Half-Egyptian, half-Chinese TV host of Discovery channel's World Café, Chef Bobby Chinn, talks to Ahram Online after he breezed through Cairo on his once-a-year stopover in the Middle East and gave a workshop at the Fairmont Nile City Towers hotel.
Chef Bobby Chinn giving a class at Nile City Towers Hotel (Photo: PicsMeister)
Ahram Online: Has your Egyptian mom or eating Egyptian food in Egypt influenced your cooking? How?
Bobby Chinn: My mother has a huge influence on me even outside of food. There is emotional comfort in food, memories of food that take me back to childhood or even events where food plays a prominent role in my memory. I believe that when I create (as a cook), I have to have a certain amount of confidence regarding what I am doing and the ingredients that I am using. This comes by years of eating and is a constant never ending learning experience through trial and error, through research, observation and actually having a feeling of what it is supposed to taste like when all is said and done.
As an example: when I am creating something that I want to impart a little Arabic or Middle Eastern influence, I might add a spice or use the cooking techniques of an Arabic dish. I would use cumin powder in a gastric or toast cumin salad and add it to quinoa as simple example. My mother also has her own repertoire of dishes that I still replicate to this day and often make changes to them.
Chef Bobby Chinn giving a class at Nile City Towers Hotel (Photo: PicsMeister)
I was criticised by a journalist recently in Egypt for not trying to modernise Egyptian food, which is my soul food a real comfort food for me. For me, it would be sacrilegious to try and alter foul, fetta, molokheyya, tameyyaa, lentil soup, etc. Those dishes pose great memories and comfort with hundreds, if not thousands, of years of history and in my humble opinion should be honoured and respected, especially since they are tested and true. It would be like rearranging Mozart or reworking the harmonies of the Beattles. I have too much respect for the original, so that is something I am sure that is something my Egyptian roots have imparted onto me.
AO: How much time did you spend in Egypt growing up?
BC: I spent a total of two years on and off. One good year in 1972 where I returned to the states and then returned again after the 73 War for about a year. I didn't spend much time, but the time I spent had a colossal influence on me as I was very young and it was a time in my life that I cherish deeply. This is exactly why I return on a regular basis.
AO: Do you go out to eat in Egypt? If so, what is your favourite restaurant?
BC: Generally, my favourite restaurants in Cairo serve quintessentially Egyptian dishes that I cannot find outside of Egypt. I love the chicken liver dishes and the baby shawerma from Basha. The stuffed pigeon at Farahat and the grilled quail at Andrea's. The setting and the food at Sofitel Giza El Kebabgy; koshari in Tahrir. And I generally do not mind a passing foul or tameyya sandwiches from the street on occasion.
AO: How often do you visit Egypt?
BC: I do my best to visit once a year or once every two years at the worst. There are many fond memories with each and every trip to Cairo and that's what makes me come back time and time again. As one gets older, with the passing of time, the appreciation for family and friends becomes much more evident.
AO: What advice do you have for Egyptian chefs in particular?
BC: Cook with love, passion and pride. Never stop learning as the wheel of knowledge is in constant motion. Read as much as possible on the subject matter as the information is out there and readily available. Try to dedicate at least a thre hours per day reading and watching anything on food, trends, ingredients, cooking techniques, styles, ethnic, healthy foods, foods that cure, diet, technology, the list goes on and on.
Chef Bobby Chinn cooking dinner with other chefs at Nile City Towers Hotel (Photo: PicsMeister)
What is your favourite country in the world for tasty street food?
BC: There is great street food to be found all over the world. I cannot pinpoint one country that exceeds another. The street food in Asia is pretty impressive: Vietnam for Vietnamese food, Thailand for Thai, Malaysian and Singaporean food, probably Penang. I also had incredible street food in Syria and Istanbul, but the problem with street food these days is that it is disappearing and heading into buildings.
AO: How is it to work for a TV channel?
BC: I do not really see myself as working for a TV channel as much as I do working for a production company. Traveling around the world with a crew isn't easy. We work 15 hours a day, check into four hotels in eight days, and when you put a lot of hours together, day in and day out, there needs to be a lot of chemistry.
Bobby Chinn around the world! (Photo: Discovery's World Café TV show site)
That experience is much more immediate than waiting for the final product to air on TV. The TV appears much more as an afterthought when you are out in the zone as you are more into the moment and the experience. Once you finished filming, you pretty much know if you have a strong show or not. Only when it goes to postproduction do you see the show taking shape and form with the edits, the music etc. Once it becomes a TV show, it is only then that I feel like I am part of TV. Working with Discovery TLC is a privilege, a great pleasure and they are very kind to me and one of the best, if not the largest lifestyle channel in the world. I have no complaints. I am a lucky person.
AO: How did that come about?
BC: Strangely enough TV came to me and I embraced the opportunity when it did. I had appeared as a guest on several cookery shows in Vietnam with some pretty impressive networks like PBS and the BBC. I had been approached by several production companies but I did not feel I could contribute anything and felt more comfortable running my restaurant and cooking.
However, when someone decided to fly me business class and put me up in an expensive hotel to shoot a pilot I figured why not. I did not have a care in the world and when I saw the pilot, I actually thought I could contribute and do the job. When Discovery offered me World Café Asia, I had no idea what I was doing as far as being a presenter, but I knew that I could cook and I could learn on the job by asking a lot of questions. I just went with it and learned from great people, got good advice and did my best and that’s the most that can be asked of me.
AO: What is your favourite ingredient? Favourite spice?
BC: I really do not have a favourite spice or ingredient; it's based on what I'm inspired to cook or maybe an ingredient that I want to work with. I have a commitment issue when it comes down to my 'favourite' this and my 'favourite' that. I appreciate it all and not one ingredient overshadows another. If it does, it's only in a given moment of time because it changes all the time.
AO: Could you give us a favourite recipe based on Middle Eastern food that you put your own twist on?
BC: My grandmother taught me how to make bisteyya many years ago, since it is one of my favourte dishes that she cooked. I believe that my version is pretty good, since my grandmother tried it and thought it was good. Instead of using clarified butter with the phyllo, I use the rendered pigeon fat. I also like to use pistachio dust instead of almonds between the phyllo pastry with the powdered sugar and cinnamon.
I lightly dust the pigeon with cinnamon, which sits on a bed of herbs and onions with a little pigeon stock and I steam all that.
When I break down and debone the cooked pigeon I also remove the skin and separate it from the meat.
I mince the skin and toss it into the thicker shreds of pigeon meat for extra texture and I do not shred the breasts as much as they have a tendency to dry out.
I place it on a blend of sautéed spinach (squeezed of most moisture) with a hint of nutmeg. I toss steamed corn kernels on top and then the shredded meat mixture with the minced skin and wrap them into rectangular parcels and bake them until golden brown.
I reserve the bones and roast them in the oven until golden brown (they impart a wonderful flavour as the cinnamon is tamed over a long duration of cooking) then I reduce the stock into a rich pigeon sauce. This is paired with a roasted pigeon.
I also like the stuffed pigeon, but I like to remove all the bones, only leaving the lower leg bones so the pigeon is like a jump suit pajama.
We stuff it with three-four different types of grains; cous cous, quinoa, cracked wheat and amaranth, which are tossed with raisins and nuts. I steam them and instead of frying them, I simply add a glaze-like honey and cumin powder with a little butter and brown them under a salamander.