Sharks' fin? Chef Bobby Chinn suggests alternative

by Vincent Paul A. Garcia,

Posted at Jun 11 2014 03:01 PM | Updated as of Jun 12 2014 02:39 AM

MANILA -- It was one sunny morning in June. A deceivingly languorous-looking man dressed in a black v-neck shirt, baggy pants and a fedora made his way upfront and asked us what we wanted him to cook for us.

He was, of course, world-renowned chef Bobby Chinn, who flew in from London the night before to celebrate Coral Triangle Day last June 9 in one of the many island coves in Nasugbu, Batangas.

Celebrity chef Bobby Chin promotes sustainable seafood alternatives and viable solutions to protect the Coral Triangle. Photo taken from WWF-Philippines Facebook page

The olive-skinned ambassador for the World Wide Fund (WWF) For Nature was about to do a cooking demonstration of his seared snapper head dish with dipping sauce, which is seen to be an alternative to the infamous shark's fin soup.

"Shark's fin. Doesn't do anything for you. Leave the sharks alone," he said.

Chinn opened the session by poking fun at the Chinese and the lengths they went through to impress their emperors with bizarre dishes -- which ranged from bird's nest soup and mercury pills said to bring eternal life.

"Bird's nest! Another funny one. It's like someone was passing by and said, 'I think it would be a good idea for you to climb the side of a mountain, get the puke of a bird that's making a nest and serve it to the emperor," he quipped.

Chinn -- who stands at 5-foot-7 -- was a former stand-up comedian. Born in New Zealand with Chinese and Egyptian blood, he also became a Wall Street broker and a shoestring boy.

But it was his job as a waiter in one of the restaurants in San Francisco, which exposed him to the culinary world, that led him to discover his passion for the kitchen and inspired him to move to Vietnam in 1996.

"I went there to do something I believed in. It was a good place to fail because nobody knew me. I could take that risk, I could give life a try and fulfill my dreams," he said.

On his maiden year in the country, he opened two restaurants -- Saigon Joe and Nero -- which both went under shortly after making its respective marks in Saigon and Hanoi. "I was like a non-profit organization. I should have gotten a tax deduction," Chinn said.

His harrowing debut, however, failed to dent his dream as he soon tried his hand for a third time, which led to the opening of his first eponymously named restaurant in 2001.

"One of the things you have to do is fail to get creative but most of us are too scared of failing. So as a result, we end up doing something we didn't really want to do because we didn't want to take the risk. You got to fail to learn. So I went to Vietnam to fail," he admitted.

Chinn soon became a household name in the culinary world as he starred in his own television show for the renamed cable channel Discovery Network Travel and Living, now known as TLC.

His career in television spanned more than two years, where he tried out hundreds of local dishes around the Middle East and Asia, including a short stop in the Philippines.

"Is that not beautiful?" he asked as he pulled out the snapper head to boil, his voice inviting the members of the press to share in his excitement.

He was making two sample dishes for the day's lunch -- Tuna Tatare and Spicy Mango Salsa on Grilled Snapper. Both dishes were meant to show how to properly prepare sustainable seafood alternatives, but also revealed Chinn's minimalist approach to cooking.

Tuna Tartare as prepared by television chef Bobby Chin. Photo taken from WWF-Philippines Facebook page

"Food is about texture and contrasting flavors. It doesn't have to be pretty and this is where the French gets an extra anal because they are anal," he said, while adding bits of pistachio on a plate to go alongside a serving of his tuna dish.

Chinn admitted that he is not as creative in his plating nor his dishes as most are led to believe and that he sees the art of cooking as "problem solving."

He recalled a Vietnamese dish he couldn't make, describing it as a sweet and sour beef broth. He said that he watched the locals intently, not wanting to feel embarrassed about failing at his craft, but for some reason, he just could not do the dish right.

"If you can't make it the right way then you start getting creative," he said.

He soon began experimenting, treating it as some sort of math problem, looking for different solutions on how to arrive at the final product. And after having a "eureka" moment, he came up with an entirely different way of cooking the dish and served it to the Vietnamese.

"They were all saying to me, you understand the Vietnamese taste. And I felt really honored because I still wasn't doing it right the way," he said, while doing his best impression of a local's accent.

Chinn explained that he continually learns from his staff and from the different people he meet around the world. A self-stylized "ethnic mutt," his dishes are often a blend of his favorites from the countries he stayed in, studied, and loved.

"This is the profession that you'll never know everything and that you can always learn something new," he said.

After his session, we took a bite of his two dishes. One had to commend how the pistachio did add texture to the tuna's punchy flavor and the spicy kick at end of the "undercooked" snapper head (according to Chinn) was a welcome surprise.

The fast-talking chef ended with some upbeat recap of everything he wanted us to learn about sustainable alternatives, which culminated with a simple "thank you."

As he bid farewell, he did leave most of us craving, not only for more of his mix-and-match dishes, but more of his stories from the behind the kitchen door, and how it felt to taste the flavors of the world.