Bobby Chinn is half Chinese, half Egyptian, raised in England, lived in San Francisco and New York and now based in Hanoi. He is one of the most respected chefs in Asia. Coming from a family of great cooks, Bobby has always been passionate about food and he was taken under the wings of various cutting edge San Francisco chefs – Hubert Keller, Gary Danko and Traci des Jardine where he learnt his trade. His series on Asia is being filmed for Discovery. He has also appeared in the UK on BBC2’s Saturday Kitchen and Full On Food. A must read is his best selling book Wild, Wild East, Recipes & Stories from Vietnam published by http://www.conran-octopus.co.uk
Nha Tho Street is now known as Church Street for the miniature replica Notre Dame Cathedral that stands at the end of the road. The street has become a tourist destination filled with some of Hanoi’s finest boutiques and restaurants while dictating some of the highest rents in the city. This wide tree lined street used to be a quiet residential neighbourhood back in 1996 even though it was in the heart of the city just off Hoan Kiem Lake. Moca Café, situated on Church Street, was one of a kind that brought much attention to this area, transforming it into what it is today.
Moca Café was a converted colonial convent. It was unusually large, as they had converted two spaces making it wide with sweeping views of the street. The space was unique with glass windows that could slide freely from one side to the other leaving a large breezy space, giving it an almost ‘open air’ feel to those seated by the front windows. The walls were wonderful old bricks that lined both flanks of the room, with a marble fireplace that would be quite cosy during the cold wintry months. Art deco in style, it was furnished with white marble tables and Frank Lloyd Wright chairs, giving the establishment one of, if not, the finest looking casual dining space Vietnam had yet to see. The high ceilings allowed for additional seating area with a converted loft like landing that flanked the perimeters of the room. In the front, an antique brass coffee roaster stood by the door, churning out freshly roasted coffee.
Jeff, an American from New Orleans, was the mastermind behind the design and layout of the place. A managing partner he was one of the most colourful characters within the growing expat community. Rich in experiences and stories that were so wide and varied he was nicked named Zelig after the Woody Allen movie. He had opened probably the best independent restaurant in Hanoi at the time and it was an incredible achievement. Moca Café was an instant success, serving three distinctly different cuisines: Vietnamese, Indian, and Western, not to mention on-the-floor roasted coffee. It was one of the first packed western managed restaurants attracting Vietnamese, expat and tourist alike.
It had been a year since its successful opening and although the place was always jam packed, it was now becoming more run down by the lack of cleaning and maintenance. Jeff had called me up to ask if I knew of anyone who could install a thermo-regulator for his Wolf range oven. I immediately suggested that I bring over Willie, Chief Engineer at the Hanoi Tower’s and Vu Son from the purchasing department. Together they could assist with additional parts, as well as, expertise or staff that could assist. Willie was from Singapore, and always made it a point to show off his knowledge of everything concerning anything that touched upon engineering. He was very proud of his engineering triumphs and his operation. Vu Son, being the purchaser, was very close to Willie, as he needed to keep Willie updated on all the new fixtures, spare parts, prices and engineering items that were making it’s way into the local market. They would take the company van on Saturday to source for supplies for the Hanoi Towers. I decided to join them and take them on a slight detour towards Moca Café for a coffee so that Jeff could coincidentally show up giving him the opportunity to tell us about his equipment failure. Knowing Willie, he would give free advice and probably assist, if asked. We arrived at Jeff’s establishment on what was typically a busy Saturday afternoon. We luckily arrived when a table by the window was leaving and ordered our coffees when Jeff magically appeared. Looking a little frazzled like he had already had more then his fair share of coffee I made the introductions.
‘Jeff, let me introduce you to Willie and Son. Willie runs the engineering department and Son runs the purchasing department. Jeff is the proud owner of Moca.’
After a couple of minutes of formalities Jeff slowly made his request.
‘Hey, you wouldn’t know how to install a thermo-regulator would you?’
To my surprise Willie did not know what a thermo-regulator was, and Jeff looked a little perplexed and became rather undiplomatic.
‘What? You don’t know what a thermo-regulator is?’
Jeff quickly turned to me and glared, wondering how they could help.
Willie calmly replied, ‘I know what a thermostat is, and I know what a gas regulator is, but I have never installed a thermo-regulator’.
Jeff immediately turned to me waving off Willie and Son.
‘I’d be fucked if you think that I am going to let him touch my oven if he doesn’t even know what a thermo regulator is!’
Willie threw me a glance of surprise and I was not sure if it was because my friend was rude or simply because I had roped him into a little free consulting without his consent. I simply brushed it off and focused on getting Jeff to calm down.
‘Now slow down Tiger, we are here to help you.’ With that I gave him a slow glacial nod, staring deep into his eyes with the hope that he would remember that they were coming out of their way to assist him. Hoping that he would mellow out I then turned to Willie
‘He is having a YIV day’ (Your In Vietnam) it was a code, a reminder for expats that culture shock was kicking in but the person that was experiencing it did not recognize it. It was a phrase that we all learned to use.
Willie tilted his head and approved reluctantly. Turning to Jeff, I asked, ‘Jeff why don’t you show us the oven, then we can all see what you are talking about’
Jeff proceeds to tell us what a thermo-regulator is as we get up and make our way towards the kitchen
‘A thermo regulator is an instrument that regulates the temperature of the oven based on the setting, which in turn regulates the gas to ensure that a temperature is retained continuously. So if you open the door, a lot of the heat is lost, so the regulator increases the gas flow to bring the heat back up to the temperature that it is set to.’
We walk pass all the diners and entered his western kitchen which is connected to the bar. The kitchen was one of the first ‘open’ kitchens in Vietnam, with most other operators knowing full well that hygiene would be a deterrent to anyone ambitious enough to even consider a display kitchen in those early days. To the side lay what appeared to be a brand new 6 top Wolf range oven in the midst of a lot of the used locally fabricated equipment that surrounded it. It supposedly worked the first day or a couple of minutes according to Jeff. Someone had installed it without checking the manual first, or not knowing what a thermo regulator is, and within a couple of minutes the oven door blew open with fire and never worked again. Everything looked fine until I opened the oven door to the stench of what reminded me of the lion cages at the San Francisco Zoo. The smell was so over powering that Willie and Son took another couple of steps behind me as the smell hit them with equal offence. They also gave the space a quick inspection running their eyes over the kitchen and then finishing with me, looking appalled by the filth.
The base of the oven was a large steel plate that covered the major heat source.
‘The thermo-regulator is below this steel plate?’, I asked.
‘Yeah,’ replied Jeff, ‘I think so, that is what I need help with. I don’t know as we lost the manual’
‘Ok, do you have a screwdriver with a Philip head?’ asked Willie
Willie and Son looked like they were both ready to bolt.
‘We can come back later if you don’t have a Phillip head’
‘No, let’s do this now or it will never happen,’ I said with finality.
I reached into my pockets and pulled out my Swiss army knife, kneeling down onto the grease riddled floor I took a deep breath of fresh air and on my hand and knees, using the finger file, I began to unscrew the oven’s base. My head now deep in the lions cage I was struggling not to gag from the nauseating smell when coming up for air I plaintively would look at Jeff hoping to see some recognition of the true friendship I was showing him by doing this disgusting job. But all I could see in his eyes was impatience and a caffeine haze.
Once the base was removed, the heating system of the oven was exposed; two parallel cast iron plates designed to radiate the heat throughout the oven as well as help to hold its temperature. Beneath those plates ran the gas lines for the heating system. From the corner of my eye, I could have sworn I saw something move in the darkness of the oven from one pipe to the other. I looked at Jeff and said, ‘Did you see that?
I then kicked the oven and then clearly saw a rat run from one pipe back to the other, hiding beneath the shelter of the cast iron plate. This time it was clear that there was a rat in the oven, as its tail was exposed. I quickly jumped up on the plastic stool.
‘Dude you got a rat in the oven!’ I screamed
He quickly hushed me
‘Come on man I got customers!’
He then proceeded to lean over to the prep table in front of the oven and quickly removed the 12-inch chef knife that sat on the table and then fell on his knees. He slammed the blade down on the exposed tail of the rat as it quickly ran to the shelter of the other gas pipe. He slams the knife again this time over the left gas pipe, where a pair of rats ran from left to right. I quickly turn to the bewildered Willie and Son who by now looked further and further from getting any closer to the oven, let alone taking on the responsibility of installing a thermo-regulator.
‘My God, it’s two rats!’
Frantically hacking away, back and forth in between the pipes, on top of the cast iron plates, he desperately tried to kill the rats. He looked like he had just lost his mind as more and more rats were sent running back and forth, through the guillotine of his Heinkel knife. The rats were now bumping into each other, as more and more rats appeared colliding with each other. It seemed apparent to me as well as to the rats that they were doomed in the congested space of the oven and that their only chance of survival was to quickly storm the executioner. And in one sudden moment, the rats charged. Leaping out of the oven, the horde of rats ran over Jeff as he fell on his back by the shock of it all, knife in hand slashing out like a musketeer. One after the other, they ran, some limping, some with bloodied bodies, some with tails, some without. Like a mad man he rotated the knife, waving it aimlessly in vain as the rats literally jumped over him in their great escape. There I stood on the low plastic stool but this time my words were filled with resonance and colour.
“Oh my God! You have tons of rats!’
His index finger quickly rushes over his mouth as he lay there on the floor now bloodied by the rats…
‘Shhhhhhhush! I have customers!’
I turn to the dining room packed with diners enjoying their food, oblivious of the present state of the kitchen. Turning back to the kitchen Jeff was now back on his feet with his knife in hand, he turns to Willie and Son
‘Where did they all go?’
Willie wide eyed pointed to the inside kitchen.
‘They went that way’
Son pointed into the opposite direction, changed his mind and went with Willie’s suggestion. The kitchen floor was laced with a trail of blood that seemed to run off in many directions. Jeff did not know what to do as the pack of rats escaped into the larger dining area that was packed. He then placed his chef knife back to the prep table. It was now dented and stained with blood from all the tails he had successfully amputated. A prep cook arrived with a bucket of peeled potatoes in water and placed a chopping board on the wet towel, picked up the knife and proceeded to chop up a potato. I felt the need to bear more bad news to Jeff, without words. Clearing my throat loudly until I got Jeff’s attention. My eyes darted towards the prep cook cutting away at the potatoes with a bloody knife. Jeff’s eyes rolled up into his head and then fell into a deeper state of despair. He slowly placed his hands on the hands of the cook, then removed the knife and placed it in the sink and then says:
‘Don’t ask, please don’t ask!’
The confused cook stood there staring at Jeff, then to me standing on a plastic stool petrified from the thought of a rat attack, while in the middle of the kitchen two horrified members of management from the Hanoi Towers stood there in shock.
At that point Willie suggested, ‘Do you want to do this another time?’
Jeff propped a smile, which lacked any form of ingenuity and agreed, ‘Yeah let me fix things up here and I will give you a call when I am ready. Can you do me a favour? Please don’t mention this to anyone?’
Willie agreed, but it was a tall order. They never fixed that oven. I had not eaten there since that incident. I also kept the story close to my chest until the day he was kicked out by his partner. I later hired Jeff to help me open my restaurant. He ran the bar, trained the bar staff on our prolific cocktail list.
Jeff is probably one of the most entertaining bartenders I have ever met. I have yet to meet anyone who could talk with close to encyclopaedic knowledge on any subject.
We still get a giggle out of the encounter with the rats.
© Bobby Chinn