What do Vietnam-based TV chef Bobby Chinn and McDonald’s have in common? Not much, it would seem. But go back four years through Word’s archives and an unlikely story rears its long forgotten head.
In January 2009 it was announced that Restaurant Bobby Chinn on the southwest corner of Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem Lake would be closing down. An emblem of the earliest attempts to fuse western and Vietnamese cuisine, the eatery had catapulted its same-named restaurateur to international fame. Born in New Zealand to an Egyptian mother and a Chinese-American father, Chinn’s lead role in the Discovery Network TV series, World Café: Asia, had brought him far-reaching acclaim. Eccentric, flamboyant and a provocateur extraordinaire, Chinn’s penchant for controversy divided opinion — admiration on one side mixed with disdain on the other.
At the same time, McDonald’s was in its latest round of negotiations to gain entry to Vietnam. A protracted affair delayed by issues over food sourcing and real estate ownership — McDonald’s is not just a burger chain but one of the world’s largest real estate portfolios — by early 2009 local partners had been announced and it seemed that this country would finally get the Big Mac. Quickly rumours dispersed themselves around the capital — Restaurant Bobby Chinn would be transformed into the country’s first McDonald’s. One of the haters, Photoshop skills at the ready, posted an online image of Chinn flipping burgers. For a few weeks the foreign community in Hanoi was in an uproar. And of course McDonald’s 2009 entry to Vietnam was stalled.
Four Years Later
Recent reports that the American burger chain will open its first restaurant in January 2014 have officially put an end to Vietnam being a McDonald’s-free zone. With the success of Starbucks’ first outlet in Ho Chi Minh City — the queues continue to flow out the door — it is believed that McDonald’s will be equally popular. The local franchisee, Henry Nguyen, has a track record of bringing other worldwide fast food chains into Vietnam — Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, Subway and Pizza Hut. He also has unsurpassable marriage-based influence with the powers that be, suggesting that he may well be the perfect local partner. In addition the arrival of McDonald’s is symbolic of the economic and social sea change experienced by this country in the past three decades. Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis — times change, and we change with them.
At the same time, Bobby Chinn has once again undergone a reversal of fortunes. At the end of 2011 he moved his operations to Saigon with the opening of his latest restaurant. Intended to replace and replicate the eatery that brought him fame in Hanoi, despite the eye-catching décor and the central location, the Saigon endeavour in Kumho Link never quite achieved the heights of his lakeside eatery in the capital. Last month he officially put an end to his involvement with Ho Chi Minh City.
That the fortunes of McDonald’s and Bobby Chinn have gone hand in hand is no more than a coincidence — the connection is ironic. And no matter what your thoughts about Vietnam’s best-known TV chef, you cannot help but feel sorry for him. The food and beverage industry in Vietnam is tough at the moment, and he is not the only restaurateur to experience its pain.
But one thing’s for sure, he won’t be flipping burgers at McDonald’s any day soon. Although news has it that he’s opening a lobster and burger bar in London. — Nick Ross