San Diego is having a moment. Over the past few months, experts have hailed it as one of the best places to launch a startup in 2014; it has been called the new Silicon Valley; the I.D.E.A. District itself has been named an ideal place to live. While ‘America’s finest city’ will always be celebrated for its endless supply of sunshine and friendly faces, it is also gaining recognition as a hub for technology, design and culture. At the center of it all sits East Village. In this relatively young urban landscape, a marked culture is beginning to emerge. This culture that will be decisively influenced by the same operative that defined – and continues to define – great cities like San Francisco, Boston and New York: The restaurant scene.
Why are restaurants such an integral part of metropolitan character? Because they are the primary cultivators of community. As a travel writer from CNN eloquently puts it, “We celebrate with food. We mourn with food. We use food to mark both milestone events and plain old ordinary Tuesdays.” Additionally, the culinary world is one that overcomes the barriers that exist almost everywhere else. Another restaurant writer explains this phenomenon perfectly: “Overall, for one moment in time, you will see a room full of strangers, from various faiths, economic backgrounds and ethnicities with nothing in common other than their love of the restaurant. You can say restaurants transcend most economic, social and religious boundaries and restaurants are not just a place to eat, restaurants are a non-denominational cathedral where people from all faiths gather for a common purpose: The atmosphere, the companionship, and the food. The complete social experience.” It is through these interactions – this communal cross-pollination and the subsequent remix – that culture is born. Add to this people’s willingness to travel for great food and the unique persuasive power of the culinary arts (nearly anyone can be convinced to try something new when it comes to cooking), and you have a recipe for a cultural explosion.
San Diego’s East Village is in the midst of this. As design and technology take off, the city will continue to attract an increasing number of talented, educated innovators and entrepreneurs – the creative class. In order for this demographic to successfully interact, thrive, and advance, it is essential that the surrounding environment foster culture and community. This is where the dining scene comes into play, guided by highly skilled, vibrantly inventive culinary experts; members of the creative class in their own right. We wanted an insider’s perspective, so we met with renowned local chef Chad White, who is a leader of the culinary charge in East Village. Known for his adventurous and boundary-stepping cooking style, Chad has quickly risen to his status as a recognized and celebrated figure on the San Diego dining scene. In person, he is unpretentious and down to earth, demonstrating both expertise and contagious enthusiasm for his craft.
This year, Chad will unveil an exciting new restaurant on 935 J Street in East Village. Común Kitchen and Tavern is slated to open in mid-late June. The Latin-inspired gastro bar will feature wines from Baja and Baja-Mediterranean flavors. Chad describes the concept behind the cooking style: “We’re taking things that are very familiar to people in the states and in Baja; from a comfort level, from things that they’ve had growing up in their lives, and then we’re adding a Baja flavor and feel to it. Then I’m putting my own interpretation and creativity into it, so it’s going to be a little different then what anybody else has had before, but not in a way that’s offensive or unrecognizable.” Chad began the search for a location for Común and was drawn to the East Village by the urban, industrial feel. He happened upon the site somewhat unexpectedly and made a spontaneous decision: “I was walking by the ballpark one day and I saw this place and I made a phone call, set up a meeting with Jaime Partners (the commercial consulting firm that will manage the project), and next thing I knew we were moving forward on it.” Had he not chosen that particular route he says, he may not have picked that spot.
Común, which loosely translates to “community” in Spanish, will reflect the wildly inventive approach that Chad has maintained throughout his career, appealing to a wide range of customers and uniting them under the common denominator of delicious food and a fun, exciting environment. A lifetime thrill-seeker, Chad once satisfied the need for an adrenaline rush through outdoor sports in his native city of Spokane, WA. After joining the military, which included attending an abbreviated culinary school, he was stationed in San Diego and now gets that same sense of adventure through the art of cooking. He is constantly implementing the cultural context of ingredients into his work. As an example, he describes the reverence with which certain hunters treat their prey: “In some cultures, the only way you survive is by hunting. Those people end up having a lot of respect. You’re never going to see those avid hunters who are hunting to feed their families being disrespectful to the animal. They kill it with respect. They skin it properly, they take the furs and it could be made into something to keep them warm and they feed their family with the product. I really like to see those kinds of things and understand them and bring them into my cooking style.” Chad’s background has also contributed to his take on the culinary arts. Having grown up on a dairy farm himself, he understands and appreciates what it takes for farmers to grow their own produce. He is a huge advocate for supporting the local farmers and explains, “We have the best produce here in the United States if not in the world, so using that is really what I love to do, and not to use that would be disrespectful in my opinion.”
Chad’s boundless, cutting-edge style is the perfect compliment to the expanding startup businesses and tech companies in San Diego; two very different fronts united by out-of-the-box thinking. He says, “I tend to blur lines a lot. I dance on the borders. I like to find ingredients and do interesting things to them.” He has found just the right environment. Now it’s just a matter of time before Común opens to the public and sets the standard for restaurants throughout East Village and all of San Diego. Chad’s perspective is sure to bring the eatery success and notoriety. He explains that the average home cook isn’t always going to understand how to bring out the flavors and textures in certain meats or produce, and may write those foods off because of it. His goal is to find a way to show a different side of it – to use the opportunity to prove that the product is good: “How can I take that and make it a beautiful thing where people understand? That’s what’s really intriguing to me and that’s why I flirt with that kind of outside the border.”
In terms of future development for the neighborhood as a whole, it all comes down to potential. Chad explains that East Village is growing in a different way than even 5th or 6th Ave. He predicts fewer nightclubs and bars and far more craft-style restaurants and bars, citing a number of spots that have piqued his excitement; The Consortium Group’s new project, Craft and Commerce, Stone Brewery’s new taproom at the ballpark, The Corner’s revamped space, Toast Enoteca, (“an absolutely delicious restaurant that really doesn’t get enough attention”), and “all the guys from Blind Burro and Bubs that are just absolutely killing it.” This new lineup of restaurants steps away from their more cookie-cutter style counterparts and focus on originality, while also keeping the food affordable and approachable. As for what specifically will define the food culture, Chad forecasts that gastro bars and craft beer spots are definitely here to stay. “This a laid back town, and everybody knows everybody, especially in this industry. They want to go out to a place that they can show up in a pair of flip-flops or they can dress it up and put a tie on for a date night. San Diego has done a good job on developing the kind of establishments that blend those two areas and I see it continuing to grow.”
The success of the burgeoning restaurant scene relies on the same factor that the I.D.E.A. District will hinge on, according to Chad: Affordability. He explains that San Diego certainly needs something like the I.D.E.A. District, and that similar projects in other cities are taking off. From a culinary standpoint, from an artists standpoint; “the people who are doing really amazing things,” price point will be a major deciding issue. “If the project is built in a manner of understanding that it will grow slowly into something amazing – because we’re making it accessible for people on that level – then it works.” He compares the melting-pot aspect to that of a flea market. “That’s essentially where the idea comes from. You have all these different cultures, all these different walks of life and creativity from different avenues – artists, film, food, music… They’re not up here yet; they’re building. Where you find culture is honestly from depression, if you think about it. Culture is built from ways of life where people lived and had to be creative in different areas. It’s like the blues: They’re singing about the hardship that they came form. Art is about fear, love, whatever. It’s all this different emotion that comes from things, and if life is always perfect all the time, it doesn’t exist. For chefs, it’s the same thing with food. If they keep that energy, I think that will grow into something beautifully.”
Chad has experienced his own ups and downs in life, and has now reached a point in his career that most would consider extremely successful. Currently, he owns multiple restaurants including La Justina in Tijuana, and the soon to be Común Kitchen and Tavern in East Village. The media has been quick to take notice, earning him a spotlight on The Professional Chef Network. He says that La Justina is probably the most rewarding restaurant he’s ever opened, and that he hopes to see the same for Común, explaining, “I feel very proud when I walk into that place. I have partners, but I helped a little bit with the design, and the entire menu, and the culture in the kitchen I brought onboard. My partners are the most amazing people ever; they’re extremely popular in the community.” In this case, Chad has taken regional, traditional cuisine and created his own interpretation: “It reminds you of a memory, maybe something that your mother or grandmother made, a Pasada or a Quinceañera, taking my interpretation or influence of the product without disrespecting it. I try to pay homage to the pure, originality of the dish, while providing some different techniques to maybe refine it a little bit without taking away from it.”
So, with his numerous accolades, does Chad feel that he has truly made it in his career? He replies, “I don’t think I’ve ever made it. I think it’s always a progression. I think I’m just always trying to continue being better at something. That’s a tough question for me to answer. When my children have everything they want, and they’re intelligent and they’ve finished college and I’m ready to retire, then I think that’s when I’ll know that I made it.” One thing is for certain, Chad White will certainly have a big impact on East Village with Común, helping to set the stage for a city that is well on its way to becoming the next major center for culture, arts, and technology. Here at The I.D.E.A. District, we’re looking forward to being a part of San Diego’s exciting journey together with him and all of the other trailblazers, and we can’t wait to see what’s next.
By: Julie Riggert