Food rockstar: Bobby Chinn talks MBC 'Top Chef' season 5, sustainability and what he'd like to do next

Bobby Chinn was born of a Chinese-American father and an Egyptian mother and as he reconnects to his maternal homeland, he talked to MIME about food's healing ability, the power of one and chefs as luxury brands.
Food rockstar: Bobby Chinn talks MBC 'Top Chef' season 5, sustainability and what he'd like to do next

As this great big Earth we share has turned local for most of us, due to the worldwide pandemic, speaking to chef and global nomad Bobby Chinn feels like an exhilarating breath of fresh air. He’s the product of a Chinese-American father, an Egyptian mother and while Chinn was born in New Zealand, he then traversed five continents before settling down in Hanoi, Vietnam. There he opened a restaurant bearing his name, serving the finest in Pan-Pacific cuisine in the city’s Old Quarter.

These days Chinn is back — or should I say forward and onward — in Egypt, flown there at the start of the pandemic by the network MBC so they could be sure he would be available to film the fifth season of Top Chef Middle East, which will begin airing in the early Fall with Chinn returning as one of the celebrity judges on the popular show. When we catch up, there are birds chirping in the background, at his house overlooking the ocean in the north of Egypt, and Chinn is sipping coffee from a very large glass mug.

This global nomad, as he describes himself, first appeared on my radar when I watched him on World Café, a television series first aired from 2011 which saw the celebrity chef traveling on culinary excursions throughout countries like Turkey, Syria, the West Bank and Jordan, as well as Egypt of course, and also Asia. Chinn's easy ways, foodie knowledge and enthusiastic view of the world made the show addictive and for those wanting to confirm for themselves, it is still available on Lonely Planet TV. In 2014, a visit to House of Ho, Chinn’s former London restaurant which offered a modern take on share-style Vietnamese street food, only cemented that addiction for me. Because, let’s face it, after the cameras go black and the burners are turned off, a chef is only as good as his fare.

Before becoming a chef, Chinn searched for his calling and left a career in investment banking, tried his hand at stand-up comedy in Los Angeles and taught himself to cook, by working and volunteering in Kitchen’s San Francisco and France. He is proud to say he is completely self-taught. 

As much as Chinn is the consummate world traveler, he also has plenty of experience staying put. A back injury at the start of his cooking career made him an excellent chef and this pandemic, as well as his own personal battle with Covid-19 seem to have made him an even better human being. Chinn talks passionately about the planet, global warming and how to make the food industry less damaging.

For our interview we caught up via Zoom, the way most connections are made these days. Speaking with Chinn, his skin glowing in the Egyptian sunlight and his voice just a touch huskier than usual, makes one imagine a better way, a simpler life, a more conscientious manner of producing and consuming. And he represents the most perfect example of the power of one, that trait we all possess which makes us, as individuals, absolutely invaluable. Oh, and in his wonderfully cooperative way, Chinn helped to clarify my questions, focus his answers and all around assisted in making this interview the best it could be.

Do you think your work has helped to promote the notion that when you step in a kitchen in the MENA region, you're not just a cook, you're actually a Chef?

I’m struggling with this question! When I step into a kitchen, I think the first thing the team sees is a TV personality, first and foremost. Once we start going over the menu, the kitchen equipment, prepping process, how we setup etc. and I start supervising the team, I think they can see that I’m actually a chef. The real difference between a chef and a cook, is a chef is responsible for managing the cooks. However these days, I’m mostly a cook! I think the perception of a chef/cook has changed and TV has definitely helped.

But I mean not just for you but like having these TV shows that showcase the sort of “celebrity-dom" around being a chef, do you think that has changed the way people go into hospitality, or the reasons why they begin to like go into a kitchen and learn the metier, the craft?

I honestly don’t know — it has been glamorized by the media, in some cases, it’s turned the profession into a game show and then there are countless shows from travel cookery to dump & stir shows, but at the heart of it, It’s a craft, it’s a labour of love, it can be very mechanical as well as artistic. I mean to take a raw nutritious product, then turn it into something that's, pleasing to the eye, whilst enhancing its flavors and textures. Food is powerful, evoking emotions, creating, or even recreating memories through food, it has had its global appeal way before television.

Eating, celebrating and sharing food is part of the human experience.

People may be inspired to cook because of TV, even venture into the industry, but it’s the love of feeding people, the lifestyle, etc that will keep them there. I know lawyers, grad students, accountants, that opted for a profession change to pursue a career in the culinary arts. I think the image of the Chef, and cooking is not looked down as much as it was in the past. Today it’s a much more respected profession, and the best of the best are prestigious luxury brands.

Do you feel you’re a bridge between cultures? I mean, you are setting people straight about what the Middle East is really about, so how do you use your own multicultural background and how do you reconcile that in your work and in your life?

I'm not sure if I'm a bridge between cultures as much as I am a connector. I am a chameleon at heart, and I generally fit in and have been accepted in most cultures and subcultures. I grew up as an expat most of my life, an outsider and I always found it easier to find my commonality than my differences. If that makes me a bridge between cultures then so be it. I’ll take it!

My work is an amalgamation of all of my life experiences and I apply it in whatever I do. In cooking, traveling, or even presenting, I've simply been sharing all that I have learned along the way. In cooking as an example, I have always borrowed ideas, techniques from different cultures and made them my own, however not departing too much from the original dish, changing it where it still appeals to the underlying culture whilst also appealing to other cultures.

Would you ever open a restaurant in Egypt -- why, and why not?

In my heart, I would love to have an outlet to cook for friends and family, and obviously the general public. Covid grounded me here and for the first time since my childhood I have been able to be with my family. If I did a restaurant, I would need the right partners, who share the same ethos. I feel I still have a lot to contribute, however there are a lot of other variables that would be required for me to do it.

How does your own lifestyle, your choice of being vegetarian come into play with this vision you have?

I want to be part of the positive change to this world. So if I did a restaurant it would be more weighted in a plant-based menu, working with products that are more ecologically sustainable, with vegetables that are dense in nutrition and flavor and keeping it as healthy and local as possible.

When I see the culinary landscape, see the impact of our industrial food system and it’s environmental impact, the inequality, and the effects on our health, I couldn’t consciously go back into the restaurant business without addressing it. I'm tired of working with corpses… however, I have to still give people what they want. Chefs owe it to themselves and to their guests to offer healthier food choices. I know it’s optimistic, but for one of the end user of food, ‘Let medicine be thy food and food be thy medicine’ should be our motto!

On Top Chef as an example, we introduced challenges on vegetarian, vegan cooking, healthier alternatives to processed sugars, foods of the future, and hopefully this will help educate our audience in healthier choices. If we have a platform we should use it for the benefit of our society at large.

The planet’s on fire! You know, if my house was on fire I wouldn't be as concerned with the football results, the other top stories on the evening news. We have a global crisis that needs to be fixed regionally and at local levels. We over produce, over consume, yet 33% ends up as food waste, while hundreds of millions people go to bed hungry with billions suffering from malnutrition. 7 out of 10 deaths is diet related. We have the power to change it and build a more equitable sustainable, as well as resilient food system.

Apart from the obvious industries like the car industry, the two industries that probably have the most conscious people, and need to come to terms with sustainability are the hospitality/food industry, and the fashion industry, because there's so much waste in both.

Yeah! Gone are the days when we had winter, spring, summer and fall collections. Zara has 20 collections a year, You have a world population wanting their fashion at discounted prices. China is building another 390 coal fueled power plants, whilst it is already the largest contributor of Co2 gases, more than the United States and Europe combined. I think we need to re-think a new system, that isn’t about ROI’s and consumption of services and goods! That’s too complicated, and above my pay grade, but there are enough brilliant minds out there that have the knowhow, technology and the will. For food as an example, I follow Food Tank with Danielle Nierenberg, Michael DiGregorrio at The Asia Foundation, Dàn Barber at Blue Hill Farm, Resilient Cities with Lauren Sorkin and there are a lot of advocates out there that are showing us alternatives to fixing a broken system.

Do you think that this power of one, changing our eating habits, our personal consumerism and being conscious… is enough, or do we need to change the system as a whole?

Ideally, and collectively, we can change the system, and it’s already happening. Consumers are already moving towards non meat & dairy alternatives. Even companies raising livestock are now looking at alternative fake meats with companies like Beyond Meat and the Impossible Burger leading the way. Plant-based non-dairy milks are more readily available in a lot of markets now. I'm more of a traditionalist and want my food clean, free from pesticides, herbicides and other toxic chemicals. I want foods grown for nutrition, flavour that is super local. I don't want my food coming from Silicon Valley. And I surely don't want my food coming from DuPont and Monsanto. A gentle reminder, Monsanto are the same people that gave us Agent Orange!!! Do I need to say more? To accelerate the behavioural changes with respect to the foods we grow and our diets, I believe we need to spend more on education and make dramatic policy changes. A food revolution, for our own health, the well being for the people that work in it, to the animals that die in it and obviously the well-being of the planet and the life support systems for our own survival.

So what is the solution?

We need a global awakening! We have a global crisis and our food system is a major cause. Covid has exposed a broken food system that is very effective at getting us foods from all over the world all year round. Driven by economics, and not for our well-being. Not for flavour or nutrition. The planet is heating up and we are the cause, and we need to change. If history taught us anything, if you want to change human behaviour, as I said, Policy & Education can help accelerate the change.

We have seen a change in the behaviour of companies, in the past they looked at these environmental standards as an added expenditure, eroding their bottom line. Now some companies are looking to be on the right side of history, that will preserve shareholders value. This is growing, as responsible management can see that governments haven’t moved quickly enough to address this crisis. When the rain forests are on fire, when there are flash floods, more violent hurricanes, oceans warming, ice caps melting, I think we’ve seen the warning signs. Covid was a prelude to this Climate Emergency. It’s a serious wake up call. There was a lack of strategy and cooperation to stop the spread, a lack of solidarity to combat the virus, exposing a lot of injustices in many systems, healthcare system, the manufacturing of the vaccines and the distributions. I’m not impressed.

At the end of the day, I’m just a cook and I’m seriously concerned!

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