If you ask The Curator’s Jericson Co what he misses most about the bar scene pre-COVID, he has quite a simple but impassioned answer.
“Its existence,” he says. “Bars are places where life happens and what we’re doing now isn’t life, it isn’t living. It’s surviving. It’s dodging an invisible enemy and not managing it well.” Bars in the context of what we knew about them, he explains, do not fit a world with COVID. “I really miss the living part. I can make a drink at home but being human and being able to hug, being warm, and welcoming to a stranger and making their day better—that I really miss,” he says.
Like countless others, Co doesn’t want the “normal” in any way describing the world we are living because of the pandemic. He’d rather move forward, and cling to the hope of seeing other countries get back up brings. “Once it's allowed, we'll probably transition into a service where we're prebooked in advance and super limited so we're looking at the math that could make that work,” he says. “Stay tuned for that it's actually a service that might be fun.”
We spoke with Co about his beginnings in mixology in Canada, challenges to their drink delivery service, and what the Filipino bar scene means to its habitues.
How did you first get into drinks?
Vancouver from around 2006 had a burgeoning dining scene that had great non-stuffy places with fantastic drinks. I was a line cook for a bit there and one day I just sat down in front of someone and asked what those tiny bottles of bitters were about. It was a rabbit hole from there.
Do you still remember the first serious cocktail you made?
A set of four: a Boulevardier, a Don Draper, Aviation, and an Old Fashioned. I even remember the bottles I held while making the set. The Boulevardier was done with a Basil Hayden, Martini Rosso and Campari. The Don Draper's fun: Buffalo Trace, Apricot Rousillou, Punt e Mes and Pineau de Charentes. (Props to the person who actually reads this and knows what a Pineau is.) Aviation with Beefeater and a Rothman and Winter creme de Violette that I had to drive two hours back and forth to some place just off Seattle to get. And then Rittenhouse Rye with the Old Fashioned. Rye wasn't as known back then as it is now so that was pretty special.
Did you have mentors as you were learning the craft?
A couple of guys. Shaun Layton from this place called L'abbatoir. Josh Pape who owns a couple of really good places in Vancouver and still runs my favorite bar ever in Wildebeest. It was actually Josh Pape's cocktail class back in this really great bar called the Diamond that got Tiff, our other partner, and I really deep into cocktails. And lastly, the person who answered my question about bitters and spent about three hours talking to me about bartending is this guy named Simon Kaulback. He runs this really fun bar called Mamie Taylor in Vancouver's Chinatown.
“I hope that things end up going back otherwise I don't know what we're being careful for.”
What were your aspirations for The Curator when it started?
We wanted a place for ourselves. The four partners: David (Ong), Bernice (Tiu), Tiffany (Yu), and myself. We wanted to execute the service that made us love the fun of dining out in the first place and we wanted it to be a love song to the service of coffee and cocktails. One thing few people know is that all four partners of the Curator were either baristas, line cooks, or hospitality people while we were all getting started or studying in Vancouver. We just wanted a place where we'd be comfortable to work as well as be a customer of.
The bar scene has changed significantly since the early days. Looking back, what do you think are your own contributions to that change?
Ooooof, I hate listing stuff like this. It always comes off braggadocious. I'm not going to claim any of that stuff and just dodge the Trump-ey answer. I love that there are more places that see that making a decent classic drink should be a recognized part in any hospitality institution. I've been to some hotel bars that do a really good martini. I love that places like Wildflour, Metronome, Toyo, Mecha Uma all have great cocktails to go with dinner. I'm hopeful that we were somehow instrumental in moving that needle slightly.
I will tell you though that as much as the bars and coffee shops we worked at influenced us and whoever we've influenced as well, the Blind Pig probably affected us and the industry the most. Instead of being the lone crazy preacher standing on a box telling the world about this new form of salvation, we instead got to be their first apostle agreeing with them and now that there was a plurality of these weirdos who only want to serve drinks. Our cult seemed more legitimate.
The Curator has placed in Asia’s 50 Best Bars. What does it mean to have a ‘world class’ bar in the Philippine context?
Hospitality. The Philippine context is we find the fun in things and we make things more fun. I swear this isn't the tourism slogan so hear me out:
One of the hospitality professionals we look up to is this guy named Danny Meyer. He normally says that people dine and drink out to “Go Out and Come Home.” Go Out means have or experience something you wouldn't be able to have been able to in your own home: a rare bottle of Rye, 14 day dry aged duck yadda, yadda. Come Home means to go to a place where you'll feel actively welcomed, engaged, listened to. We, by that I mean us Filipinos, do the second part uncommonly well. Majority of us have that grandmother/mother figure who was instrumental in making a humble home feel warmer and one that you remember with longing. I've found that most of the great Filipino hospitality professionals have that influence somewhere deep down.
We don't have the agricultural specialization the Japanese or the Taiwanese have, nor the resources that the Singaporeans, Koreans and Hong Kong people have/had. We have a less robust range of ingredients compared to the Thai and the Vietnamese. What we do have though is a people that communicates and empathizes exceptionally well and while I haven't been literally everywhere, empathy and great hospitality is something atypical to Filipinos compared to a majority of the world I've seen.
“We were out of sorts because we missed being in dialogue with actual customers instead of orders on a webpage.”
Do you have a favorite drink or cocktail?
Not really. Just a properly balanced, cold, drink will do great. I'm partial to Daiquiris and Negroni formats but really anything done well I actually appreciate. Favorites get boring after a while.
What do you think will be your first drink when you finally get to open your bars?
Oh wow. We'll do a monumental toast. We'll be toasting to a lot of things there: the joy of good health, the fortune of surviving a global apocalyptic pandemic made worse with poor leadership; the hope of a future where this crap doesn't happen again ever and maybe a life that would be marginally better than what it was before the pandemic fell onto us. So whatever drink that can take all of those hopes and wishes and also take away the sorrow of a system of society that doesn't work coupled with trudging societal changes that make us less human, so yeah, that drink. A gimlet, maybe.
What was your experience putting together your drink delivery service?
On a technical standpoint, there was something missing when we bottled cocktails and then served at least six hours after it was made. The drinks weren't as vivified so we ended up on the direction that bottled product has to be diluted around 20 percent less than a regular served drink. That was a fun day of experimenting.
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On a service level, it really highlighted how much a place like ours relied on personal interactions with guests. There was a point where we were being catty against each other as an operation. I actually love our team for doing this because we were fighting each other on behalf of our perceptions of our customers. We'd apocryphally present X likes his drink this way but Y wants her Martini this was and let's stick by Y's version so it was very odd when the guest conversation element of the service is missing. We were out of sorts because we missed being in dialogue with actual customers instead of orders on a webpage. It's actually why we launched the personalized/bespoke cocktail service. Where we video call with people to discuss what they'd like to drink. We were desperate for customer interaction and it made us feel ever so slightly more like human bartenders.
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Do you think bars will still have a place in a post-COVID world?
My lord, I hope that things end up going back otherwise I don't know what we're being careful for. What's the point of surviving like this if we can never have experiences that we can share live with a person we're not socially distanced to?
If it does go to the point where we can't ever have it again then I hope evolution comes by way of finding new ways to serve each other while maintaining distance. God, I hate how that sounds. I'm thoroughly disinterested in a life where we have to worry about ourselves before we hug someone.