Bobby Chinn enters Saigon culinary scene

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Celebrity chef Bobby Chinn plays the guitar in his new restaurant at Kumho Asiana Plaza, Le Duan street, Ho Chi Minh City

Bobby Chinn, host of a cooking program on Discovery channel, says he came to Vietnam 16 years ago to learn how to cook Vietnamese food.

"I observe, I eat at street stalls, I ask, and I steal," the Chinese-Egyptian chef and entrepreneur tells Vietweek at his new restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City last week.

The 48-year old says he "likes teaching people taste" and the subtleties of Vietnamese food on his TV shows Bobby Chinn's World Café and Bobby Chinn Cooks Asia.

In 2001 he started a very successful restaurant near Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi. Several years later he moved to a new location near West Lake.

Chinn recently opened a restaurant at the Kumho Asiana Plaza in HCMC.

Vietnamese cuisine makes up a third of Bobby Chinn Saigon's menu, mostly traditional dishes like pho, pho cuon, salat vit (duck salad), banh cuon (rice pancake), chim tan (pigeon stew with herbal medicine), and bun bo.

Chinn grew up eating well, with his mother cooking Egyptian food and his paternal grandmother making Chinese food whenever she visited his family.

He was born in New Zealand but grew up in the US, UK, and Egypt.

Before coming to Vietnam, he used to cook French food in San Francisco, the US.

"I tried Vietnamese food in San Francisco. I tried pho, which is better than any traditional noodle soup. And I wanted to know the story behind that chicken noodle.

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"I saw more [business] potential in Vietnamese food than French food. Vietnamese food is easier to cook, healthier, more intense, and more modern.

"Modern approaches to cuisine use a lot of raw food, salads, a lot of freshness, and simplicity. Modern food is about using local products."

To him, French food is not as natural as Vietnamese food. "Vietnamese food is cooked for the people and by the people. French food cooked only for a few people.

"What the world does now is what the Vietnamese have been doing for a 1,000 years.

"Vietnamese food is raw and has contrasts in texture and color. A good Vietnamese dish can be soft but crunchy, sweet and sour, hot and cold."

Chinn followed his Vietnamese cooking dream to Hanoi in 1996. And though he saw the great potential of Vietnamese cuisine at that time, he could not persuade the owner of the restaurant where he cooked as a chef to allow him to cook Vietnamese dishes.

"The owner of the restaurant did not want me to cook Vietnamese food because Vietnamese street food was already very good.

"I listened to him, but nonetheless tried to add some Vietnamese dishes to the menu."

Learning to cook Vietnamese

Not long after arriving in Hanoi, Chinn began to learn how to cook Vietnamese dishes.

With pho, he learned how to "steal." The owner of a pho stall at the corner of Pho Hue and Nguyen Du Street in Hanoi flatly refused when he asked him to teach him how to cook the dish.

He began to hang around the restaurant throughout the day, and spied on the chef whenever he could, observing how he made the pho.

He has since used this sneaky technique many times to understand Vietnamese cooking methods and recipes.

"For eight years I have been having banh cuon at a food stall near Hang Bo Street, the best banh cuon restaurant in Hanoi. I went there once a week. The chef makes all the ingredients herself. She is the third generation in her family to operate this stall.

"She burns sugar to make sauce, and uses two different kinds of rice to make banh cuon. Her banh cuon is very big."

After he pestered her for eight years to teach him how to make banh cuon she finally relented.

The southern specialty banh xeo also conjures up memories for him. "I learnt how to make banh xeo during my first trip to Ho Chi Minh City, which was a long time ago. The local cook was very willing to teach me."

But it was one of the most challenging dishes for him to learn since the ingredients had to be in the exactly right proportions.

HCMC restaurant

Bobby Chinn Saigon also has the funky atmosphere of his restaurants in Hanoi. There are purple velvet curtains, shisha's, lacquer paintings and furniture, and rose petals on every table. Strings of red roses hang down from the top of the ceiling.

During dinner time one can find the celebrity chef chatting animatedly with guests. He clearly likes talking.

"I meet and talk with people and like to be friendly. I just do it. I don't think about what I'm doing.

"When I host a TV show, nobody gives me immediate feedback,"

But it is different in the restaurant business.

"My mission is to make people happy in my restaurant. It is a nice feeling to make people happy."

Why did he open in HCMC? "I wanted a change. I have many friends here. I like life in HCMC but also miss Hanoi.

"I like my life, my work, and my social life here. I fell in love with Vietnam and I have adapted my life to it.

He has visited 44 cities around the world for his Discovery channel programs.

"I like visiting countries I have never been before to meet people who are open-minded and to experience food and culture. I find people wonderful all over the world."

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