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The Think Tank

From the Blog

An Introduction

We are CH Projects.

We are a group of like-minded individuals united by the shared pursuit of improving the social landscape of San Diego. We set out to create not just restaurants and bars, but public gathering spaces that help cultivate our neighborhoods through the fostering of creativity and dialogue. More than houses for innovative menus and handcrafted drinks, our projects are meant to be incubators for meaningful interaction.

You’ll find this ethos and more in the “Who We Are” section of this site, where we’ve put forth a concerted effort to share who we are, why we are, and what we believe in as a company.

But why start a blog?

While the online landscape is cluttered with promotional contrivance and ego-inflating pontification, we know there exists a vast opportunity to curate and generate thoughtful dialogue. Never before has it been so easy to collaborate, discuss, debate, and share within our industry. Our hope is that this blog becomes a cultural reference collection for us as a group, and a vibrant salon for visitors to convene and converse. As we aspire to do with our properties, we’re hoping to rise above the noise and create a dynamic, locally relevant forum for the exchange of ideas, opinions and information.

It takes a certain type of personality to do what we do with such a high standard of execution, and we feel we’ve found some of the best talent out there. However, there is only so much room for expression in this industry. At the end of the day, we have guests to take care of, and their well-being is our first priority. We hope that this blog will serve as a creative outlet for our inspired compatriots.

The pressures of a 24-hour news cycle, a commitment to advertisers, and the rising popularity of social mediums as news outlets have diluted and monetized media, a once great institution. By avoiding the typical pressures and influences of modern news sites, we hope that we can promote an honest, fair, and interesting dialogue with our readers.

Like any project we undertake, this blog is not aiming to please everyone at every time. Just like in our bars and restaurants, we want to hear from you—we respect your unbiased feedback, your passionate voice, your thoughtfully formed opinion. We aren’t into monologues, bandwagons or ambivalence. No one—not us, you, San Diego, or the hospitality industry at large—gains anything from complacency, single-mindedness, or agreement for agreement’s sake.

We want to create another avenue to converse with our communities, to share ideas and products of quality, and to transparently chronicle our steps—our trials, tribulations, misfires, successes, and passions—as we strive to improve San Diego’s social landscape. Constructive discourse and collaborative conversation are what built this industry, and it’s what makes it great today. We hope you’ll join us in keeping the spirit of that conversation alive and thriving.

We’re glad you’re here.

Becoming One of the Classics…

People come from all sorts of backgrounds—higher education, Forturne 500 businesses, the arts–and some others are just lifers. No matter your point of origin–jumping into the hospitality world reminds me of one of the most famous and popular classic cocktails around.

One of my favorites without a doubt.


Power Play

I recently saw an excerpt from a KCRW interview with Quentin Tarantino, following the ‘Django Unchained’ release (here’s the full interview). The excerpt highlights Tarantino’s use of dining establishments and dining rituals in his films. They’re often used to establish, or reiterate shifts in power. A glaring example: “This is a a tasty burger!”… The famous Pulp Fiction moment when Jules takes a bite of a stranger’s burger. Tarantino emphasizes how ‘personal’ a burger is – when would anyone share a bite of a cheeseburger with a stranger, let alone the first delicious bite? Jules takes the bite and reiterates his power in the relationship. This is relatively obvious, but fascinating. It’s been heavy on my mind, especially during service… the various forms of social interaction in bars, and how they relate to very important shifts in power, or control among characters involved.

As a bartender who works hard to make high quality cocktails, I also work to present myself as a professional (well kept attire and the ability to discuss any/all products we carry). My audience often relates my professionalism to expertise. Because I’m assumed to be an expert, customers often request or inquire about my drinking preferences. By far, the most common drink request is for my favorite drink. It’s a loaded question. I’m not being asked to prepare my favorite drink. I’m being told: Make me the best drink, because that’s probably what a fancy bartender, like you, drinks. It will be my favorite, and obviously you know everything about everything here, so make my favorite drink, without knowing anything about my preferences… A daunting task. Granted, I’m being cynical. There’s a lot more packaged in their request. I usually deflect their assumption and tell a story about my changing preferences; A spiel about my favorite drink as an ever-morphing entity, shifting with seasons, time of day, and proximity to meal time. Eventually, after a bit of questioning, I get a clue about their general preferences, and make a drink catered to their interests. But have I failed them? The moment I shift the questioning back to them, have I ignored the very important power play transpiring? Are they looking for something else? (more…)

Have Steam Bun, Will Travel

Recently, I had the pleasure of heading East for a research trip with the CH Projects senior team. Our goal: find the best steam buns we could. Our target: MomoFuku, Ippudo, and Baohaus in New York City. We had aspirations of adding steam buns to the UnderBelly menu, and we knew that these were the top places in America to get a real taste of how to do these beauties right. We believed that the steam bun could be the next “SD Taco”, a simple base with countless fantastic combinations to experiment with to concoct a delicious steam bun.
In the 72 hours that we spent in New York, I’m pretty sure I ate over 100 steam buns. No bullshit. I couldn’t get enough of the flavors, and the simplicity of ingredients combined with the amazing texture was just mind blowing. After tasting pretty much every steam bun we could get our hands on, we started to discuss what made these all so great. What we found to be the most common denominator in a great steam bun was texture. Take a perfectly soft bun, and pair it with something nice and crunchy. We knew the options for the crunch ranged from lettuce to tempura fried items to pickled onions.
Jason:David Chang
At MomoFuko, not only were the steam buns completely brilliant, but we also just so happened to run into chef and owner David Chang. As you can imagine, this was a huge highlight of my trip, it’s always inspiring for me any time I get a chance to say hello to a leader in the Food Industry, and Mr. Chang is a true pioneer in our craft.
We headed back to San Diego with full bellies and active minds. We felt that we understood the steam bun a little more than when we headed out there, and it was time to get to work. Our goal was to bring steam buns to UnderBelly in Little Italy, and feature them as part of our new menu, coinciding with the upstairs renovation. Well the stairs are in, but there’s a little more work to be done, but we just couldn’t wait – steam buns have arrived at UnderBelly. We currently offer two variations: A Sous Vide Pork Belly Bun with Pickled Cucumber and Ginger Hoisin Mayonnaise, and a Tempura Eggplant Bun with Shiitake Mushrooms, Cilantro and Spicy Mayonnaise. Next time you stop by I hope you give one a try, we’re pretty proud of what we came up with.

Ice: An Education

El Dorado’s The Battle of Bastogne

Before the early 1800s, every beverage people consumed was warm. Imagine if that was the case today – no lemonade on a hot day, no cold beer and definitely no cold cocktails. A warm margarita? Yuck. We, as Americans especially, take ice for granted. Many cocktail enthusiasts will argue that ice and dilution are one of the most important aspects of a proper cocktail. But how did the idea of an ice cold, silky smooth Manhattan even come about and how is it done well today? (more…)

Where The Cocktail Really Begins

[Re-Posted from El Dorado]

Juan Aguillon, Head of Prep at El Dorado

This gentleman has, in part, made almost every cocktail you have ever sipped, downed, savored or chugged at El Dorado Cocktail Lounge. His name is Juan Aguillon, and he is in charge of all “prep” at the bar. Most of the time when you order a cocktail, the process seems to begin once the bartender has taken the order, pulled out a glass, and started to mix ingredients. However a lot of time and effort went into preparing the ingredients used in all of our cocktails so that the bartender could deliver a round in a very quick and effortless fashion. (more…)

Since When Did IPAs Become Dunks?



First it was Jordans…


Then it was iPhones…


And now, it’s craft beer. (This was a line for Pliny the Younger just days ago at Haven Gastropub in Orange, CA)

Does beer really justify such hype? Obviously some beers are better than others, and some breweries release only handfuls of kegs of their product in a given month, quarter, season or even year. But should establishments take part in propagating such fanaticism for a product that most will only possess for a few minutes before consuming entirely, leaving you empty handed after a mere fraction of the time you just spent standing out in the cold waiting for the keg to be tapped? I don’t think so, and my reason is the product experience.

Take the two examples from earlier: Nike Air Jordans and Apple iPhones. The lines and camps that people occupy for what could be days at a time are a means to an end that takes place outside the walls of the establishment selling the product. When you get that pair of Jordans they’re yours to wear, display, inspire envy on Instagram, or do with whatever you please. They will long outlast the time you forfeited to be the flyest kid North of Grove St. Beer though, at the end of the day, is a comestible. Something you imbibe, enjoy for the moments you taste the hops and grains while dissecting the beer’s complexity. Then your digestive system gets to work almost immediately, making that beer just a tale of hoppiness past. With this in mind, you should be able to savor those moments. Enjoy the beer, and the things that can help make beer great: good friends, a pleasant conversation, a silent moment of beer reverence, whatever brings you pleasure when it comes to enjoying any fine food or drink. So why then, would you want to cultivate an environment where “standing room only” begins to sound like an understatement as you try to weasel your way through the huddled masses for a $9 pint that you clutch like a running back on the goal line, because there are a mass of other burly beer dorks with the exact same aspirations?

The craft beer movement is something extremely significant, and I think we lose sight of that from time to time as we’re trying to just keep up with who’s doing the best sour, how many infusions you’ve done with your porter, or how many points that new IPA received on Beer Advocate. Craft beer has revitalized the sense of American heritage and pride in a wholly American product. At a time where both the national and global economic climate continue to depress and frustrate us, craft beer has renewed that “American Dream” we all used to talk about so much. The pubs, bars, and restaurants that recognize and carry craft beer should be doing so because they believe in a quality product that compliments their own efforts towards providing better offerings for their community.

Why choose hype then? Sure, it gets people talking when you have a line around the block outside your bar at 10AM. It’s a great feeling to see all of your Foursquare check-ins and Twitter mentions when people are excited to get their hands on a sought after product at your establishment. Is that why we got into this in the first place though? The modern technology age has bred a population that craves being the “first” at something, or short of that, at least “cool” enough to see or have the next best thing before anyone else. Unfortunately that line of thinking has infected proprietors and operators, so they feel they have to hold “launch events” for beers, when they know by doing so they’ll never be able to meet their crafted demand, and therefore create a scene.

When you buy a pint of beer, you’re buying the time you’re going to spend drinking that beer as well. For my money bringing the feeling of an outlet mall on Black Friday to my favorite bar isn’t worth it.


A Healthy Bartender?

Keeping good health has always been a challenge for me. I’ve been fighting ‘Fat’ since I was a kid (although, not sure it should be classified as a fight). I’m a large person who puts on weight pretty easily/quickly. I’ve also chosen a relatively strenuous profession. Bartending is physically and mentally exhausting. This topic has been discussed at length… Toby Ceccini gives a clear account of the rigors of bartending in his book, Cosmopolitan. I remember reading his book, and feeling the same pains when getting out of bed and walking on what felt like stumps for feet. Long hours and few breaks prevent any type of normal nutrition plan. Late nights leave us slow in the mornings, never getting a full night’s rest (sunlight doesn’t help wholesome sleep patterns). More recently, The New York Times published an article detailing the physical challenges of the craft bartender. Like these bartenders, I also suffer from tendonitis in my elbow and shoulder. After 5 shifts in a week, I can’t comfortably sleep on my right side. Beyond the physical obstacles lies the profession’s mental challenge: an elaborate juggling of customer emotions. We are performance artists, constantly adapting to various, and particular audiences (see the brilliant study by Sherri Cavan for more on this and bar culture across the many forms of ‘Bar’). Often times, inquiring/aspiring bartenders glorify the challenge of learning extensive recipes for drinks. I typically reply with a detour… The biggest challenge isn’t the drinks. It’s people and their many preferences. And, with as much experience as I’ve gathered, I’ll never surely know how to react to everything about everyone. I’m forced to stay on my toes. Caution is my ally and curse. I’m never relaxed around customers, even regular patrons, because the second I do, I make mistakes, and stand at risk of offending those who help me pay rent. And, imagine how all that concern builds when you’re faced with more customers than you can effectively give service to… aka a busy Friday night. The stress mounts to a near break point – that moment when you begin to realize how deep in the shit you are. It’s like getting an MRI, an almost claustrophobic experience formed by others needs. Yeah. That.

So… why am I still bartending?

I LOVE what I do. I know that’s cliché. I really am being honest. Contrary to the tension of staging mini performances for many over the course of a long shift, I love meeting new people. I love making pleasant strangers happy. I love problem solving. I love the stress. I love being aware of my limits and pushing my potential. I love seeing the people I work with do the same. It’s a worthy challenge: the rigor of a busy night. More than all, I love that feeling after a tough shift, when we huddle up, take a deep breath, share a beer, a story, and a deep sense of camaraderie. A fellow bartender related our profession to adult sports. The team element and the clear goals make the comparison obvious. I grew up playing team sports. Most of the people I work with did the same. It’s no wonder why a sports-loving person, like myself, would gravitate towards bartending.

But, the profession is slowly taking its toll… A few years back, I figured a way to lose a lot of weight (over 150lbs) during my first stint as a manager of a busy bar. My diet was strict, maybe too strict. Eventually, I lost a bunch of weight (good?). I also had surgery on a hernia because of poor digestion (bad). I scaled back my routine to something a bit less strenuous and had moderate success. Then, I quit said job, went to graduate school, and took on a general manager position at a cocktail bar (El Dorado). I was a full-time manager, full-time student, part-time teacher. Not the easiest schedule. And, let the weight gain begin! I was coping with stress poorly. My diet and exercise routine required too much time. I left it behind so I could barely squeak by with my ‘primary to-do’s. Soon, the routine of stress, and eating due to stress/emotions, and lack of exercise became a fixed cost.

After graduate school, and a bit more time with El Dorado, I became the general manager/bartender at Noble Experiment. It was my first full time bartending gig. My new habits fit perfectly with the long hours: eat something heavy and unhealthy so I could retain some type of energy through the night. Then, after my shift, maybe a burrito? Why not? I was starving and it’s convenient. Between my time at El Dorado and Noble Experiment, I gained 80lbs.

Not everyone has the same experience. Many of the people I work with have healthy routines, or the ability to eat burritos at 3am and not gain weightt, or both (I hate them). I just happen to possess none of the above.

Then, I got engaged… I consider it a moment of intervention. My health trend could prevent a lot of experiences with my family to-be. My fianceé was equally, if not more concerned. She suggested a cleanse. At first, I thought it was a temporary fix. What’s 10 days going to do against a lifetime of bad habits? Somehow, I managed to set my doubts aside, and followed suit. We were using a raw veggie and fruits cleanse. It was good, but lacked some efficiency (mainly cost, and frequency of meals during work shifts). The 10 days were easily met, and left me optimistic for another attempt… A couple months later, we tried again. It was a huge success. We picked up where we left off, using old tricks, and time savers with new ones, namely cost reduction and larger portions split into extra meals during work shifts. Exercise was also a big part of the second session. The intention was 15 days. I’m quickly closing in on 30. I’ve lost a bunch of weight. I’ve got a ton of energy on less sleep. My cholesterol is at a healthy level. Much of the physical pains have subsided. My ankles aren’t swollen and painful in the mornings. Even my tendonitis is scaled back. I’m more alert, and energized throughout shifts, making interaction with customers much more rewarding. All good, for now.

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Will it last? I hope so. It’s been pretty easy, and very efficient. I’ve been off booze throughout. Initially, I feared my regulars would feel less connected if I wasn’t having an occasional drink or shot. It’s been the opposite. They want to support me (I suppose I support them in some strange manner). I’ve been off caffeine with no changes in energy (coffee is a funny thing. I was drinking coffee to feel normal, purely addicted, rather than getting a boost). When the dust clears, and I hit 30 days, I plan on using a 6-day plan, with a moderate cheat day. But, part of me wants to keep going (see comments above about challenges/goals).

The important part: I’ve found a way to be healthy and bartend/do what I love. It could be a means to longevity. I was starting to think, at 32 years old, I only had a couple more years left in the tank. The rigor was going to catch up in the form of serious illness, namely heart disease. If I stay on track, that will change.

…Another important part: This shouldn’t be read as an infomercial. We deviated from a strict cleanse, and found something that worked for us. I only wanted to share a very real worry. I’m not urging anyone to do the same. My fianceé left the cleanse routine before me, and is occasionally enjoying a glass of wine, and (plenty) of chocolate (a fierce addiction). We’re only looking to sustain a healthy lifestyle. We could be on the right track.

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Is Bartending unhealthy? No. People are unhealthy. It’s a good, honest profession that requires discipline on multiple levels to reach degrees of success. I knew I had to change my health rituals if I’d get any further as a bartender. I’m battling my tendency to eat in extreme during times of stress, but also balancing my urge to be over zealous and/or too strict with health regiment. I’m my own rival. But, I’m learning… Just like a young bartender learns to balance the needs of too many customers. If anything, I hope I’m maturing. I hope becoming capable; better at dealing with my emotions and better at being me, so I can bartend a while longer. It’s a game I don’t wanna quit.

Why Am I Here?

This is a relatively simple question. And yet, when it comes to our jobs, it is one that so many people seem at a loss to answer.

A very large portion of our lives are spent working. But, other than the obvious financial compensation, why do each of us decide to do what we do? Why are we here? In any given occupation, one would hope that there was some driving force, aside from dollar bills, that made us decide to choose this career, this occupation. Of course, not everyone has that luxury. We all gotta eat. And yet, we all have free will, and we all have choice. So, again, why did you choose this, and not something else?

Why can’t everyone choose a path that gives them the “why”, the reason for being? I have a lot of friends back home in New Jersey, who cannot tell me why they’ve chosen their path, but for that obvious and uninspiring reason of money. I have never understood that, and can’t really fathom why so many people choose job’s that they don’t really care about. These people grind it out just for the money. And it’s not that I think there is anything really, really wrong with that. I understand the need to make money, to be able to provide for and take care our loved ones. But, I think that choosing to spend 40+ hours a week, 2000+ hours a year doing something that you don’t really like doing, is quite simply not the way to live. It seems to be a choice that will, inherently, make these individuals unhappy. So why the hell do people make a conscious choice which will undoubtedly leave them unhappy, leave them yearning for something else, for a different life?

I wonder what it is inside us, some combination of nature and nurture I suppose, that makes each of us make the decisions we do, make the choices we live with. What in our heads makes us sway one way or another? This isn’t about a simple decision to be a “corporate teet-sucking zombie” vs. a “free spirited artist who works for no master and lives life on the edge”. Thinking that there is a “cool” path vs. a “lame” path is just silly. I’m not judging all those folks that work for the man, spend their work lives in a cubicle, or stare at computer screens for the majority of the day. I think all that is amazing if that’s what people enjoy doing. My judgement is reserved for the folks that bemoan each and every day of work, as if they are victims of circumstance, as opposed to what they actually are: the effects of their own cause, the result of their own choices. Living a life that is unfulfilling is what I don’t understand.

Personally, I love what I do. I am lucky enough to manage a restaurant that I believe in, and dedicate my career to the business of hospitality, the business of taking care of others, of welcoming them and making them feel that they belong here. There is a humble nobility in this profession, or at least that’s what I choose to believe. And this fact, this belief in the value of what I am doing, the belief that I am making a positive impact on the lives of my guests, is why I am here.

I didn’t always love my work life though. I worked in a cubicle 8 hours a day, and when you couple that with the 90 minute traffic-ridden commute each way, I was spending about 11 hours a day in a box, wishing I was elsewhere. I decided to make a change. Simple as that.

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Quite often, I wish that people were more aware of the fact that they do have a choice, every day, a choice to decide how they are going to live. How they are going to spend their days. But either way, no matter what people do for a living, whether they love or hate what they do, at the end of the day, they will be able to find some solace in a restaurant or bar, a den of hospitality. And because of that, our doors will be open.