Tell us about yourself, where you’re from, and how you started as a chef.
I was born in Auckland, New Zealand to an Egyptian mother and a Chinese-American father. I studied in the public school system in San Francisco, two private schools in Cairo, Egypt, and I got a BA in finance and economics in England. I left in search of something; anything, that I loved. I tried a bit of everything – from attempting to sell seafood to the mob, to stand-up comedy – and along the way, I also discovered my love and talent for cooking. I have been a hugely popular culinary figure throughout Asia, both for my two highly-regarded restaurants in Vietnam, and for the award-winning TV series, World Café, which I had hosted on Discovery TLC for the past six years.
You’re half-Egyptian, half Chinese; how has the food culture of both countries affected your culinary taste?
I was exposed to a wide variety of cuisines at a very early age and I was open to try anything. Egyptian Chefs have their own dishes and their comfort food, Mexicans and the Chinese have their comfort food as well, but as an international person I enjoy cooking just about anything. I can cook foul and tameya, koshari, beryani, Mexican, Chinese, Thai, French ,Californian and Indian food.
How did you first discover you wanted to be a chef?
It seemed like it was natural progression because I had two grandmothers from two different cultures; they were always there for me and they taught me how to cook. Professionally, however, I think it was more than ego; it’s about having skills that cannot be denied. If you have your skills, your techniques and the required knowledge, you’ll be able to experience new things and acquire new ideas in the culinary field.
Do you ever try to reinvent or recreate local Egyptian food? Why/why not?
No, because Egyptian food cannot be recreated. It’s democratic food; how can you change foul or koshari? I don’t like to change or temper with anything so culturally-bound; it’s impossible to. The main reason for that is that Egyptian food is cooked for the people; it’s a kind of “comfort food” that has the same effect on me when I cook it or eat it, bringing back memories and warmth.
What makes Middle Eastern cuisine special?
Middle Eastern cuisine is very unique and special. It has been influenced by Armens cuisine, which was cooked by great chefs. They mixed and matched and created a variety of astounding dishes alongside the influence of Syrian, Iraqi and Persian cuisine. These dishes were prevalent because they were created using some really great techniques, so it’s very neutral food. It’s impossible for one to find what they don’t like as opposed to, for instance, Thai food that wouldn’t suit someone who doesn’t favour a spicy touch.
Are there any chefs in particular that have inspired you to cook for a living?
Of course! There are a lot of great chefs who have engendered unique ideas. Some have developed ideas of what food should be created, treated and managed. Chefs like Gaggan Anand create brilliant molecular food, though I am not big fan of that particular food, but I really respect and appreciate the creativity of what can be done with modern cuisine using these modernist techniques. I was also influenced by those who taught me in the streets in Bangkok as well as in many other countries in Asia. I travel often so I’m always learning. Chefs don’t have to be famous to inspire and teach you, they only have to be good.
Tell us how you made it to Top Chef Middle East
My TLC TV show, World Café, let me travel the world, and I’ve lately been willing to film something in the Middle East. I think it’s not easy to do great shows in the Middle East because no one expects a guy with the name of Bobby Chinn to speak Arabic, let alone understand the culture. I was thankful that the executive producer of Top Chef was able to see my abilities; he offered me the role and I accepted.
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