Following his bliss, chef-restaurateur Bobby Chinn finds humour, spontaneity and a little foolhardiness go a long way in the kitchen, on TV and in life.
Text by Michele Koh Morollo
Half Egyptian, half Chinese-American, the effervescent Bobby Chinn describes himself as an “ethnic mutt”. Born in New Zealand and educated in Britain and the USA, Chinn now lives and works in Vietnam. He believes life is all about trying different things and finding your own way.
For Chinn, that included working as everything from shoeshine boy to financier before finding happiness in the kitchen. Today, he tries to avoid being pigeonholed as a certain type of chef.
“With me, cooking is like putting a hyperactive kid in a candy store,” he says. “There’s everything in front of me – it’s French, it’s Spanish, it’s Peruvian, it’s English, it’s Japanese, it’s Vietnamese. Sometimes I’llmix them all up. If you use the right techniques, then you make good food.”
Chinn’s privileged childhood helped shape his relationship with food.
“I had the opportunity to eat at some very good restaurants as a kid, and I had a Chinese grandmother who made really great Shanghai-inspired dishes. I developed a sense of adventure as a child. I ate octopus as a five-year-old and had my first taste of lamb’s brain sandwich in Egypt when I was six. I learned to appreciate exotic cuisine early in life.”
He appreciated good food even more after being sent to boarding school in London. “I had no idea food could be so horrible,” he says.
For Chinn, it was a winding road that led to the kitchen. In San Francisco, he worked as a shoeshine boy, a T-shirt vendor at Fisherman’s Wharf, and elevator operator in the Fairmont Hotel. He worked as a dishwasher at a pizza joint, and landed a job with 1980s rock star Boz Scaggs. Later, he did a BA in finance and economics at Richmond University in London, then moved to New York City to work in securities. But, to the displeasure
of his parents, he realised Wall Street was not for him.
“I left, pursuing an interest in anything outside of wearing a suit and a tie,” he says. “I sold seafood to the mob and was reintroduced to the restaurant industry.”
As a seafood salesman in New York, Chinn met top chefs and became enamoured with the restaurant business.
“I liked the look of the restaurants – the flowers, the wait staff dressed in black. I liked how restaurateurs and chefs get to meet people everyday. The whole package appealed to me. So I applied to the French Culinary Institute. But my parents didn’t support this decision.”
So Chinn moved to Los Angeles and studied improvisational comedy at The Groundlings and performed as a stand-up comedian in LA and San Francisco.
“As a comedian you don’t make money unless you’re successful. One day they like you, but the next day the same jokes don’t work anymore. It’s really hard,” he says. “Today, I think I do comedy on a regular basis. I make my staff laugh, I hang out with guests and chat about different things.”
He supported himself by waiting tables at Elka in LA, cracking jokes and making diners laugh until their bellies hurt. And he bought a book called Food Lover’s Companion to learn more about food.
“I figured, as a waiter, if I knew about food, I’d be so much better at my job. So I volunteered in the kitchen,” he recalls.
In the Elka kitchen, Chinn had an epiphany. He saw a cook chopping an onion at superhuman speed. Impressed, he asked the chef how he did it, then was handed half an onion. As if on autopilot, Chinn moved at the same nimble pace, taking the cook by surprise.
“That was pretty crazy – I could have chopped my fingers off! Right there and then, I realised, ‘Hey, I’m not afraid.’ I think that lesson was very important. When you’re fearless you can do anything.”
That jump-right-in attitude has served Chinn well. He moved to Hanoi to learn Vietnamese cooking with the intention of opening a restaurant in the US, and he never left. Not only does he now have two successful restaurants, Home in Hanoi and Restaurant Bobby Chinn in Saigon, he also hosts TV shows World Café Asia and Bobby Chinn Cooks Asia as well as appearing on the BBC’s Saturday Kitchen and UKTV’s Great Food Live.
“When I am not cooking or running a business, I am travelling and getting inspiration from street-food vendors. I enroll in cooking schools wherever I go: Bali, Thailand, Cairo, France … I am not afraid to fail anymore. In my free time, I play in a band, read or listen to music.”
My Favourite Things with Bobby Chinn
1. What do you like about Vietnamese cuisine?
The combination of simplicity and sophistication. Vietnamese food is devoid of ego. A lot of chefs have big egos; they like doing complicated, technically sophisticated dishes. But in Vietnam you can get culinary sophistication from a woman wearing pyjamas on the side of the street. That’s what I like about Vietnamese food. It’s very democratic; it’s food for the people by the people.
2. Favourite Vietnamese dish?
Bun bo – a sweet and sour beef broth with herbs, vegetables and beef. It’s got a good mix of contrasting flavours: room-temperature noodles, hot sautéed beef with garlic on a salad of carrot, shallots, green papaya, herbs and peanuts.
3. Tell us about your dining experiences in Hong Kong
I’m taken to a new place every time I visit. On one visit, I’ll find myself on the fourth floor of some office building with only three tables and a guy cooking with a single wok; another time, I’ll be taken to a famous dim sum place. Sometimes I’m taken to a new hip restaurant in Lan Kwai Fong, sometimes to a place with phenomenal views.
4. Which woman do you most admire?
Malala Yousafzai, the 15-year-old Pakistani girl who spoke out against the Taleban. To have a young girl speak out and champion education for women, get shot in the head, then come back and continue speaking is pretty awesome.
5. Favourite movie of all time?
It’s a three-way tie between Guiseppe Tonatore’s Cinema Paradiso, Casablanca by Michael Curtiz, and David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia.
6. If you weren’t cooking, what would you be doing?
I think I might be mopping floors. I can do a lot of different things. But I’d still do things that bring me happiness and comfort such as writing, reading, making music with friends, or picking up new hobbies like growing plants.