Todd Carmichael’s Excellent Adventures

He’s worked for a Saudi prince, adopted three girls from Africa, trekked across Antarctica—and this month he’ll attempt a solo journey across Death Valley. So is Todd Carmichael—the man behind Philly coffee juggernaut La Colombe—living life to the fullest? Or just out of his freakin’ mind?

In 1994, the pair opened a cafe on 19th Street, near Walnut. They weren’t interested in “street coffee,” as Carmichael calls it, stores selling coffee and music and baloney sandwiches. They wanted to create culinary coffee for restaurants. So, as Carmichael tells it: “We walked down the street with a little bag of coffee, right in the front door of Le Bec-Fin, and we said, ‘We’re here to see Chef.’ We walked into the kitchen. Chef Perrier is right there. He’s like, What zee fuck!? What are you doing here? We said, ‘We’re here to make you a coffee.’ Den go fucking make a cof-FEE. We made him a coffee. He said, What zee fuck is this! We were serving at Le Bec-Fin that night.”

Carmichael tells a similar tale about Jean-Marie Lacroix, then at Four Seasons.

(Both chefs confirm the basic details, though not the exact dialogue.) “It was amazing to have some good coffee after so many years of looking for it,” Lacroix says.

Now La Colombe does nearly $20 million a year, about two million pounds of coffee. It’s on fancy menus in Philly, New York, Las Vegas, L.A., Chicago, embraced by Stephen Starr, Danny Meyer, Alain Ducasse, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Eric Ripert, Gordon Ramsay.

“Everybody knows La Colombe,” says Assaad Benabid, senior vice president at Cimbali, an international maker of espresso machines. “Nobody thinks it’s from Philadelphia. They think Europe.” (La Colombe means “the dove” in French.) Carmichael – a t-shirt-and-Chuck-Taylors guy – doesn’t look the part. Customers expecting a snooty Eurodude figure he’s been sent to fix the machines. “People meet me and say, ‘Did your dad start the company?’” he says.

There’s a bit of goofball on the flip side of the gung-ho. Some men of achievement enter a room surrounded by an energy field that makes others feel small, hijacking everyone’s testosterone, or serotonin, or whatever hormone it is that separates alpha males from the pack. Carmichael, though he’s six-foot-three, is unimposing. No superhero physique (though I didn’t see everything). When he tells stories, there’s often a character – sometimes he himself – who speaks in a silly, effeminate voice.

He looks at least as old as he is. His toes are mangled from frostbite, and one day he couldn’t think of three words he wanted to say: “asthma” and “diagnosed” and “washes” (deep waves in the terrain that make Death Valley so hard to traverse), which was weird because he’d explained washes to me earlier the same day. It was almost as if tiny bits of his brain still hadn’t defrosted.

He wants to settle down, but wants to keep going. Last year, he and Hart, whom he married in 2005, adopted three girls from Ethiopia: Yemi, who’s eight; Yordi, five; and Selah, almost two. I ask Carmichael if he fears suffering from Hurt Locker syndrome – becoming bored with normal life after the thrill of his journeys. He claims no: His treks are about perseverance, not adrenaline. “It’s not defusing bombs. It’s like wearing something down until you own it. It’s erosion.” He figures raising three daughters may take just that kind of endurance.