Bobby Chinn – Hanoi’s enfant terrible of culinary gymnastics

Exclusive interview with Mark Ulyseas.

On Thursday 24, 2008, at the Intercontinental Bali Resort, Celebrity Chef Bobby Chinn, the swashbuckling host of World Café Asia, Discovery Travel & Living Channel, author of the cookbook ‘Wild, Wild East, Recipes and Stories from Vietnam and owner of the famous Bobby Chinn Restaurant in Hanoi –gave us a Kitchen demo and press luncheon hosted by the hotel.

With verbal antics and culinary gymnastics he introduced us to his world in the kitchen – the devil’s kitchen. Bobby demonstrated how to dissect a crab and prepare his famous tamarind glazed crab cakes; and Bun bo wagyu beef with rice noodles and salad. According to Bobby, Bun bo wagyu beef comes from the most pampered living creature on this planet – the cow that lives in Japan which is fed partly on beer and is given daily massages by hand!

The luncheon menu was; grapes wrapped in goat’s cheese with a pistachio crust; Bobby’s famous tamarind glazed crab cakes; Bun bo wagyu beef with rice noodles and salad; And for dessert, coconut crème brulee. Of course, it goes without saying, each course was accompanied by fine wine.

After the gourmet meal I retired with Bobby to the lush green lawns of the hotel to chat about his life and work.

Interviewing Bobby is like trying to communicate with someone who has a thousand volts of electricity going through him. He is a high voltage wire without insulation. So here goes.

Could you share with the readers of The Bali Times a glimpse of your background?

Well I am New Zealand born, studied in an English Boarding School, did my BA in Finance and Economics, worked on the New York Stock Exchange got disillusioned with the work and followed my passion for cooking by training under the guru chef Hubert Heller of Fleur De Lys. I did my apprenticeship in Bordeaux and Paris. To make ends meet I worked as a runner, busboy and steward in various restaurants. Actually my first work experience was in the kitchen of Elka, a Franco-Japanese restaurant in San Francisco.

So where does this passion for food come from?

Both my grandmothers – one who is Chinese (Buddhist) and the other Egyptian (Muslim). My preferred food when I was homesick in school was; Moukh – deep-fried goats’ brains that is creamy inside with a crispy outer texture served in a sandwich. And the other favourites were and still are – Chicken Tikka Masala, Falafel and other Arabic food and Mexican food. I am enchanted by all kinds of cuisine. In the foods of the world I see reflected a people’s culture, age-old traditions and more importantly love. Probably that is why the cooking of my grandmothers captivated me.

How would you describe yourself as a cook?

I am not that kind of cook who says, ‘Let’s create something new everyday’. My cooking is based on need and necessity. I am an artist in my own right. I get to paint the masterpiece while others have to repeat it everyday. (Laughs). Food for me is a tool. I remove myself from the emotional impact like cleaning a live crab. I was a vegetarian from 1982 to 1994 and stopped when I became a chef. Maybe in the distant future I will become a vegetarian again.

So have you learnt everything you wanted to know as a chef?

Impossible. No one can say they have reached a point where they don’t need to learn anymore. For me I have reached a level in my work where no one wants to teach me. I find it difficult to get other well-known chefs to share their knowledge. So I have to get creative and draw on my experience eating street food, food cooked for me when I visit people’s homes for a meal etc.

Tell us what you have been doing in Vietnam?

I have been living and working in Hanoi for twelve years. After much travel I ended up in Vietnam and was instantly smitten by the wealth of culinary ingredients, applications, combinations and most importantly street food. I worked in a number of popular restaurants. Finally some years ago I started a restaurant, as I wanted to present my own eclectic cutting edge concoctions of food and drink. Read my book Wild, Wild East – recipes and Stories from Vietnam it tells all about the truly fascinating life that awaits all who arrive on its shores.

What was your first experience in Bali?

Some years ago when hosting my maiden program World Café Asia in Bali, everything went wrong in the sense that I was not used to being ‘directed’ and needed to walk and talk naturally. But the following programs panned out well once we all got into the rhythm.

What do you look forward to when you arrive in Bali?

Eating Betutu Bebek and satay and the sixty-minute Balinese massage that are unparalleled anywhere in the world, more importantly the Balinese who are experts in the hospitality field. I come here to relax and go back tired (laughs).

Any suggestions for the readers?

Yes buy my book from any Periplus bookshop. On page 160 is the recipe for my signature dish Tamarind-Glazed Crab Cake with Chive Flowers. Go for it, try making it yourself and if you stumble and mess it up, try again and again till you get it right, that is, if you are an aspiring chef. Otherwise give me a call and I’ll drop by to cook it for you in return for a first class air ticket and stay at one of the luxurious suites at the Intercon (Laughs).