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Barista Brian is back.
The self-styled “independent latte artist,” who has gained acclaim for whipping up artfully decorated coffee confections for Hollywood types, did a segment on CNN in mid-October. In quick succession came interviews with media in the U.K. and Finland and an Australian television program.
Brian Leonard, his actual name, gives much of the credit to Toronto.
“I feel like Barista Brian belongs to Toronto in a lot of ways,” Leonard said.
“I lived in Toronto for eight years up to the pandemic and I feel like the only reason it happened in my life is because I was in Toronto,” he said of his artistic acclaim.
Leonard’s canvas is the foam that tops a latte and his creations and frothy portraits have charmed the likes of Meryl Streep, Viola Davis and Hillary Clinton at film festivals and other big events across Canada and the United States.
Leonard’s artistic odyssey began a decade ago when he came to Toronto “with two suitcases and $1,800 and no plans.”
He bartended at the Trattoria Mercatto in the Eaton Centre where he first learned to make a mean latte.
He started with simple designs in the foam — hearts, rosettes — followed by animal figures (swans, bears, cats, etc.)
“Then I started to just doodle. So I would draw my co-workers’ faces and started to draw customers’ faces coming in,” Leonard recalled.
Then Leonard started adding colours — food colouring actually — turning caffeine fixes into “impermanent art … and people loved them.” He uses a total of six colours and a piece of bamboo or a stir stick as his paint brush.
“View the VIBE,” a Toronto magazine, named Leonard the city’s best latte artist, which led to an appearance on Canada AM and things just took off from there, starting with an invitation by the Property Brothers to be featured at the producers’ ball at TIFF in 2016. A slew of sponsors like Nespresso soon came knocking and corporate gigs followed.
Leonard has thousands of followers on TikTok and Instagram and, pre-COVID, he’d settled in to a regular annual circuit including TIFF in September, the Sundance Film Festival in January, as well as Oscar and Emmy events.
Along the way, he’s served his special brand of latte art to Streep, Tom Hanks, Tilda Swinton, John Legend, Kevin Bacon and Daniel Radcliffe amongst others, heady company for a middle child of five from a large Irish family from Fredericton.
“I (met) Meryl Streep. How is that even possible? She looked at me dead in the eye and said, ‘genius’ in front of everyone. That was so exciting because she is just at the top of her field. Who even meets her?” Leonard said.
Serving up former first lady and senator Hillary Clinton at Sundance was a bit more complicated, he recalled.
“I had to be cleared by the Secret Service days prior, which is pretty funny for a guy who paints milk. She (Clinton) also called me a genius and I have that on video,” Leonard said.
“It just felt so impossible and it’s amazing to me that life has found a way to take me to Hollywood and have Hollywood embracing me and celebrating my art,” he added.
And now Barista Brian’s back and on the road — after an almost two-year pandemic hiatus spent with family in New Brunswick. Since September, Leonard has been living out of a suitcase with a return to TIFF, then off to Victoria, B.C., Halifax, New York and Hamilton with a couple of stops in Toronto.
“Making that transition from being a barista in cafés to working for yourself and owning a business took a lot of work and a lot of belief in myself against all odds and against people telling me that I couldn’t do it,” Leonard said.
“My parents and everyone would say, ‘oh, that’s nice but you can’t do that as a job.’ I just had to prove everyone wrong for my own sake and just trust myself,” he added.
As for Toronto — where it all started — Leonard said, “it’s gotten a lot more expensive, I’ll say.”
“I really love the city and I love everything it gave me. The best thing I ever decided to do was take a chance on myself and move to Toronto when I did — with nothing — with the belief that I could make something of myself,” Leonard said.
“It’s an awesome city,” he added. “I’m just so grateful for everything it gave me and everything I learned there and everything I went through, the good and the bad.”
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