Exclusive interview of renowned celebrity chef Bobby Chinn by Amanda Dyer.
Can you tell our fans about your mixed heritage and how you ended up in Vietnam?
I could go into greater fractions, but it gets a little bit more confusing so let me just say I am half Egyptian half Chinese. I was born in New Zealand and educated between The US, Cairo, and boarding school in the UK. I got a BA in finance and economics in London and worked in the investment industry: research analyst in Boca Raton Florida, a hedge fund in San Francisco, the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, but eventually did not really feel it was my calling in life and needed to find something where I had a greater purpose.
I ended up studying improvisational comedy at the Groundlings and would do stand up in Los Angeles and San Francisco while I worked as a waiter. I discovered my passion for cooking and a greater appreciation for food by working in great restaurants. My father came in and thought that I had lost the plot! He came in, sat at a table and asked me ‘So what are you now? Excuse the cliché A standup comedian/waiter? I love you, but you are not funny, and you are a shitty waiter and your education is far too expensive to think that you are a funny waiter! You have lost the plot!
Vietnam is the future! It is not another baby tiger, but the tail of the Dragon and this economy is going to boom and you need to see this now! At the time I was working in a restaurant that was on the crest of the culinary wave making French Japanese food and figured that Vietnam cuisine could be the next big thing. So I moved there with the idea that I would learn Vietnamese food and return to San Francisco, but I ended up falling in love with the people, the culture, the region and the lifestyle that has given me.
As a little boy, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I honestly had no idea and I still don’t! If there is one thing in life that is certain other than death, it’s change, and I am a creature in constant evolution. I did not live my life with the plan to be anything – I’ve just gone through life finding out things that I didn’t want to do for the rest of my life. It’s like an algebra equation, eliminating the things I didn’t like to go in search of finding things that I would.
What attracted you to the kitchen to become a chef?
The chefs looked like doctors to me, and acted like them! Whatever they wanted they got, instead of calling for a scalpel they called for a spoon, and ingredient, shouting out orders, and everyone said “Yes Chef” – they created something from scratch, they were like modern-day Robin Hood’s, taking from the rich, supporting the fishermen and farmers, and the whole thing appealed to me right there and then! I developed a great amount of respect for people that were working with passion versus the almighty dollar.
Are you a good chef?
It really depends on who you ask. I made a living out of it but then again the engineers that built the Titanic were considered pretty good as well. I would like to believe I was a good chef when I was doing it day in day out. I think it is important to clarify what a chef is. A chef is not merely a cook, but a person that commands brigade of cooks and manages them day in and day out to produce high-quality food, consistently, while maintaining a profitable business with very little waste. Ideally he /she inspires this around them creating a creative hard working environment that makes it healthy and positive.
You are obviously known as a chef, but have been known to also jump on stage to sing a song or two – tell us about your inner rockstar.
I grew up with parents that sometimes couldn’t understand all the lyrics, and I would listen attentively and could pick them out. In boarding school we were not allowed to have radios or any form of music, so I found comfort in reciting music. I’ve appreciated it at a very early age and when I moved to Vietnam, karaoke was everywhere, I simply took it a couple steps further. I started playing in bands. I find music rather a therapeutic and I enjoy playing guitar and playing music with my friends and have done for the last 35 years. It’s only in the last 15 years since moving to Vietnam where I would sometimes get paid to perform and do gigs in hotels, jazz clubs, and other countries. It’s a hobby do out of love.
Do you let other people cook in your house?
Of course I do! I actually love cooking with friends and family, hanging out, drinking, nibbling, and just chatting away. By the time I get to the table I usually am not very hungry. I like cooking stress free.
If you had a choice of any chef in the world to cook your last meal – who and what?
I would bag any chef for my grandmothers! Food is not just about the feeding a hunger or the appreciation of process and execution of it, but about the love one puts into it and the memories that it evokes. My Chinese grandmother used to make a vegetarian dish which is absolutely incredible called Gai, she would make really clean light Chinese food that I have never tasted anywhere. A simple stir-fry noodles, tofu in Clay pot with dried fish and many dishes that had no names. She was before her time.
My Egyptian grandmother would make couscous by hand! She would make incredible stews, Turkish dishes, a pumpkin dessert which was out of this world! No 3 star Michelin meal to the greatest hawker stall will ever come close to a family meal in its entirety.
Top 3 famous people you have cooked for? What did they eat?
In the order of appearance, I first cook for Hillary Clinton in 2001 when she was the 1st lady and a recently appointed Senator, I gave her plates of small bite-size dishes, grapes in goat cheese with a pistachio crust, a savory Flan in an eggshell, BBQ pork rib with Asian Slaw, steamed rice dumpling stuffed with mushrooms in a banana leaf…. I can’t Remember it all.
2011, I cook for Bill Clinton, by this time he was a full on vegan and I discovered that he really loved Indian food and that his favorite dish was a Buritto, (Indian cuisine is one of my all time favorite comfort foods especially when I was in English boarding school) seeing that I am from San Francisco, I am very familiar with the burrito as it is also one of my great comfort foods as there is no shortage of very good Mexican food there. I ended up making him a vegetarian Thali, which was ridiculously light as I could not use butter, gee, cream, or cheese. I used a lot of modern cooking techniques, coupled with some technology, and the process yielded very light clean flavor Indian food which eventually inspired me to continue to find ways of deconstructing classic dishes and making them much healthier.
In 2012 I cooked for Bob Dylan and his band when they were touring Asia three years ago. They were more into western comfort food, so I did filet mignon, mashed potatoes, steamed vegetables, potato salad, mixed green salad, and a bunch of other dishes that I cannot remember, oh yeah , peanut butter cookies, but at the end Dylan specifically requested that I make him a simple chicken noodle soup from scratch, not a Chicken Pho, but a classic chicken noodle soup. He ate it all so I guess it was edible! I also cooked for Cheryl Crowe at the House of Ho and figured I would mention her as she was the hottest one and the only one I had the hots for!
When women date you, do they expect you to cook them scrumptious meals every night?
Not really, I think they might see cooking as work for me, so in the past they have been generally very considerate and like to cook for me and have me clean up their mess!
What is the one dish you are known for?
I have a lot of signature dishes, ranging from duck alla banana, pan roasted salmon on wasabi mashed potatoes with Ginger demi-glace, seafood ceviche tossed in a Mangostine coconut truffles jus, Apple smoked pork belly in Caramel Sauce, lemongrass chicken, Apple Tamarind glazed crab cakes, my hamburger, I have no idea! It’s like asking any artist what their favorite painting was or asking a musician’s favorite song. It’s about a creative process and toying with it to achieve a result and moving on to another creation. Sometimes you create it and it’s fine but then you find ways to make it better or different.
What distinguishes you from other TV chefs?
I’m not really sure I am not qualified to answer that question. You’d have to ask the audience that one. All I know is that there are not many ethnic mutts on TV doing what I’m doing.
What is the worst experience you’ve had on TV? Any disasters?
The first shot I ever did for World Cafe was also the first scene of the series and it was very humiliating! It was demoralizing, and took more then 45 minutes for a simple 20 second piece to camera. I did countless takes and by the end of it, the process stripped me of my own voice and personality. I was busy afterwards trying to figure out how to pay all the expenses of the crew and tell everyone I made a huge mistake. It was so bad that they never used the material in the show. Little did I know that the director was not so easy to work with as he had a very artistic, borderline autistic temperament!
He said “I’m going to be a right c**t, but it is such a great shot”
I figured that he was the director and that I would do whatever he told me to do. Little did I know that he wanted me to climb up a rice Terrace which took about 20 minutes with the help of a rice farmer who also found it tricky to get to the top of the terrace. Due to the distance from the camera I needed a walkie-talkie to be hidden so that I can be given my instructions. There I stood 100m away from the camera waiting for my instructions ‘action’
There I would walk slowly, diligently on this very slippery terrace looking out to the abyss saying my lines to be screamed at ‘CUT!!’
Over and over and over and over again. ‘CUT!!! Take several steps first before you start speaking your lines!’ ‘CUT!! Don’t look down when you’re talking to the camera!’ ‘CUT! Can’t you walk faster and say your lines?!’ over and over again!!! The narrow edge of the rice Terrace was ridiculously slippery to start off with, and I had a choice to either fall 4 feet down into the terrace below me or 1 foot to the other side, and neither choice was very appealing.
No one should ever complain to have a travel cookery show, and neither will l, however, it’s a lot of hard work, long hours ranging from 12 to 15 hours a day for 10 days straight without a day off, and there are times in which it is very painful as you are fighting against the elements of heat, cold, wind rain, racing against time, exhaustion traveling with heartburn & indigestion. While we were filming in Peru I had to eat a Peruvian Chinese spring roll, which left me with cramps all night long. The next morning I had to shoot with a huge celebrity chef there where we were cooking side-by-side and the smell of the food sent me into a nausea coma. Our schedule was so tight that I was only able to rest and recuperate for an hour, so I was busy taking charcoal and medicine while I continued to shoot for the rest of the day. Brutal, but if that is the cost of having someone else pay for me to travel to Peru then I’ll do it!
Any tips you can share with the Living 360 readers who want to be a chef?
It’s a lot of hard work, long hours, and can be very stressful.
Many people go into it seeing the flower and not the route. When most of the population are having a vacation and time off, that is when you are working and working very hard. It’s a job of passion, lifestyle, so if you love food, if you like multitasking, being creative, and nurturing others through food I highly recommend it, it’s the only profession where you use all of your senses, you need to have an open mind, which means that you must be open to eating almost everything! This is how you educate your palate. I would read the book The Man That Ate Everything, Kitchen Confidential’s, Modernist Cuisine. There are a lot of great videos on YouTube, and with the Internet there is no shortage of information out there. It’s a profession of constant learning and the more you learn, the more you realize you know nothing at all!
Anything new coming up? (Shameless plug time)
Well since you mention it, there are still seats available for the Vietnamese promotion (I was recently appointed the ambassador of Tourism for Vietnam) so I am doing my first event at The Movenpick Heritage Hotel in Sentosa September 6, 7, 8th, and if it sells out, the hotel and I are adding an extra night on the 8th in which all the money goes to charity, (turns out there are thousands of blind people in Singapore and only a couple of guide dogs for them).
I actually invited a lots of friends as well as my band so that we can play and turn it into a party, so that should be a lot of fun. Seeing that I’m also the ambassador for WWF in Asia for sustainable seafood and the coral triangle initiative, (the protection of the coral reefs) we will use only sustainable seafood, so hopefully I can encourage your readers to start using the Singapore seafood guide. The event will be featuring responsibly caught seafood from Vietnam, in particular yellowfin tuna which has been line caught using circle hooks to prevent by-catch through the Vietnam National Tuna Fishery Improvement Project / THINH HUNG CO.,LTD & Seafood Delight
The menu will feature many of our signature dishes from my restaurant the house of Ho in London and my restaurant in Hanoi.
Thanks so much for your time buddy! We will see you at the event and thanks for sharing your wisdom with our readers. Now go cook me something – I’m starving! ADx