“This is the most exciting place to be in for coffee at the moment. I have no desire to be anywhere else,” says Tim Williams, the Aussie in charge at St Ali.
The café only arrived in London, on Clerkenwell Road, this spring, but ever since then it has had caffeine connoisseurs flocking to EC1, and has even opened a spin-off in Wigmore Street, called Sensory Lab.
Williams can take a great deal of credit for it so quickly becoming the cream of the local coffee scene. He was recently promoted from director of coffee to director of operations, meaning he now oversees all the food and wine at St Ali, as well as its huge, state-of-the-art Probat roaster, which takes pride of place on the ground floor.
His career in coffee took Williams around the globe before landing him in EC1. The starting point was Melbourne, where both he and brand originally come from. “I worked briefly for St Ali there in 2005, under the original owner, Mark Dundon. He then gave me my first job in speciality coffee, at a place called Ray.” After that, he came to London, to Flat White in Soho, arguably the place that kick-started London’s coffee revolution in the late Noughties. A stint in the US followed, before roles back in the UK at Clerkenwell’s The Modern Pantry and the nearby Square Mile Coffee Roasters.
He’s loving every minute being back in the St Ali fold. “It’s very rare that I wake up in the mornings and don’t look forward to going to work,” says Williams, who lives in Islington.
“On a typical day, I start with coffee tastings at about 6.30am, then check in with the baristas. We’ve recently changed our espresso blend so I want to know that they’re comfortable with it. Right now we’re perfecting our burger, so I might be doing burger tastings in the afternoon, followed by wine and beer tastings in the evenings. My office is right off the dining room on the first floor and I love coming out into a busy place full of happy people.”
He doesn’t seem surprised that St Ali – which is named after the so-called patron saint of coffee, Ali ibn Umar al-Shadhili – has had such an impact. “There’s no secret to it. We just created a space that people want to spend time in.” To do this, they installed a light well (the building used to be occupied by the rather dark late-night bar Dust), exposed the brick walls, and even added a living wall of plants.
“Clerkenwell is a great area if you like things that taste good,” states Williams, who cites St John, Morito and Caravan as some of his favourite spots. “It’s pretty happening.” It seems that he’s taken Clerkenwell to his heart as quickly as locals have taken St Ali to theirs. Katy Salter