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Chef Bobby Chinn Weaves His Way Around The World Sampling And Cooking At Every Stop, Says Arundhati Basu   |   Published 21.11.10, 12:00 AM

Bobby Chinn is all for adventurous eating while filming on various locations

Bobby Chinn follows no rules. He can set off on a camel — Lawrence of Arabia-esque in Jordan/The West Bank and venture into the waters of the Bosphorus with Turkish fishermen, only to have his fishing line comically stuck under a bridge. Or he can expertly whip up The Imam Fainted — a Turkish eggplant dish that legend says made an Imam faint with delight. On the other hand, Chinn can pick up tips on cooking from a Thai street food seller in Koh Samui and energetically tuck into shark fin soup on a street corner in Thailand.

The celebrity chef is on a roll as his characteristically quirky show, World Café (on TLC), is now into its third season in which it is exp- loring the Middle East.

Says the highly acclaimed chef, who was recently on his fourth trip to India: “I have a bad case of ADD (attention deficit disorder). I am a global nomad. I don’t really belong to any one place, nor do I consider any one place ‘home’.”

That’s also perhaps why he’s so comfortable weaving his way around the world, especially with season three of World Café as he eats-cooks his way through Istanbul, Damascus, Aleppo, Jordan, Cairo and Alexandria, Yemen, Tehran and Algiers.

Chinn belongs to that clique of travelling celebrity chefs who with their witty aphorisms have changed the tenets of travel shows. His own strong points are explorations of ethnic pockets and connecting easily with local people to get great sound bytes.

The funny bone that’s on show during his programme is even more pronounced when you meet Chinn. In a formal, black velvet jacket dressed down with a pair of blue jeans, the 40-something chef turns out to be the eternal maverick. “I don’t even have a house anymore because the one I have in Hanoi has been converted into my restaurant. Therefore, I’m in a limbo and always on the move,” he smiles his lopsided smile.

Pix by Jagan Negi

Chinn has impeccable antecedents that are as exotic as the dishes he serves up. He describes himself as an ‘ethnic mutt’ since his “heritage’’ comes from two of the oldest civilisations in existence — he’s half Egyptian and half Chinese. He was born in New Zealand and educated in London and San Francisco. Today, he calls himself an American — and even has an American passport — even though he set up base in Hanoi in Vietnam in 1995. It’s the closest he can call home now.

Shooting for World Café Asia took Chinn through the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, China and India. In Chennai he learnt to rustle up authentic idli sambar and karivepilla era varuval (spicy grilled prawns) and in Calcutta he lost his way in the city’s bylanes but got to expe- riment with its famed street food.

In the current Middle East series, he explores his heritage by cooking Pharaonic food (the fare of the ancient Pharaohs) on the Egypt leg of his tour, while carving out time with cousins. “I feel like a light-skinned terrorist,” he winks. “After all, I am a Muslim and I own an American passport,” he adds with a straight face, revealing his particular brand of humour that hints at his brief time as a stand-up comedian in LA and San Francisco.

Chinn’s is a jetset life and he clearly doesn’t know what to expect the next moment. “Recently, I was filming in London and suddenly found myself in a shoot with Jimmy Choo and a Malaysian model. Before I knew it, I was invited for the premiere of the Julia Roberts starrer, Eat, Pray, Love,’’ he says.

Exploring local markets and looking for fresh produce is a key feature
of Chinn’s shows

That Chinn has a checkered career is an understatement. He has a fascinating resume and has been everything from a shoeshine boy and elevator operator in hotels to a research analyst and a trader for hedge funds on Wall Street (a logical choice given that he graduated with business studies from a college in London in 1986). Add to that his stint in stand-up comedy.

But his culinary quest started when in the late ’80s and early ’90s he began waiting tables at Elka, a Franco-Japanese restaurant in San Francisco. From there he went on to train with chef Hubert Keller and start his career at Keller’s restaurant, Fleur De Lys. He also worked with celebrity chefs including Jeffrey Inahara, Traci des Jardin and Gary Danko in the US while also spending time apprenticing in France after he read a cookbook called Burgundy Stars.

Chinn, however, started off on his own only in 1995 when he shifted base to Hanoi on his father’s advice. He worked in well-known restaurants like Camargue, Miro, and the Red Onion Bistro in the Hanoi Towers before starting his own restaurant, Home by Bobby Chinn, in Hanoi which is now two years old.

But he is perpetually on the lookout for new ventures. “The idea is to open a Vietnamese-inspired restaurant next,” says the colourful chef who, while making his restaurant an eponymous affair, has given out shares in the swanky restaurant to his staff.

Now, he cooks mostly as guest chef in foreign locales such as Cairo, Jakarta and the Philippines. And that’s where he feels more evolved — in the kitchen. He adds: “Men cook out of ego and women cook out of love. And the day that I left the restaurant kitchen and started cooking in other places, I became a convert — and I too started cooking for the love of it.”

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