A couple of months back, when I was living in Saigon, I got an e-mail invitation to hang out with a guy named Charles Phan.

First thing that came to mind: “Charles Phan…who da heo is that?”

When in doubt, Googles them shits.


Snap. Slanted Door…alright, you got me, I’ve never eaten there. The last time I had $40-something dollars in San Francisco, I spent it on a $3 slice of pizza at a mom-n-pops, and the remaining $37 buying pints, chatting up American Apparel daisies with identity issues.

All good though. Redemption song: hang we do. Here are some lessons I learned from hanging with Charles Phan.

1. Be cool, let’s try to eat at that place over there

The place we originally wanted to have lunch at was closed for lunch. Shit, lost credibility in Charles’ eyes. It’s alright though; Charles, his wife and one of Charles’ Chefs, Brian, are cool eating somewhere else. So we improvise, walk down the block back to a bustling northern Vietnamese restaurant Charles observed in walking over. We get some things on-menu, then Charles starts going further down the rabbit hole with the waitress, seeing what they have off-menu. Roll with the punches, make the best of what you got, and if the food sucks (it didn’t), start drinking.

2. Brilliance comes from places you’d least expect

Charles and Brian go back and forth a bit about dishes they’re seeing from this Northern Vietnamese restaurant. The inspiration doesn’t have to come from some Michelin-starred circle jerk. Inspiration comes from anywhere: from that aged-crumpled menu, on that crooked dining table, in a no-name restaurant tucked in a sign-less alley, on Ly Tu Trong street, in the city of Saigon, in the country of Vietnam, on the continent of Asia, 1 of 7 on this planet Earth, the 3rd rock from the Sun, one of many dimensions.

3. Being a computer software salesman at the Age of 28 is not worth your time (actually, upon my 10th edit of this: nothing is worth your time if you don’t have your heart in it)

When he was 28 or so, tired of his stint as a computer software salesman, he decided to quit and take some time to himself. During that time of unemployment, he developed an idea: to marry his love of Vietnamese food and design (he majored in Architecture at Cal). And here you have it: Slanted Door.

4. Synergy is money (walk through the Slanted Door)

On that note, in other words, akin to what Steve Jobs accomplished, baking in the Calligraphy he learned from auditing classes at Reed, ultimately feeding his ultimate philosophy: intersecting the liberal arts with technology.

No idea is original, but when you put two ideas together. Vietnamese food and design: money.

5. Clothes don’t make the man

Charles Phan is not ostentatious with his wardrobe, just like Donald Fisher, founder of Gap Inc. Just because you have money, doesn’t mean you need to dress like it. Act your age, not your shoe brand. Actually, I’m a better dresser than Charles Phan nowadays, wink.

6. Money is The Money

Louis CK said it best in his recent success with his DRM-Free comedy show video campaign, in which he made a cool million in a matter of a week: “I never viewed money as being “my money.” I always saw it as “the money.” It’s a resource. If it pools up around me then it needs to be flushed back out into the system.” That said, Charles Phan is seeking out worthy causes in Vietnam, so if you have any leads, that don’t involve greasy palms, send on.

Also, he covered all our restaurant bills (no Kampuchea). Thank you again Charles.

7. Look in a magazine and go!

That’s how him and his wife decided on a resort in Phan Thiet, when we were all in the region. Just go and make the best of it. Shit, this is basically what I said in aforementioned item numbers 1-3. Eff it, worth saying again.

8. The finest things in life comes from your buddies and doesn’t use gold in any way, shape or form

As a parting gift from Charles, whiskey bottles were left at the Park Hyatt reception for pick-up. If memory serves me right, and memory is usually fiction, these bottles came from a Kentucky Distillery. The label was nothing fancy at all, no gold ink found on Johnny Walker bottles, just a label. And my, it was some bout-it bout-it whiskey. In an online search for them, turns out these bottles don’t cost that much either. But the ordinary denizen would never know about it, only Charles would since industry cats hook it up with the inside track. No marketing muscle, it’s those word-of-the-mouth things that really do the trick, which goes to show, buddies are the most important capital one could ever possess.

There were sure to be more lessons but I didn’t take notes, I graduated with a 3.3., love me.

Charles Phan, that guy is one cool dude. He’s one of my new role models, next to Bao Phi, Anthony Bourdain, Judy Blume, Yan Geling, Hideo Kojima, my old boss Fiona Pearson, George Nguyen (of tbwaVietnam), my Sifu Cameron Khuu, and Daymond John, founder of FUBU.

He has a book on the way. Keep posted.

Charles in Charge, there, I said it.

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