Meet Flavio Lichtenthal: Coffee hits all the right notes in his journey from Argentina to the Berkshires
ACCENTS: THE VOICES OF OUR IMMIGRANT NEIGHBORS IN THE BERKSHIRES
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WEST STOCKBRIDGE — Talk to Flavio Lichtenthal about his Argentinian childhood and soccer comes up a lot. On the streets of Buenos Aires that’s what boys play.
“I was actually a totally mediocre soccer player but when I came to the States I was one of the stars of my high school team,” Lichtenthal says. “Because I could actually kick the ball and make it go in the intended direction.
“Most of the time.”
Talk to Lichtenthal about his dream to become a famous singer/songwriter like his idols Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan or Tom Waits and the path that led him to Six Depot, his café and coffee roastery in West Stockbridge, becomes apparent.
“Unless you’re very successful, trying to be a singer/songwriter in New York City inevitably leads to restaurant work,” he says. “I worked as a waiter, bartender, manager, dishwasher at some amazing places.”
He specifically mentions Carmine’s and Al Di La, Italian restaurants in New York. His affinity for the Italian food and coffee culture was formed growing up in Argentina.
“In Argentina you can’t help being influenced by Italian ways,” Lichtenthal explains. Like the US, Argentina is a nation of immigrants. From early on, many Italians were among them.
His parents were European Jews. His father Sigfrido escaped Hitler’s Germany as a young boy right after Kristallnacht in 1938. His mother Roma was a Polish Holocaust orphan hidden by a Catholic family and eventually smuggled out to Buenos Aires. She arrived in Argentina at about the same time on-the-run Nazis began to find safe haven there.
No matter the government – left wing populist Peronism or right wing military dictatorship – Argentina has always had an undercurrent of anti-Semitism, Lichtenthal says. At attendance taking in school his last name caused “snickers” and muttered name calling. Synagogues got vandalized and sometimes bombed.
But that was not the reason his family left for the United States, he says. The return from exile of Juan Domingo Perón, of Evita notoriety, as Argentinian president in 1973 led to a wave of anti-American violence. Sigfrido Lichtenthal worked for IBM, one of the American companies with buildings and personnel targeted. In 1974 he secured a transfer to IBM’s offices in White Plains, New York.
Flavio was 14 years old.
“I came very reluctantly,” he says. “I was super well adjusted [in Argentina], doing the things I loved to do like playing soccer and meeting girls. Coming to the US was extremely alienating.”
But his ability to kick a soccer ball straight (most of the time) and his guitar playing skills helped him fit in relatively quickly, he says, “Though that foreign lens to look through never fully leaves you and I think that’s a good thing.”
After he and his wife Lisa Landry and their two sons Sebastian and Paolo chose to move from New York to the Berkshires 14 years ago, he became head of the culinary program at Gould Farm in Monterey. That’s where he really began to delve “super deep” into cooking, “How temperature and time and volume affect each other.”
That’s also where he developed his own philosophy and style of coffee roasting, he says.
Talk to Flavio Lichtenthal about coffee and there is no doubt that it is his passion. The smells and mysteries of coffee he experienced in the Italian cafés in his Buenos Aires neighborhood never left him.
He compares the flavor notes of the world’s different coffee beans to a piano’s keyboard scale. The higher, brighter notes of African coffees, the middle C notes of Central- and South American coffees, down to the earthy bass tones of Sumatra and Indian coffees.
You can hear some of his songs and singing in the Accents podcast at berkshireeagle.com, but he doesn’t perform much music anymore.
Lichtenthal, 56, says that his creativity now goes almost exclusively into Six Depot, the coffee roasting café and restaurant, gallery and performance space he and Lisa created four years ago.
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