Profile: In Vietnam, Food is Life: Bobby Chinn

Profile: In Vietnam, Food is Life: Bobby Chinn

By Tristan Chan

After 22 years in Vietnam, celebrated chef Bobby Chinn still hasn’t had enough of the food. He continues to reinvent Vietnamese cuisine as a modern, international cuisine. And he wants the world to know that. 

“When I arrived in Vietnam they didn’t have sweet corn, they had a very starchy corn or maize. Then there is a rice paper grilled over charcoal with a beaten egg with scallions with various toppings like a pizza.  This is happening on the streets, in restaurants all over the country. The most obvious change or evolution is cosmetic, presentation where plating is getting more stylised and sophisticated,” says Chinn. 

Bobby Chinn’s Prawns on Sugarcane. Photo: Bobby Chinn 

He’s also a fan of eating at humbler street food stalls when he travels. He believes it gives him a more accurate view of local cultures. “I enjoy eating street food – eating cheap food next to the locals because there is an added sense of acceptance as well as a better sense of the people and the culture,” who once hosted a wildly popular “World Café” series on Discovery’s TLC. 

Even as Vietnamese cuisine marches up the culinary ladder with growing popularity, it’s their attitude to food that remain the same. “Vietnamese people take eating very seriously. They are very vocal and honest about food. You go to a wedding banquet, and if the food is no good, they are not shy to let everyone know their opinion. In Vietnam, food is life, it’s a ritual, a celebration, a casual event shared with friends, co-workers or families, that can take place up to five to seven times a day! As a chef, those are my kind of people!”

Bobby Chinn’s Banh Beo, or steamed rice cakes. Photo: Bobby Chinn 

And within Southeast Asia, Chinn observes that cuisines of Vietnam, alongside Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and Singapore have reached the international stage. But others, not so. 

“Some countries struggle for one reason or another, like the Philippines. Dishes like balut (a duck embryo encased in an egg) and desserts like chomparodo (a sweet chocolate rice pudding with fried anchovies on top) don't do them any favours. However, that is changing as a generation of young talented Filipinos chefs go out of their way to revamp and rectify their culinary image. Then there are countries like Laos, Burma, Brunei and Cambodian whose cuisines are growing in popularity, and will continue to grow with growing tourism numbers.”

Chef Bobby Chinn. Photo: Bobby Chinn 

Having been a professional chef for over three decades, Chinn says the ability to trust ingredients and cooking apparatus takes years to master. “It takes time and there is a lot of trial and error, so recipes need to be adjusted. For example, there are a lot of beet sugars out there. It’s not as sweet as pure cane sugar and as a result you have to make adjustments. Lesson is check, double check, and triple check until mastery. Then there is also taste, taste, taste.”

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