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Asia's traveling TV chef mulls his next move

Bobby Chinn foresees an automated food world with no place for celebrity cooks

Chef Bobby Chinn sips from a bowl of laksa, a spicy noodle soup dish popular in Singapore's hawker centers.   © Reuters

LISBON -- Bobby Chinn has been a rugby player, a financial analyst, a New York brokerage clerk, a shellfish importer, a busboy, a waiter and a stand-up comic. He is also one of the most recognizable media personalities in the culinary world, through his award-winning "World Asia Cafe" and "Bobby Chinn Cooks Asia" television series, both widely shown throughout the region.

In the words of the late American celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain: "Anything that Bobby Chinn doesn't know about Southeast Asian food isn't worth knowing." Right now, though, Chinn is considering how to redefine himself for a post-pandemic world in which he thinks the food scene may change dramatically. "Maybe, through my own search for equilibrium, I can help a wounded world find some equilibrium, too," he says.

Befitting "a true international man of mystery," as Bourdain labeled him on the TV show "No Reservations," Chinn -- who has no definite home and carries two passports -- has spent much of this year sitting out the spread of COVID-19 in a condominium on the north coast of Egypt, 200 km from the border with Libya. The offspring of a Chinese American financial analyst and a daughter of Saad el-Shazly, a distinguished Egyptian general and diplomat, he has been trying out new recipes on a coterie of relatives.

In a lucky break for his newest diners, Chinn found himself stranded when trying to fly to Riyadh to film the next season of Middle East Broadcasting Center's "Top Chef Middle East," in which he appears as an Arabic-speaking judge. "And I'd just spent my entire wardrobe budget!" Chinn jokes, well aware that colleagues in kitchens around the world are going through far greater travails.

"The restaurant industry is dead, and millions in our industry are unemployed," he says. "What are the margins for most top restaurants in big cities, with their expensive rents and overhead -- 4% to 8% maybe? And most of these aren't businesses with big lines of credit and won't get bailouts from lobbyists. It's a labor-intensive, capital-intensive business. So many will never return. It's like Wall Street: Once confidence in the system is lost, everything is bound to go straight off a cliff."

Chinn plates a dish at his original Restaurant Bobby Chinn in Hanoi. (Courtesy of Bobby Chinn)

Chinn, whose silk-draped Restaurant Bobby Chinn was the place to see and be seen in Hanoi in the late 1990s, says restaurants are "associated with intimacy, where we tell people we love them, ask them to marry, or just want to strengthen our bonds to people. We want a crowd, not empty spaces, and adding barriers will be costly and just won't work."

Belying his seriousness, Chinn adds, "Coming to cooking from the stock exchange wasn't that stressful for me. After losing millions of dollars on one trade, burning one steak was no big deal." But he thinks humans at the stove may become a thing of the past in a world in which smartphones are already taking over many functions, including in-house ordering. "What's the dirtiest thing in a restaurant? It's the menus everyone has pawed over. Nobody will want to hang out at the bar any longer, and as for waiters, let's just kill the waiters."

Chinn predicts that advances in automation, led by innovations already being developed by fast-food chains, will lead to meals that are largely assembled, cooked and served by robots. "The R&D for these machines will pay for itself as they will reduce waste, increase efficiency, and upsell through mining customer information," he says. There will be no need for tipping, either.

Top, Middle: Two Chinn signature dishes from London's House of Ho -- Lobster Noodles and Apple Smoked Pork Belly on Braised Cabbage. (Courtesy House of Ho) Bottom: Showing off a dosa while filming World Cafe Asia Chennai. (Courtesy of World Cafe Asia)

Still, Chinn also sees a big opportunity to bring eating back to a more human scale. As an "ambassador" for the World Wildlife Fund, focusing on sustainable seafood, he envisions a planet where "everyone eats fresher, smarter, more locally." At home, community-farmed ingredients will come delivered and homemakers will get lessons in "cooking through the cloud," he says, adding that "COVID has exposed flaws in our food system, our health system, our unequal societies."

Chefs "talk about respecting products and being sustainable; but those are First World problems," he adds. "No one cares about that here in Egypt. And 2 billion people still rely on insects for their protein. Warnings about climate change still seem like those gory pictures on cigarette packs that don't stop anyone from smoking. Deforestation and acidification are only going to increase, while the production of beef wastes so much water and feed [in places] where it's easier now to get a burger than a decent apple."

A vegetarian convert who studied plant-based diets at Cornell University in the U.S., Chinn says he does not share his customers' typical tastes in food. "I might have taken a bite of quail or salmon while I was cooking, but mostly I felt like some kind of drug dealer," he says. "I never touched the stuff I was peddling."

Chinn on camera for World Cafe Asia joining in to cook a "Devil’s Curry" in Jakarta. (Courtesy of World Cafe Asia)

With travel restricted, he thinks top chefs may have to give up business models based on long-distance pilgrimages by determined foodies and focus more on using technology to attract local traffic. During the lockdown, Chinn has been posting online chats with the heads of nongovernmental organizations and foundations that he befriended in Vietnam, and speaking remotely to groups such as Rotary Clubs in the Philippines.

He cites Vietnam as "the superstar" of the pandemic. "They were so prepared, after dealing with SARS and MERS," he says of the country where he launched his career as a head chef on the advice of his father, a consultant to the Vietnamese central bank. Yet even in Hanoi, Chinn says, he "watched my favorite Chinese restaurant thin out immediately" when COVID-19 emerged. As for Asia in general, he believes that traditional "mom and pop" businesses will continue to thrive while "anything associated with tourists is in big trouble."

With a planned project in Singapore on hold, could he ever see himself being a chef again? "I'd never say never, because I'd always be tempted to do something better where it's being done wrong. If there's a vaccine [against COVID-19], if there isn't civil unrest, if the environment doesn't collapse."

In the meantime, he has been plotting his next moves from his eyrie in Egypt, the land where, he says, "my military grandfather taught me at age 6 how to play chess strategically." Having used his time in Asia to go on numerous meditative retreats and study the detoxification and diet regimens of the region's health spas, the peripatetic Chinn is looking to create new vehicles through his media presence.

"Chefs are first and foremost healers. We wouldn't be in this business in the first place if we didn't want to make people happy," he says.

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