Guess who’s coming to dinner?

In the 1967 movie of the above title, a meet-the-parents dinner turned into a comedy of feuds. Joey Drayton was bringing her fiancé home for the first time. Mr. and Mrs. Drayton (played by real life couple Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy) were thrilled to meet their future son-in-law Dr. John Prentice (Sidney Poitier), until he walked through their door. Dr. Prentice was black, a fact their daughter neglected to mention.

The turn of events shows how the company one has at the dinner table matters over everything else.

The guest, Bobby Chinn

Bobby Chinn and Joelynn Chin. What a joker. He was imitating my pose and I was pretending not to notice.

So, what company would celebrity chef Bobby Chinn make?

I had the opportunity to dine with him two months ago, courtesy of a contest organised by StarMag and TLC. It was part of a publicity blitz for his new TV series, World Café: Middle East.

Food seemed to be the recurring theme in my life the past year, so I had the quiet confidence of winning. When the call came from the PR company on a Monday for dinner on Wednesday, I was pretty cool. I had already penciled the dinner date onto my calendar.

I could bring one guest along, so I called LK and AS. I thought they would jump at the opportunity, as we are hatching an idea to cater home-cooked food for small dinner parties.

Nope, busy and not interested.

I SMSed KL, who, like me, enjoys a good conversation over some makan.  She replied, ‘Don’t mind the dinner but not his company.’

Er… I took that to mean she would feel awkward eating with a stranger. I reassured her that it’s not just us. There would be other winners too, and I’m sure the PR handlers would be there to ensure we behave.

I didn’t know much about Bobby, so I Googled him to prepare myself with some conversation fodder. I paid heed to The Economist ad line Would you like to sit next to you at dinner?’

Woah!

There’s enough information about him for me to make some talk. But there’s even more on what people think of him. And boy, are they vocal and extreme. People either love him or loathe him.

A few more things got me worried. Like that incident at a Singapore awards show. The no-holds-barred comment that a dessert tasted like leather. And the spanking of dough while exclaiming something I would not want Daddy to hear.

Yikes! Did I just sign up for a pleasant evening or a long and painful night? If he turned out to be rude or obnoxious, I was prepared to walk out. But I was more worried about dragging my friend to an experience she would hate me for.

I could only hope for the best. I don’t know him personally and neither do those critics, so why not give him the benefit of the doubt?

I told KL, ‘Dinner with strange company and good food. What could be more interesting?’ I’m always up for a good chat, entertaining stories and learning new things.

D-day, no turning back

Wednesday came soon enough. Butterflies were making aeronautical spins in my tummy.

Dinner was booked at a Middle Eastern restaurant in a 5-star hotel in town. KL was running late so I killed time at the shopping centre across the road before heading to the hotel.

KL was already there. We met another winner (through a radio show), her husband and the PR people (whom I already know from working with a mutual client). Hors d’oeuvres were served while we waited. Bobby was apparently, busy gelling his hair.

Hey U!

We made our way to the restaurant and took our seats at tables arranged in a ‘U’ shape. KL and I took the seats nearest to us, just around the bend from the centre. The couple sat next to us, at one end of the ‘U’. The others, winners, bloggers, PR, were across. The middle was kept empty. I guess that’s where he’d be. Right in the middle. Of a U-shaped seating. Wouldn’t a round table be better for everyone? Oops! The place was not a Chinese restaurant.

The menu was handed out for us to choose our soup and main dish. Couldn’t see anything in the dim setting (just like Bobby’s restaurant in Hanoi?). We were not given a magnifying glass or reading light, so I had to use someone’s handphone to illuminate the tiny piece of paper. I have since downloaded a flashlight app onto my phone. Nifty!

As close as it gets

Bobby made an unassuming entrance and plonked down next to KL! Ooh! Goodie for her. She was close enough to notice that he has no wrinkles or pores! (She’s jealous of his complexion because they’re of the same age.)

Our usually hyper show host was a bit hmm… in the beginning. I put it down to jetlag (though he was up and about earlier hunting for roti canai) or having to repeat the same old stories in this publicity tour.

There was a screening of slides from his show. He talked a little about his experience filming it. Hiding his Arab heritage (his mother is Egyptian) from the Israeli immigration. The camel ruining his expensive linen shirt. Claiming the front seat of the jeep (this wasn’t part of the slideshow, it was just me being nosy).

After a few puffs of shisha (him, not us), dinner got off to a lukewarm start, like the mutton soup I was having (it would’ve been so much better heated up). I was like, what now? Did I come all the way here just to have cold soup?

Breaking the ice

I don’t remember if KL initiated a conversation with him, but I finally mustered enough courage to ask him something. I think it was about the eating culture in the Middle East. I had been to Syria and Jordan early 2010 and in late 2009, Morocco (okay, so this is technically in Africa).

Yeah… I miss those places, which led to my winning slogan: I can’t wait to watch Bobby Chinn’s journey through the Middle East because I want to relive my own journey through Morocco, Syria and Jordan through a different pair of eyes.

Back to my conversation starter. The waiters we came across in Morocco did not seem to understand our Asian concept of sharing dishes. You get one huge tajine and that’s yours and yours only. Order a dish and ask for a few small empty plates and the waiters get all confused. We gave up and dreamt of char koay teow, siew yok and nasi lemak as we OD-ed on tajine and couscous over three weeks.

Well, Bobby proved he was paying attention when he later shared his fish with me (since I didn’t get that Middle Eastern hospitality there), and with the others too. The fish wasn’t good. I told him Arabs don’t do seafood well. It’s either fried or grilled dry to the bone. No marinade or gravy.

I don’t remember what I had for my main dish. Lamb? The food did not make an impression. I’m not sure if it’s because it was really not up to standard or because I have eaten the real deal in its country of origin. I still yearn for the baklava from Syria, even though I don’t have a sweet tooth.

KL liked the french fries the best. I told her maybe it’s because they were real potatoes, not the reconstituted kind you get with your burger.

Summary, Bobby Chinn’s company was better than the food. He was attentive, kept the conversation going, obliging and not at all obnoxious.

By the night’s end, Bobby had grown on me (and KL too). I even told him too bad he had to be at the radio station the next morning. I would’ve taken him to the market in Chinatown. Yeah, right. I can’t even speak Cantonese. (That’s why I keep going back to the same fishmonger in my neighbourhood – she speaks English!)

Besides dinner with him, we also got his book, Vietnamese Food. He took the trouble to pen a personal message for everyone instead of a hurried signature. Even though he was itching to take off to Jalan Alor for the hawker food!

Yes, give me kaki lima (5-footway) over 5-star anytime. As an ad man wrote, ‘You can’t eat atmosphere.

I didn't realise the 20/10/2010 date until he signed the book. Yes, Bobby. I've been messing up my kitchen with 4 recipes so far. Fresh spring rolls, chicken noodle soup, Hanoi calamari salad and sweet & sour fish soup. Am getting the hang of Vietnamese cooking. Cám ơn!

Bobby the Sequel?

I was hoping this would be a lead-in to another story on another meeting with Bobby. I had entered a Nescafe Gold contest dangling a Grand Prize of a trip to Hanoi, to meet Bobby at his restaurant. Wouldn’t it be ‘funny’ to see him again? ‘Hey Bobby, it’s me, again!’

And maybe this time I’d tell him we share the same surname, minus the one ‘n’. So lame…

Just before I balik kampung to Penang for Christmas, I got a call from Discovery Channel Singapore informing me that I was shortlisted for the Grand Prize.

KL could not make it as my travel partner, so I told my Mum to be on standby. Yes, Bobby is safe enough tfor your parents to meet. Mum did not get ‘standby’ and went ahead to make her passport.

Alas, I only got a consolation prize. So Joelynn Chin does not get to meet Bobby Chinn again. Excuse me while I console myself with my Nescafe Gold milkshake : (

My consolation prize-winning Nescafe Gold milkshake. Sinful!

I could be flying to Hanoi today…

Note: I’ve tried four recipes from Bobby’s book. Check out my other blog http://justfollowtherecipe.wordpress.com/ in a couple of days or next week. I’ve been busy and procrastinating.  Have not updated it for yonks.

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9 responses to this post.

  1. It was great to met you, jet lag ruled my life at the time so I was struggling to stay awake . I hope I was warmer than the soup though! I’ve got the winners of the Nescafe Gold contest coming to the restaurant tomorrow where I can guarantee the food will be better. I’m doing my signature tasting menu for them. Sorry you didn’t win this time 😦 but you can cook some of the dishes from my book and have dinner with me that way instead!

    Reply

    • At least you were not yawning… My annoyed Account Director made a bet yesterday that if I do not yawn even once during her briefings (I’m a natural yawner), she’ll take me out for lunch. So, any tips on stifling yawns?

      No worries. You were toasty enough to melt butter.

      Tasting menu. Nice! I love platters. I like a little bit of everything, like a takeaway sushi tray.

      Yeah, already cooking. Four so far. Next is the pumpkin soup (I haven’t found the ultimate one yet) and doughnut on stick. Now that I’m doing something about it (actually cooking instead of just talking about it), I appreciate food even more – the ingredients, the people who produce them (local ingredients are increasingly harder to find, especially if you shop at the supermarket), the science of combining tastes and textures…

      Reply

  2. I forgot to ask, together are we a double chin/n?

    Reply

    • Ha ha! Good serve. Didn’t see that coming. The only tease I ever got for my name was its association with Botak (bald) Chin. Infamous criminal (long dead) who stole from the rich and gave some to the poor.

      Hmm.. if you ever need a co-host for your future series (where next?) we could be the Double Chin(n). Look me up. I’ll audition.

      How did you get that extra ‘n’ anyway? Miscommunication during registration? That’s what happened with my grandma’s family name. She’s Eurasian Dutch but her name sounds Malay – Jalleh. I think the original sounded like ‘jelly’ or ‘jally’ and in those days, literacy wasn’t very good…

      Reply

  3. Keep me posted if you win an Anthony Bourdain contest!

    Reply

  4. Posted by Swee on January 12, 2011 at 9:13 am

    Who is the next chef you want to dine with? I like the double Chin/n 🙂

    Reply

    • There’s always something to learn from any chef. But if I could pick, Jamie Oliver. When he first started out on TV, I used to wish I was one of his friends or special guests (he invited everyone from his movers to his supply people) in his living room. They looked like they were having so much fun. And his a cook for the blokes. A bit of this, a bit of that, lots of bashing around… I also admire his efforts for Fifteen and healthier eating in schools. I think his next cause should be portion control. We are eating more than we need to and restaurant servings are often enough for two. It’s the supersize thing lah. You think you’re getting more value, but really, you’re just killing yourself. If you have an iPod, download his podcasts, Ministry of Food. Easy-peasy recipes.

      Rachel Ray is another one I would love to dine with. All her guests rave about how well fed they are on her show. She’s down-to-earth too. I’ve never tried her recipes though. Too much carb, cream and starch.

      Reply

    • Actually, on second thoughts, I would love to have dinner with our unsung heroes and national treasures. The hawkers, kopitiam fellas, talented family cooks…

      A few on my list:
      Jalan Batai wan tan mee (corner shop) and pork noodles (middle shop)
      Changkat Tung Shin char siew (now at Jalan Alor)
      The long dead guy who made the crispiest roti canai near my brother’s school
      Segambut seafood noodles
      The fellas who still keep the Coliseum and Yut Kee running
      Gunpowder pan mee near Chow Kit
      Mat Ali from my school canteen who made the best Malay style roti canai
      The porridge guy at the Soong Kee beef ball noodles place
      The Vietnamese lady who makes beef ball noodles and Vietnamese spring roll at the Ampang Park food court (don’t know whether it’s still there)
      The claypot chicken rice place that used to be at the Empire Tower (( think the name has changed) food court
      Benjamin Yoong of the Delicious Group
      The guy who made the best puri ever at the Butterworth bus terminal before it burned down

      Reply

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