Bobby Chinn, a Kiwi chef and TV host who has been cooking for 25 years, told Tuoi Tre News that everyone should try the fresh, unique and delicious Vietnamese food right in Vietnam if they really love it.
Chinn was appointed Vietnam Tourism Ambassador to the European Union for the 2014-2017 term at a ceremony held by the Vietnamese Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism on July 17 in London.
He has lived in Vietnam for 18 years and is the author of a travel cookbook on Vietnamese cuisine, people and markets, “Wild, Wild East: Recipes and Stories from Vietnam,” which was published in September 2008.
He opened a high-end restaurant in Hanoi in 2001 and another in Ho Chi Minh City in 2011. Last year, he moved to London to open the restaurant “The House of Ho” that mainly serves typical Vietnamese dishes.
In June, Chinn participated in the 2014 “Taste of London” festival at which he introduced Vietnamese spring rolls and banh mi (sandwiches).
How did you feel when you were appointed Vietnam Tourism Ambassador to Europe?
For me to be able to give back to the Vietnamese people who took me in, taught me so much and provided me with the opportunity to excel, something I did not feel was obtainable in my own country, makes this a very meaningful appointment. Vietnam and the Vietnamese people provided me with the opportunity to succeed in my profession. Without the support and encouragement of my friends in Vietnam, none of this would have been possible.
The eating habit of the European is not similar to Vietnamese. Is it a challenge for your mission as a Vietnam Tourism Ambassador?
Vietnamese food is a modern cuisine with a thousand-year-old history. It's uniquely different from the rest of the cuisine in Southeast Asia. Simply put, there really is no other type of cuisine like it.
I do not see this as a challenge as much as I see it as an opportunity. Most people like Vietnamese food. My task is to explain how it is eaten, and the techniques to prepare and present it. That way, they can leave my restaurant, “The House of Ho” in London with a greater love and appreciation for the food than they had before. Many of my guests in London come to get a taste of Vietnam before they visit, with a growing number visiting me after they visit Vietnam, and they are our growing ambassadors that are helping spread the word.
In an event held in March 2008, why did you say that "Vietnamese cuisine will become famous around the world in the next 5-10 years"?
Vietnamese food is very modern. It is healthy, generally gluten-free, low-fat, sustainable, pleasing to the eyes and it's just simply delicious, providing a lot of excitement in the palate. It is sophisticated yet simple, combining hot and cold ingredients with contrasting textures with sweet and sour undertones, making it all very exciting and unique. For me it was love at first bite. All people need to do is experience it.
Vietnam will rival Japanese cuisine in the light and healthy space. It will rival the likes of McDonald’s, Subway, and Pizza Hut in the fast food sector offering, as it's a much healthier alternative with dishes like banh mi, pho [Vietnamese noodle soup with beef or chicken], healthy flavorful salads, etc. Vietnamese food is a cuisine that can feed the world's masses with affordable food that is very healthy, tasty and exciting.
What is the most difficult thing about cooking Vietnamese food?
There is an inherent understanding of taste and flavors that most Vietnamese often take for granted. Let’s take “Nuoc Cham” as an example. Although the ingredients of fish sauce, water, sugar, garlic and chili are the same, those ratios vary tremendously between North and South, chef to chef as well as the dishes that they are going to be paired with. Most non-Vietnamese would never understand that; some could use brown sugar or even nuoc hang [Vietnamese Caramel sauce] for those seeking color, or a slightly different flavor profile. I had to learn from scratch, as a result I made and continue to make a lot of mistakes, but I have a pretty good understanding of this.
What is your short-term and long-term plan for promoting Vietnamese food and tourism to international friends?
I will be doing a Vietnamese food promotion at the Movenpick Heritage Hotel and Sentosa in Singapore from September 6 to 9. We are presently looking at other key events that I can participate in as a guest speaker, chef or even guest. Promoting Vietnam is about educating people about Vietnam. People have not traveled to Vietnam in the same numbers experienced by Malaysia or Thailand, simply because they don’t know what Vietnam offers.
Last year Vietnam received 7.5 million tourists. During the same time Malaysia received 25.7 million visitors while Thailand received more than 26.5 million. I can’t see any reason why Vietnam cannot achieve success similar to either of these countries if given greater exposure on the global stage.
I have already reached out to try and bring Discovery Network back and dovetail with their brand and international distribution with the support of the government, and shoot a series on Vietnam showcasing its people, culture and natural resources. The Tourism Boards of Taiwan, Korea, Japan, Malaysia and Singapore, as examples, have funded such projects over the years, knowing that it has a shelf life of 5 years with a minimum audience of 350 million households across Asia alone.
Why did you choose Vietnam instead of another Asian country to promote its cuisine?
When I moved to Vietnam almost 20 years ago, to many Westerners and the Western world, Vietnam continued to remain an enigma. On the other hand, once trying the local cuisine, traveling through the country and experiencing the warm hospitality and endless miles from all, these made for the experiences that cause me to eventually settle here. Regarding the cuisine, Vietnamese food is very special and for me to be able to share this food experience and Vietnam's rich culture with others made for a very attractive life change. Vietnam changed my life for the better and I did my best to do the same, and make a positive difference to all those that entered my world.
What are some Vietnamese dishes that you like the most? Why?
To me, food reflects the human values, traditions, geography, and history of a country. Vietnamese food does exactly that. It is humble, creative, and egalitarian. It is cooked by the people for the people; from humble one-dish wonders like pho, to complex salads with oil-less salad dressings. Pho ga [Vietnamese noodle soup with chicken] is considered a comfort food around the word. The most simplistic explanation is because it is a chicken noodle soup. But the clean flavorful stock produced on the streets in Vietnam is sophisticated, with ingredients and spices that, when done well, leave a subtle haunting flavor that is often hard to describe because it is perfectly balanced.
That is as much a part of the experience as the food itself. It contributes to closeness, an aspect of human relations, which not only defines the food but Vietnam as well. You can’t get that in a fake culture showcase venue - you experience that in the real world. So, there’s part of my pitch for tourism - if you like the food, come to experience it at its origin.
What is the most beautiful and unforgettable memory of Vietnam that you have had?
The most unforgettable experience witnessed by me in Vietnam is the close family values that are shared between family members. The caring for one another and the responsibility and love between siblings are something that is very admirable. I express this traditional family value as admirable, for this is something that to a great degree has been lost in most Western societies although it should be automatic in today's world.