Cafe Diablo not just a drink — it’s a fiery performance

Thursday, November 30th, 2006

‘It’s a little bit dangerous if not done right,’ says The William Tell’s Philip Doebeli

Joanne Sasvari

Philippe Doebeli creates a Cafe Diablo at the The William Tell restaurant on Beatty street in downtown Vancouver. Photograph by : Ward Perrin, Vancouver Sun

Something about this dark and chilly time of year makes us yearn for drinks that are not just hot, but flaming.

Maybe it’s a nod to that scene in It’s a Wonderful Life where George Bailey and his guardian angel enter Nick’s bar and Clarence orders “a flaming rum punch” from the disbelieving barman. Hardly anybody makes flaming rum punch any more — in fact, they didn’t even make it in 1946 when the movie was released.

So, instead, there’s the Cafe Diablo.

“It’s something that my father started. He saw it in Switzerland at the casino in Bern,” says Philippe Doebeli, who took over The William Tell Restaurant from the legendary Erwin Doebeli when he retired.

“It’s not like you light a coffee on fire. It’s more than that,” he says, adding, “It’s a little bit dangerous if not done right.”

The Cafe Diablo is not just a drink, but a performance.

“There is no recipe written down for this. When my father retired, he passed it on to me,” says Doebeli, who is the only person on staff authorized to make the signature drink.

“What is in it is sugar, cloves, orange liqueur, brandy, then an orange rind and a lemon rind, the whole rind cut in a spiral. And cinnamon. And coffee, of course.”

At the restaurant, Doebeli prepares the Cafe Diablo to order on a tableside cart.

“You have the cauldron, which you get very hot,” he explains. “You start off with overproof brandy, which is mainly for firing. You pour that into the bowl and it vaporizes.”

Then he blows the brandy vapour into a lit candle and — whoosh! — it ignites. (This is the most dangerous part. “If you don’t watch it, it can blow towards the guest,” he says. “Don’t try it at home. Diablo is very much something to be done by a pro.”)

Quickly he adds the cloves and sugar, which immediately caramelizes. He then places the orange and lemon rinds in the cauldron, followed by the orange liqueur.

“Then you work it,” he says. “It takes some artistry.”

He presses the rinds firmly in the bowl to release their aromatic oils, and swirls them around to blend the citrusy essence with the sugar.

Next he sprinkles in the cinnamon, creating a shower of sparks as it meets the flames.

Finally, Doebeli adds brandy, coffee and a touch more overproof brandy to really get the fire going.

Then he lifts a ladle of the burning liquid high into the air and pours it into the coffee glasses from aloft, creating a dramatic, flaming arc.

“It’s a show,” Doebeli says modestly.

“I do like it a lot. More than anything I think it symbolizes our restaurant — laid back, classic dining and showmanship.”

Needless to say, the Cafe Diablo is not an everyday drink. It’s something for a special occasion, perhaps some dark and chilly night when you’ve got your own guardian angel in tow.

The William Tell Restaurant is at 765 Beatty St., 604-688-3504,

© The Vancouver Sun 2006


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