell of coffee hanging in the air, the 31-year-old barista-entrepreneur gracefully begins his work.
He packs the tiny basket with 14 grams of freshly ground coffee from Veneziano, a local boutique roasting house loved and revered by Melbourne’s coffee snobs. As a thin stream of espresso begins to flow from the uber-cool La Marzocco coffee machine, he fills a jug a third full with milk.
To produce the creamy froth that sits like silk in your latté glass, you need to first introduce air into the milk, a process you call “aeration” and then you “massage” it till the white liquid begins to swirl like a figure-eight, Soh explained.
Like an artist with his paintbrush, Soh produces the curlicues of a Rosetta leaf as he guides and blends the liquid silk into the espresso with a firm and steady wrist.
Soh has been in the business of supplying caffeine to Melbourne’s addicted masses since 2004, and his latest venture is Guava Bean at Freshwater Place in Southbank.
Business has been brisk, and the café has already built up a steady clientele since it began trading in August last year.
It has been seven years since the Singaporean stepped off the plane as a wide-eyed young man. He has done with his life what fills the daydreams of countless international students in Melbourne.
He is a permanent resident, husband, and proud father of a one-year-old son.
How did it all begin?
Soh had come to Melbourne in pursuit of both a media degree at RMIT University; and Sarah, the young woman (now his wife) who had caught his eye since high school.
“The initial plan was just to stay long enough to be together,” Soh confessed.
His love affair with coffee, and Melbourne’s cafe culture, began as a student.
“Cafés were always the kind of place we’d hang out,” he said.
When the opportunity arose to open his own café on Swanston St, he jumped at the chance.
It meant he could be in Australia for work, and be with Sarah, “which was the most important,” he said.
The couple married four years after they arrived in Melbourne, joining several of their friends who had also taken the plunge.
Baby Aidan came along two years later, and they have never looked back since.
The family is part of a close-knit church community in the city, and Soh is grateful for their support, the “aunties and uncles for Aidan, especially among the friends that got married around the time we did”, he said.
He’s never been one for swinging bachelorhood, and things have changed even more with the arrival of Aidan.
“I’ve always pictured myself in this position – with family, kids, running my own business,” Soh said.
“Everyday at work, I want to get home as soon as I can to spend time with my wife and son.
“It’s really changed my viewpoint on the world. You don’t even really think for yourself anymore, not the way you’re used to.
“You’ve got to consider what you do based on another life. At work, I sometimes think – I’m doing this so my family – my son – can have a future.”
But playing “boss-man” is a lot less glamorous when it comes down to the grind.
Soh is matter-of-fact.
“It’s not easy,” he said.
“It’s a very developed country, and a lot of things have already been done.”
That is not to say there aren’t opportunities for small businesses. In fact, it is quite the contrary, Soh said.
“Melbourne is a city that’s very supportive of small businesses,” he said.
“There are a lot of resources – people you can call on, books you can read, even a program that can teach you how to own your own business.”
Soh also works a punishing shift. He is on his feet from 7am to 4pm daily, pumping out an average of 2500 coffees a week.
And then there are accounts to keep when the chairs are stacked, the floors mopped, the doors shut and the apron untied from around his waist.
But he is not one to whinge.
“For me, life’s very much just started. Aidan’s still young, the business is still new,” Soh said.
He looks fondly over at his son.
“With Aidan, it’s like learning something new everyday – and I hope to pick that up from him. I mean, Sarah and I have only been married for 3 years.”
“I still feel like we’re newlyweds,” he said.
At this point, Sarah laughingly interjects, “Really? I feel like we’re old fuddy-duddies!”
“You’re the old fuddy-duddy,” he retorts, grinning.
Words of wisdom
Soh has some advice for international students who are looking to settle down in Melbourne.
“There are students who come to Melbourne to ‘escape’ where they came from, but I think it’s crucial that if you choose to settle down in Australia, you have to choose to see this place as home,” he said.
“Embrace the culture, the people, the politics. Getting involved in your community is very important in feeling like this is home.”
So take it from Soh – he has walked the path so many foreign students have hoped to one day carve out for themselves.
It has not been a breezy stroll through the park, but it has been an exciting journey for him so far.
Guava Bean @ Freshwater Place
Southbank VIC 3006
Phone:(03) 9645 7035