Bobby Chinn: All grown

Andrea Tejokusumo

Loyal viewers of Discovery Travel & Living (the pay TV channel) would normally see Bobby Chinn, 45, as a bit of a rebel.

His image is that of a happy-go-lucky chef - specializing in Vietnamese cuisine, but not afraid to sample everything else Asia has to offer.

Thanks to Bobby's unique looks and charm, the television show World Cafe: Asia now enters its third season with a host that has become as catchy a household name as Anthony Bourdain or Gordon Ramsay.

Yet the charismatic Bobby Chinn has not always been cooking - let alone living on the edge.

Born in Auckland, New Zealand to an American-Chinese father and an Egyptian aristocrat mother, Bobby moved to a boarding school in England when his maternal grandfather was appointed the Egyptian ambassador to the United Kingdom.

Bobby journeyed across the Atlantic several times before finishing a British degree in finance and economics in 1986, and began working as a Wall Street financier.

"The idea of wearing a suit and a tie, taking numbers all day, fighting for money for some unappreciative individual, became so unappealing to me," says Bobby in his usual carefree, straightforward manner.

Thus, he did some soul searching; taking creative writing and computer science classes in New York; studying stand-up comedy in Los Angeles; selling seafood to dodgy syndicates; and finally waiting tables at a number of restaurants in San Francisco. It was here that Bobby embraced his passion for cooking and later studied under renowned chef Hubert Keller.

At one point, Bobby was almost crippled because of a nasty kitchen accident that left him bedridden for about a year. However, Bobby moved on, took up an apprenticeship in France, and became one of the foreign chefs to come to Vietnam in 1995.

"When people talked about Vietnam, it was always about the war," he said during a media luncheon at the Gran Melia Jakarta last week (June 4).

"In truth, the Vietnamese are masters of grilling, salads and broths. They are able to learn from both the East and the West in addition to borrowing some Chinese cooking techniques.

"They basically created modern cuisine 1,000 years ago, as compared to Western haute cuisine chefs who had only begun discovering the beauty of simple, light food 20 years ago," he explained.

Bobby was in town to make merry Gran Melia's week-long Vietnamese food festival, which he did as a favor for Gran Melia Jakarta GM Conrad Bergwerf whom he had befriended back in Hanoi.

"I established my restaurant in Hanoi after being *kicked out' of Ho Chi Minh *city*," admitted Bobby, who went through a number of hits and misses while starting up in the Vietnam culinary scene.

Yet he was ever keen on getting it right, the efforts of which culminated with the founding of the Bobby Chinn Restaurant in Hanoi's Old Quarter, which went on to attract notable guests such as Bill and Hillary Clinton.

Aside from garnering rave reviews, he also started a series with Discovery Channel in 2007. And though these successes have brought him more fame and fortune, Bobby has maintained a kind of status quo with his life in the limelight.

"When you're living on the edge, you get to see a little bit more. But you also make yourself more vulnerable to falling," Bobby said.

Asked whether the chef profession was grossly overrated lately, he replied, "Cooking is like snooker; much glamour has been made around it, but working in a kitchen, day-in-day-out - that's a labor of love."

Bobby recounts that as a chef progresses through the hierarchy in the kitchen - from the absolute bottom to the cold station and hot station, then barking orders, expediting orders, creating and pricing the menu - the point comes when chefs no longer have to cook every day.

"When was the last time Michelin chefs prepared anything from start to finish?" Bobby asked rhetorically.

"When a chef reaches this point, I don't think you can see yourself as a chef anymore. I always feel bad about it; I think Bourdain feels horrible."

According to Bobby, the basic human needs are water, food, shelter and love.

"Chefs are the only professionals that get to use all of their senses when they go to work. They also have the ability to create, and share passion with others by feeding them. That is why people need people like me," he says.

So it seems Bobby Chinn has come full circle over the years - and has grown a lot more mature in the process.

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