Chef Interview: Vietnam, 15 Years Later with Bobby Chinn

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Bobby Chinn first arrived in Vietnam 15 years ago after noticing a lack of Western-influenced restaurants. He’s now the chef and owner of the Hanoi-based Restaurant Bobby Chinn. Among a wild array of other things, Chinn has been the host of World Café Asia and World Café Middle East, and is the author of “Wild, Wild, East,” a book about Vietnamese cooking.

AsianSupper (AS): You were one of the first foreign chefs to set up in Hanoi -- what originally attracted you to Vietnam? And what’s kept you interested?

Bobby Chinn (BC): I was just a kid during the Vietnam War so I didn't really know much about what we were fighting for, like most Americans. My father suggested that I come out and have a look and I was very privileged to visit when I did, which was around 1992-3 as the country was in transition from moving away from a central market economy to a free market economy. I traveled to many different provinces and cities and read their history and developed an even great respect for the people. It was a very special time, there was no industrial expansion, the air was clean, most people were on bicycles, and there was no traffic, no litter or all the waste that capitalism brings. Everything moved slower, the food was cheap, there was a great sense of happiness, a very youthful market where people seemed to be content if not happy. Then there is the food, and I really do love the variety and quality of food here. In a nutshell, I fell in Love with Vietnam, and 16 years later, that feeling has not changed. I was able to be who ever I wanted to be, and this allowed me to make my dream come true. 

AS: In the 15 years you’ve been in Hanoi, in what ways has the food scene changed (or not changed)?

BC: The proliferation of restaurants on all levels. Whether it is a one dish wonder, new concept like doner kebabs or gigantic seafood restaurants, the restaurant scene has changed just as dramatically as the skyline. There are more foreign chefs and foreign restaurant owners then before, so the variety of ethnic food has also expanded. The street food has changed a lot, where many vendors gave up selling local dishes from their houses to consumer electronics, or the rising price of real estate is sending some of those out of business. There is also a movement to prevent the walking vendors from setting up shops on the sidewalks, especially the old quarter, although there is a lot of resistance to this as it is part of the culture. Maybe they will follow Singapore and Malaysia, where they developed food court concepts. Farmers are also growing produce that was not available before, and the variety keeps on expanding. Imported meats, seafood and dairy are now readily available. 

AS: Free association time! Describe Vietnamese food with the first 5 words you think of.

BC: Fresh, light, healthy, contemporary with a lot of contrast (in color and textures)

AS: What’s your daily routine when you’re in Hanoi? What markets do you hit and what do you look for?

BC: I have travelled so much that my routine has been lost and only recently have I been able to try and get back into a routine with discipline. I like to get up early and go to yoga class at 6:45 am. I then work out for another 45 minutes then I take a long walk around the lake. I swing by the restaurant and check up on the kitchen and make sure that everything is working. I generally do email and admin just before lunch, pop in and either help out for service or plan additions to the menu and new dishes. (This is usually done after service.)

When I am in Hanoi, I generally greet our guests by the door or the dining room to get feedback on service and food. I could be cooking, I could be waiting tables, or even bussing them, it really depends on where I feel I can help the operation. Sometimes however, being in the capital I am invited to events ranging from National days, cultural events, wine tastings, launches etc. Many of the wet markets have been closed down in favor of supermarkets. Most of my suppliers have moved to different areas, so its no longer the one stop shopping wet market I used to have. I have long-standing relationships with my suppliers and they know my standards so I don’t visit the markets with the same frequency as when I first moved here.

AS: You recently moved your restaurant from its original location on 1 Ba Trieu Street location to 77 Xuan Dieu Street. What was behind the move, and did you think of starting anew elsewhere in or outside of Vietnam?

BC: My rent increased to the point that it would not be economically viable to stay at the location. I moved the restaurant to my house as a temporary measure as I had developed the infrastructure over 8 years and felt a great obligation to our dedicated staff which had become an extended family to me and the idea of closing and leaving them didn't seem right. I would have felt guilty if I just closed down altogether. This was supposed to be a holding pattern while a better location opened up. I would have liked to have done something in Singapore at the IR, as I have a lot of faith in how things work over there. The Singapore Tourism Board is doing a lot to encourage tourism and the local market love food. I would open in a heartbeat if the right deal came my way.

AS: Where do you think the most interesting cooking is happening right now?

BC: I am biased towards San Francisco because they have taken sustainable organic farming to a level where the ingredients do all the work, and the entire city seems to be serious foodies. As far as technique finesse etc., Spain, France and Japan are high on the list, but I think there are talented chefs all over the world, some are known but the majority are unknown. You can name a city and say there are great chefs in San Francisco, New York, Sydney, London, Paris, Madrid, Tokyo, Singapore, Hong Kong etc. These chefs, their food and ideas are not limited to the geography from where they made a name for themselves. With the Internet, trade magazines, cookbooks, u-tube which allows many to replicate, or borrow techniques without leaving their own backyard. There are some great restaurants in Singapore and KL etc. and there are many young passionate cooks that are busy learning all these ideas, techniques and finesse knowing that one day that they are going to make a name for themselves and pop up on the international scene as creating cutting edge food in the middle of some place you’ve never heard about. 

AS: Your cooking has been described as Californian/French/Vietnamese. How would you describe your cooking? Are you bringing in different influences these days?

BC: I think as a cook we evolve, or stagnate and I am committed to pressing the envelope in trying new things. Filming World Cafe Asia changed the way I look at food. I am moving towards more sustainable ingredients, back to the roots, the basics. I am trying to let the ingredients play the central role and make food healthy where medicine is food and food is medicine. My menu is moving towards more global comfort food with Californian sensibilities. It’s more about execution then the creativity of it all as I see my customers are looking for the basics. I am trying to make my food lighter, more nutritious bringing out the natural flavors with great presentation. I have tasted so many wonderful dishes filming and that was so inspiring, that I want to make such dishes possible where the product mix becomes more important then the actual creativity.

The French Vietnamese thing was my ego food. As if my food needed an explanation of what it is and what inspired me to cook it, create it etc. To show where the ideas came from or the influences that changed the dish. Then in season 2 and 3 of World Cafe Asia I changed. I could eat sushi anywhere in the world, but is it right? I went diving and saw the destruction of the coral reefs and visited fish markets all over Asia and the Middle East to see endangered species being sold. I don’t want to make gastro-porn, where I take a non sustainable product and dress it up on a plate and make it look sexy. You are either part of the solution, or part of the problem and I want to develop creative alternatives that are part of the solution.