Bobby Chinn likes to talk. It's a characteristic not prerequisite to becoming a chef, many of whom prefer to let their dishes speak for themselves, but it's exactly this deviant trait that has enabled Chinn to rise to fame as a food personality and television host on the Discovery Channel's World Café series. An early champion of Vietnamese cuisine, he's owned eponymous restaurants in Hanoi and Saigon, though his efforts now are more concentrated on a London outpost called The House of Ho, offering “the taste of Vietnam with a modern twist”.
Chinn didn't begin his career in food. A sometime banker and stand-up comedian, he stumbled into the industry as a self-described bad waiter while supporting his comic career – and with a stroke of rebellion ended up learning to cook, as well. He shares notes from his journey with Prestige Hong Kong during his last trip to our city for a pop-up with Chom Chom and Sook.
YOU'VE FOLLOWED A COLOURFUL PATH. TELL US ABOUT IT.
Like every kid I went to school with, everyone wanted to be rich in the '80s. And so everyone studied finance, and I was really no exception. I was a research analyst, I was working for a hedge fund on the buy side. I did the IPO market. I worked as a cold caller in New York, I was at the New York Stock Exchange trading ADRs. And I was like, this sucks. This is really work.
So I had kind of a soul-searching mission after that. When I was on the floor of the exchange I would always make everybody laugh. I would do this Chinese Billy Crystal. I was told a lot that I was in the wrong business, because I would make people laugh.
So I was applying to the Culinary Institute of America and the French Culinary Institute [now the International Culinary Center] in New York and I asked my parents and they were like, “No, we're not going to help you. You can't hold a job. You got attitude. We don't have cooks in our family, we hire them.”
I moved to LA and I got into The Groundlings, one of the top improvisational schools. I worked as a waiter and got demoted to busboy. I decided to move to San Francisco and do the [comedy club] Holy City Zoo thing, which is where Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams, all those guys were. And then I started working in a restaurant so that I could feed myself. My father comes in and says, “So excuse the cliché, but what are you? A standup comic waiter? Number one, you're not funny. Number two, you're a shitty waiter. Three, your education is far too expensive for you to think you're a funny waiter. Vietnam is the future.”
SO YOU MOVED TO VIETNAM, WHICH IS WHERE YOU OPENED YOUR FIRST RESTAURANT. WERE YOU INTO COOKING IN THE PAST?
I ate at really great restaurants because I was privileged. I went to international schools, so I can distinguish shit from not-shit food. You go to boarding school in England and it's dog food with mashed potatoes on top. Call it shepherd's pie if you want but that to me is dog food. I didn't know food to be a bad experience until English boarding school. I was eating great Chinese food from my Chinese grandmother. I was eating great northern African food from my Egyptian grandmother.
I didn't know what to talk to my Chinese grandmother about, so I told her, “Teach me how to cook.” So she would talk me through the recipes and I would video it. Sadly I've lost them. But I remember a lot. I always used to love watching Julia Child as a kid because she was funny. She was drunk. I liked the idea of starting with raw materials and getting to a final product. And then it just hit me when I was working in the restaurant as a waiter, that I knew nothing about food. Then I was like, how am I going to sell it if I don't know how it's made? I started volunteering my time between my shifts. I'd never done this before. Work for free for a hotel? You're supposed to steal from hotels. And then I volunteered in one of the top kitchens in San Francisco. I was very resilient. I was the first one in and the last one out, because I was bad. I was slow. It was humiliating, I was living just above poverty to work these ridiculous hours. If I'm doing it for the money then I'm stupid, and I don't think I'm stupid, so I'm doing it for the experience.
IT WAS BEING ON TV THAT REALLY TOOK YOUR NAME TO THE NEXT LEVEL. WHEN DID YOU REALISE YOU'D GONE FROM CHEF TO CELEBRITY?
It's a weird concept because I've been treated like shit most of my life. And then all of a sudden, one day, they tell you, “We've upgraded you to a suite. We have a bottle of champagne chilling for you. You like Billecart, don't you?” And all of a sudden it's like, what did I do? I don't really feel like I contributed to doing anything exceptional. And it's weird because it came after 40, so I don't feel special. But I think maybe it's a saving grace, maybe it's my upbringing, maybe it's fate that while I'm on this parallel path of being more well known, my normal life has got a foot in the gutter. It keeps me balanced.
[And then there's the] flip side of the fame card. Chefs that work in the kitchen 24/7 hate people on TV, chefs on TV. “Screw him for being on television. That's not how it's made. He's a hack.” Or, “They're making entertainment of my profession.”
WHAT'S THE DREAM SHOW, IF YOU WERE DRIVING EVERYTHING?
It would be a project showing people that I can do something that's sustainable and farm-to-table – to create dishes that have medicinal properties and taste good, which could be tailored to people's dietary needs or to help relieve them of various ailments they may have. Food as medicine.