Archive for the ‘books’ Category

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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Pass it Forward

‘Pass it forward’ is the new ‘hand-me-down’. I am no stranger to pre-loved stuff, having grown up  wearing clothes from cousins, aunts and jumble sales. As long as it’s still good, pass it on. Back when we lived in Kuching, we even passed on old clothes to the orang asli, in exchange for the food they came to sell.

Despite its noble intention, giving away used items is less welcome these days. It’s hard to even find a church or charity organisation that would accept old clothes or books. Cash is much preferred, thank you.

So where do our now unused stuff go to? Clothes that have gotten too tight? DVDs watched once? Trinkets we’ve grown tired of? It’s a shame to throw them away. Till they find new owners, they crowd our cupboards or grow mould in forgotten boxes.

That’s where they have remained until my friend Kam Leng started to pass me books, magazines and DVDs she has no need for anymore. She herself got them from friends who gave them away.

So that’s what I’m doing now. I also pass my books and DVDs to her, and she’s free to pass them on when she’s done with them. This exchange benefits both of us and others down the line. We get to clear our cupboards, and make room for new books and DVDs, which we don’t have to fork out money for.

I must admit, it was hard at first to let my things go. But I know that I would never read those books or watch those movies twice, so why not let someone else enjoy them?

Buy No Presents

I was at a bookstore with Geri when she wanted to buy a book I already had. I told her not to waste her money. I would give her my copy. She asked me to wrap it up and give it to her for Christmas. That’s not a bad idea.

Giving something you own as a gift doesn’t mean you’re a scrooge. Not if it’s something you love and cherish.

Haanim’s family made a rule one Christmas that no presents would be bought that year. The gift would have to be something that you love given away or something that you made yourself. What a great idea for a new tradition! I think that makes Christmas less commercial and more meaningful. It’s not about presents that you can easily get off the shelf, but a true gift that someone has put some thought into.

Garage Party

Another great way to pass on your things is to invite friends over for a party and let them choose what they want. Ro did just that when she hosted a get-together for a few girls from our travel group. We got to choose our ‘party favours’ from a pile of things that needed new homes. I selected two bowls, a few sauce plates and a belt. They have all been put to good use. I’ve even received a compliment for a look that was jazzed up with that belt, so thank you, Ro.

The bowl that Ro gave. I love the flowery shape of the mouth. Simple yet elegant.