By Lizette Kodama - Chefs for Impact special contributor
Photo: Courtesy by Bobby Chinn
Egyptian-Chinese, Bobby Chinn is a true global citizen. Born in New Zealand and educated in the UK and Egypt, Bobby began his career in San Francisco but it was in Vietnam where he opened his first restaurant and carved out his name. Bobby’s global personality became especially relevant after the show “World Café,” on which he explored the globe visiting food markets, cooking, and discovering the culinary cultures around the globe.
Currently Bobby is a judge on “Top Chef Middle East,” while maintaining his position as Tourism Ambassador for Vietnam in Europe.
Welcome Bobby to Chefs for Impact!
By Bobby Chinn as told to Chefs for Impact
You said earlier this year, "The restaurant industry is dead." What will be the role of a chef in the post-pandemic world? Do you see new business models emerging in 2021?
From my perspective, I've been homeless for the last 5 years - I don't have a base anymore - so I was in Vietnam for 22 years. In my time, I was traveling all over the world with my TV show, so I visited restaurants around the world, became friends with a lot of these chefs in different countries. And, each country, each city, each type of cuisine is going to be affected differently, so we can't really make a sweeping generalization. But, as a sweeping generalization, yes, I do believe the restaurant industry is in dire straits.
People don't really understand that restaurants are really like the soul of a nation. It really does reflect who you are, what you eat.
So I see, for example in San Francisco, a majority of the restaurants operate on very thin margins so they do not have the capital resources to survive for three months without revenues, and expect to pay rent. The cash flow, financial reserves and financial management - that’s a tall order for a chef. Those skills alone are really hard to have and then to be able to cook. Independent free-standing restaurants, I think are screwed.
The majority of restaurants also work on profit margins of anywhere between 4% and 8%. This isn't a lot in metropolitan cities, so they are going to be gone. I don't know how they can survive. Even with the cash bailout plan now, it’s too little, too late.
Let’s go back to 2019. It wasn't such a wonderful time then. We have all these problems, it was just that COVID exposed them. They were always there.
So, I do think you will have technological innovation that will fix certain things, eliminating people, we see this already happening in the fast food chain industry.
Tell us about how you became to be a chef.
I'm just lucky. I'm a cook who just loves cooking and left my old profession (in finance), and found passion in what I did and enjoyed feeding people. By chance, I was in Vietnam at the right time, I fed anybody that was anybody and I was able to build a restaurant that would probably be illegal anywhere else, and people appreciated what I did and television came knocking at my door.
I was living my life as an algebraic equation where I was trying to find out what X was by process of elimination. So, I had a finance degree (to appease my parents). I was a research analyst in Boca Raton, FL. I worked for a hedge fund in San Francisco. I worked on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange trading American depository receipts. I worked as an institutional broker. After Wall Street, I came across the profession of selling seafood as a part time job trying to help a friend out. I used all the skills I learned on Wall Street, connecting with chefs, selling them seafood.
And, ultimately, met those great chefs. I was so inspired by them - that they got to work with their hands. People respected them, they looked like doctors.
I’m sure you get approached with many projects. How do you choose which ones you work on?
I'm lucky and, for me, when opportunities come, I say yes. I generally say yes to a lot of things. And say yes to things I’m generally not qualified to do and basically put myself in situations where I sink or swim.
Somewhere along the lines I did not fear failure. I’ve been humiliated my entire life, generally speaking. I was the kid that was born in a foreign country. Everywhere I went, I didn’t fit in. I mean, I can fit in but I didn’t belong. When you are in that kind of space, you have a certain form of freedom. People closed their minds and create their own borders. I don’t have those borders.
You have worked with different causes. What is one cause that made an impact on your approach in the kitchen?
I did an event for this guy for an organization, Room to Read, and raised more money than we anticipated, and I asked him later, “What is the secret to your success?” and he said, “Teach the women.”
So, I had a predominantly female kitchen and I saw these women in my kitchen teaching these kids - they had a maternal, natural approach of giving, of teaching, of being empathetic and that created the environment in my kitchen.
So from there, I thought, “I should have done this years ago.” And that became one of my core values. So everything I’ve done has been a progression of an idea of self improvement, of personal development of trying to figure it out.
What advice would you give to aspiring chefs in this evolving industry?
From my own personal experience, be willing to work for free - that shows dedication. Show your true passion in whatever you do. Speak it, live it, do it.
Keep your nose to the grindstone, focus, you know it takes time and so don't be so impatient on yourself. Develop your skills.
In our profession, if you have the passion, if you have vision, if you have identity, if you look at food as something that brings comfort and security to people, “Wouldn’t that be such an incredible thing to do every single day and make people happy?”
Learn from the best if you can. By learning from really good people, you don’t develop bad habits - and just keep on accumulating that.
During the pandemic, what is your comfort food?
When I was at the beach, we couldn't get any ingredients to speak of. Literally about 200 km from the Libyan border, it was a beautiful beach. And we couldn't get fresh ingredients and I really got tired of it.
So, I must have bought - I don't know how many kilos - these huge bags of dried Chinese mushrooms and then I soak them and I use the water and then I cook the mushrooms so nice and soft and I make hot and sour soup with tofu. And then, whatever is left over, and when I’m tired of the soup, I drink the liquid and I stir fry the balance and I add vegetables to it, if I have vegetables - so that was really a go-to dish.
You are a world-renown TV celebrity chef with Discovery TLC's World Cafe, and as a judge on MBC's Top Chef Middle East. Are there any new TV projects coming up we should be on the look for and what will they be focused on?
I'm doing voice over for a documentary for Discovery on the history of salt, which is really interesting. I had no idea the extent of salt - of how powerful it was then.
I just shot a “how to cook”-like master class and I did six shows of that.