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Jack Benchakul Is the Scientist Behind Highland Park's Best Coffee Cart

Welcome to The Baristas, a regular feature that chronicles the daily lives of some of the most talented ladies and gentlemen in LA who are passionate about serving coffee.

Elizabeth Daniels
Farley Elliott is the Senior Editor at Eater LA and the author of Los Angeles Street Food: A History From Tamaleros to Taco Trucks. He covers restaurants in every form, from breaking news to the culture, people, and history that surrounds LA's dining landscape.

It would be inaccurate to call Jack Benchakul another one of those crazed coffee obsessive types; his brain is too scientific for that. The former biochemist takes a much more nuanced approach to the drinks he serves from the Cognoscenti Coffee cart, his standalone brewing station inside of Highland Park's Good Girl Dinette. There are the usual lattes, cortados, cold brews and a few off-menu specials for anyone looking to try something new, but where Benchakul really shines is in the science behind the bean.

Along with founder Yeekai Lim, Benchakul has helped take Cognoscenti from a casual pop-up coffee operation inside the likes of Proof Bakery and the Hotel Normandie to a full-fledged operation with a dedicated space in Culver City. Along the way, the cart has continued to find new homes, including at Good Girl Dinette, the darling five-year-old Vietnamese diner run by Diep Tran. That's where you can find Benchakul most days, informing casual coffee drinkers about his latest roast, or talking theory with the dedicated caffeine set.

How long has the Cognoscenti cart been inside Good Girl Dinette? Officially since March, though we started on weekends only. In May, we started coming every day.

What made you want to set up inside Good Girl? I went to culinary school, worked in a restaurant. And in restaurants, all of the savory stuff is taken care of, but you get to the coffee with your dessert and it’s usually lackluster. Understandably so, I guess. We’ve taken this commodity for granted — it’s a ritual, so we drink it every day. In most cases it’s not too expensive, so we probably just expect some caffeinated buzz and not much more. I wanted to be in Good Girl because I wanted to raise the level and value of coffee. When I pitched the idea to her, I was hoping she’d go for it. At the time I was at Cognoscenti over in Culver City, managing that location. It was sort of around that period that Yeekai (Lim) asked me if I wanted to partner up. Long story short: this is really great coffee, with really great food.

Being that it’s a mobile cart, do you have plans to move on from here eventually? I think a lot of Cognoscenti’s success can be attributed to Yeekai’s vision to just grow organically. It’s kind of interesting that our success has been as great as it has been, because we don’t have a PR team. We’ve never been a powerhouse in that area, and Yeekai likes it that way. In terms of the [Good Girl] space, we’d like to go permanent, maybe build out the bar. We've taken the cart out to the Street Food Fest, and that’s been a success, if only to show people what coffee can be. The barista doesn't have to be hiding behind this big box. Even today, with espresso drinks in more commercial specialty coffee spaces, there’s still some miseducation on what a latte is versus what a cappuccino is. And that all fits in with this space. There’s no pretension here.

How much education are you doing here, with the customers at Good Girl Every time someone asks what a cortado is, that’s a nice segue into a natural conversation about coffee. They’re looking for something different, or maybe they’re just curious. And both are OK.

Are you doing anything on the cart besides espresso drinks? We do these signature drinks, that allow me to be a bit more culinary in my approach. The first is an espresso and cold brew base, and I made a bourbon syrup for that, with a little bit of coconut milk. I like to keep things simple. Everything else has been pretty standard, but this being a Vietnamese diner I do make the Vietnamese hot coffee here. But even that I've taken liberties with. I use espresso rather than the drip method, and for the iced coffee version I use a 48-hour cold brew, so it’s distinctly different, even though they’re both sweetened with condensed milk.

If you go permanent inside Good Girl, would you expand the menu? We do pour overs now on the cart, but it could range anywhere from new brewing methods like the siphon method, which is gorgeous and sexy and has a bit of alchemy. It’s beautiful to watch and brews a great cup of coffee, and that visual appeal always draws in customers who have questions. And that starts a conversation.

Who do you get your beans from? Right now, I’m using Heart and Roseline, both from Portland. For Roseline, a friend of mine who used to be a barista is now their operations manager, and he sent me some samples, and I really liked it. We've gotten good feedback, and there's not too many people that are carrying them right now. The nice thing about being a multi-roaster is that we get to sample so much coffee from so many different roasters throughout the country. It definitely keeps me from getting bored, and I really like that. I think we'll still continue to search for the best beans. There are lots of great coffee places now, but in my opinion there are very few great coffee roasters. That'll change. A lot of coffee professionals are digging into the science behind coffee, and that speaks to me.

Is there something about coffee that appeals to the scientist in you? Yes. It's a seemingly simple beverage. Roasted fruit seeds -- we call them beans -- are ground, and then you add hot water. It doesn't get any more simple than that, and yet it's so complex. I have friends who are wine lovers, and they're snooty and I'm snooty about coffee. I think we just want the best, right? One of those friends once said to me "I don't get coffee." And I said, you know, there's probably 600-700 known aromatic compounds in red wine, and in coffee there's over 1,000. So if you want to compare on complexity, the numbers have the wine lovers beat. It's a natural product, and like wine the plant is a product of its terroir. What's in the soil, the climate, all of these things affect it. And you can taste it.

It sounds like you're really enjoying being at Good Girl. Diep has been fantastic. It's very difficult to find a restaurateur who's willing to basically give you a cut of their business. I mean, she loses out on drink sales that are going to Cognoscenti. But she sees value in the fact that I can give it the love and care that she cannot. And together I think we bring in an interesting dynamic and demographic. We're definitely seeing that, especially as this neighborhood continues to change. I'd like for us to stay and go permanent, build out the bar and maybe move the cart to another pop-up location. But even as I speak, we're scouting out other brick and mortars.

Good Girl Dinette
110 N. Ave. 56
Highland Park, CA 90042
Open M-F: 8 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Sat.: 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Sun.: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.