x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Bobby Chinn tried on many hats before finding his calling to food

Ahead of his appearance at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature on March 9 and 10, we talk to the half-Egyptian, half-Chinese restaurateur and television chef.

Bobby Chinn.
Bobby Chinn.

As an interviewee, Bobby Chinn is a tough one. And not, I hasten to add, because the vivacious half-Egyptian, half-Chinese restaurateur and television chef is evasive or unwilling to answer my questions.

The difficulty comes because he talks very fast indeed: sentences tumble out of his mouth at high speed and he segues from one topic to another, making quips and telling tales as he goes.

When, a few minutes in, I ask him to slow down just a little, he laughs and explains that this was a habit he picked up after he left his job working on Wall Street. "I decided to start seeing a therapist, to try to work out what I wanted to do with my life, but she charged so much that I was spending more on therapy than I did on rent. I made a decision to talk as fast as possible, so that I could really get my money's worth and I guess it stuck," he explains.

Chinn, who will be appearing at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature on March 9 and 10, has had a varied career, to say the least. As well as working as a financier, he dabbled in the world of standup comedy, considered returning to university to train as a lawyer and took creative writing classes.

It was only when he started working with food that things started to fall into place.

"For a good few years, I was definitely drifting," he admits. "Then one of my friends got me a job selling seafood. I wasn't particularly keen to start with, but I got talking to the chefs that I was selling to and I saw how passionate they were about what they were doing. Suddenly, I was caught up in this foodie world and it just felt right."

Passion ignited and interest piqued, Chinn began working front of house at various restaurants in Los Angeles, where he quickly moved up through the ranks, from bus boy to head waiter. "After that, I moved to San Francisco, this time working in more high-end restaurants. I spent all my time asking the chefs questions and realised that this was what I really wanted to do."

Following a visit to Vietnam in the early 1990s, Chinn struck upon the idea of opening a restaurant there. "The few western restaurants there really weren't very good at all and most of the Vietnamese ones were very intimidating for visitors, so I felt that it would work if I set up my own place."

Having decided to gain a little more experience before doing so, he apprenticed at a number of high-end restaurants, including Hubert Keller's famous Fleur de Lys, and spent time in France. However, he suffered a major setback when a back injury left him bedridden for a year. After being diagnosed as "stationary and disabled" and therefore unable to work as a chef in the United States any longer, he took this as a sign and moved to Vietnam in 1995.

Once again, things didn't work out entirely as planned and he was forced to close the first two restaurants he opened when they were only months old. In the end, though, his perseverance paid off and Chinn began to gather international attention when running the kitchen at the Red Onion restaurant at The Hanoi Towers. After that, he opened Restaurant Bobby Chinn on One Ba Trieu Street in Hanoi to much acclaim.

As the restaurant became more and more established, interest in Chinn grew: "I was approached by three different producers before I agreed to film a pilot television show for what was to become World Cafe: Asia," he explains. "I really didn't think that they were serious, until they offered to fly me business class across the world. The show basically gave me the chance to travel, meet people and eat. Now if you consider that at this point I was broke, you'll see that it really was too good an opportunity to turn down."

In 2007, Chinn hosted the first series of World Cafe: Asia, which was broadcast on the Discovery and Living Channel (now TLC). The popularity of the show - which follows him travelling and eating street food all over Asia - resulted in a second series in 2008, followed by Bobby Chinn Cooks Asia in 2009. After that, he went on to film World Cafe: Middle East, which was broadcast in 2010 and saw him visit Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Egypt to sample traditional food and learn about the culinary heritage of these countries.

Chinn's plan never seems to run smoothly, though and four years ago, the rent at his flagship restaurant was increased dramatically and without warning, meaning that he was forced to relocate and relaunch the restaurant at his own home. Looking back on his career, Chinn is grateful but philosophical: "I'm proud that all those years ago I took that leap into the unknown. A lot of people sell out on their dreams - for someone else, for money, for status. But whatever happens in the future, at least I know that I didn't do that. Even when things get really tough, that's enough to make me happy."

Bobby Chinn will be hosting a Literary Lunch on Friday, March 9, from 12.30 to 2.30pm at Terra Firma restaurant, InterContinental Hotel Dubai (note: tickets are sold out) and will be a part of a Foodie Panel on Saturday, March 10 at the same hotel at 10am. Tickets available; for more information, click here.

eshardlow@thenational.ae