This High-School Dropout Is Now A 2-Time World Latte Art Champion
Irvine Quek is only 22 and already brewing up a storm in the coffee world
Bright, happy-go-lucky and talented, Irvine Quek brewed us some award-winning lattes while telling us about his inspiring journey.
What started out as a part-time gig at the age of 16 just to earn enough for a new mobile phone became his life-long passion, one that he’s exceptional at.
Irvine Quek Siew Lhek might be young, but he has accumulated 5 years of experience as a barista, which is enough time to make a name for himself in the coffee industry through several national and international titles under his belt.
Quek receiving the grand trophy from his idol and 2017 world champion, Thai barista Arnon Thitiprasert, at the 2019 World Latte Art Battle. Picture credit: Irvine Quek
His most notable achievements are no other than winning the 2018 World Latte Art Championship in Brazil, and successively the most recent 2019 World Latte Art Battle held in South Korea.
Proving himself to his family
Like many success stories, Quek’s journey is one filled with challenges. Within a year of discovering his calling in life, he decided to quit school and pursue his dream.
"By the age of 17, I was clear on what I want to do because I really love being a barista.”
This decision did not sit well with his family, which pressured him to at least complete his secondary studies.
Quek, however, had other plans in mind and did not want to regret spending time on doing what he dislikes later on in life.
That was when friends and families around him started questioning his sincerity, citing his job as an excuse not to finish school. During family gatherings, Quek would be ignored as he was seen as a bad influence.
But these experiences only encouraged him to work even harder to prove himself to his family, and that he’s independent enough to make ends meet.
He has a deep-rooted passion for art and aesthetics, saying that “If I’m not a barista, I’ll be an interior designer or graphic designer”. Picture credit: Irvine Quek
Quek did admit that he regrets not having an SPM certificate, but it was a price he is willing to pay.
“At least I know what I'm doing right now and I'm very focused to achieve what I want to achieve.”
A world champion in his early 20s
While being a full-time barista, Quek had always wanted to be known on the world stage, which motivated him to compete in national championships until he was eligible to represent Malaysia. He continued honing his skills and knowledge by researching about coffee champions online in hopes to emulate their success.
Having to give up leisure aspects of his life, he cites competing internationally as one of the most challenging parts of his career.
“When you start preparing yourself for competitions, you risk losing time to spend with friends and family, and you find yourself skipping meals and other forms of entertainment.”
Quek and his 2018 World Latte Art Championship trophy. Picture credit: Irvine Quek
For the 2018 world championship, Quek spent 10 months developing patterns and practicing their executions. With the same routine being carried out daily without fail, the repetitive process was not only challenging to the body, but also mentally.
Evidently, his persistence paid off as he went home with the champion trophy, making him the youngest barista at 20, and the first Malaysian to win the coveted award.
Quek’s latte art demonstration during a 2-day workshop in Guangzhou. Picture credit: Irvine Quek
Since then, Quek has been revered as an influential figure in the coffee industry. With over 46K followers on Instagram, he provides constant updates whenever he travels the world to give talks and workshops to coffee lovers and baristas.
Bear and Fish
Preparing for the 2019 World Latte Art Battle was a big deal for Quek as he really wanted to impress the judges and leave his mark on the international stage. Hence, he came up with the perfect latte art which secured him the champion trophy yet again.
Bear and Fish latte art, the winning entry at 2019 World Latte Art Battle in Seoul, was developed and perfected in 3 months. Picture credit: Irvine Quek
Inspired by a Facebook video about the effects of climate change towards the alarming population of polar bears, he was determined to use his platform and draw the audience’s attention towards the pressing issue.
“Bear and Fish is meant to remind people to protect our world, and to not let this beautiful animal go extinct.”
To date, this award-winning design remains the most challenging latte art in Quek’s portfolio.
Quek also loves creating tropical animal patterns including hornbill, monkey and elephant. Picture credit: Irvine Quek
More than just coffee
Intrinsically an introvert, being a barista has allowed Quek to come out of his shell and encourage him to become a better communicator, which he says is an crucial part of the job.
“As a barista, you need to understand a customer through their body language, the way they talk and their palate, as these are clues to what kind of coffee they like.”
A good barista should also be knowledgeable and know how to promote specialty coffee culture to consumers.
Apart from the taste of the coffee, Quek stresses the importance of a cafe’s vibe in complementing the coffee-drinking experience. He personally enjoys the coffee culture in Melbourne for their appreciation towards the staple drink, referring to the Australian city as one of the best places for coffee.
As for Malaysia, the coffee industry has seen a rise in quality in terms of cafes, baristas and the coffee itself, to meet the expectations of local consumers who are more informed about the drink than ever before.
Inspiring the young
As a prominent young barista and a world champion, Quek feels he has the responsibility to inspire new and young baristas all across the world to pursue their dreams.
“I hope they can get inspired from watching my interview, reading my story and listening to what I’m saying. What’s most important after winning the world championship is to inspire other people.” Picture credit: Irvine Quek
Apart from seminars and workshops, he also finds time to coach other baristas and prepare them for competitions. Some of his students have won prestigious awards in international competitions under his guidance.
He also hopes that baristas can gain support from their friends and families who have misconceptions about the career.
“We definitely need more baristas, but everything starts from education and understanding of the culture. Friends and families should know that being a barista actually offers a good and promising career path.”
Quek has also launched Nasty Jug, his own brand of coffee-making equipments, which amplifies the cool factor of being a barista. Picture credit: Irvine Quek
Passionate to share his knowledge with others, Quek is also planning to build his own academy this year and urged us to stay tuned!