BackEat & Drink » [Video] How Obama’s Bún Chả Dinner Came to Be

[Video] How Obama’s Bún Chả Dinner Came to Be

When Obama visited Hanoi last May, he made a number of positive developments during his trip: lifted a 50-year-old arms embargo, witnessed the signing of a US$11.3 billion business deal, heralded the beginnings of a Fulbright University in Vietnam and generally won the hearts of the Vietnamese people.

But perhaps the most documented moment of Obama’s trip was when he tucked into a bowl (or two) of bún chả with American chef Anthony Bourdain, giving birth to the now-popular suất Obama and pretty much guaranteeing Bun Cha Huong Lien business for life.

Yesterday evening, the Parts Unknown episode featuring President Obama aired on American television. Though it’s not yet available online, much fanfare has been made about the historic US$6 meal which, according to Bourdain, was nearly a year in the making.

Long before the pair sat down on those plastic stools, Bourdain writes, the White House reached out to him about the possibility of sharing a meal with the president. Though they discussed several venues for filming, when Bourdain learned that the president would be visiting Vietnam, there was no question about where they would meet.

“I thought if the President is willing to play with us, then I should show him the best time I knew how, feed him something that I would want – in the kind of setting I most enjoy,” the chef shares on CNN.

And thus, the fateful bún chả dinner was born. Given the usual tenor of Parts Unknown, its host knew he wanted the setting to be intimate and a little more personal. It would seem off, Bourdain thought, to dine with the president in a banquet hall or some high-end, air-conditioned, five-star restaurant. And though the Secret Service were less than enthused by his request to hang out with the locals, Obama’s team made it work.

Equally important, of course, was the food itself. Instead of opting for a standard representative dish, Bourdain wanted to pick a meal that would showcase a bit more of the country’s range than the oft-mentioned phở. As he puts it: “Bún chả is NOT a national dish.”

Their meal was a secret until the very last minute: according to Bourdain, nobody – not the producers, not the camera crew, not CNN – knew about their dinner plans until the day before.

When it finally happened, things went off without a hitch. The Secret Service managed to secure a small, narrow shopfront on a crowded street, the neighbors around Bun Cha Huong Lien were thrilled to meet President Obama and the event itself was less of an interview and more of just two guys enjoying a good meal.

What Bourdain didn’t bargain for was his own fame by proxy. The next day, as photos of their dinner flooded local newspapers and media outlets, people began approaching him on the street. “Mr. Bun Cha!” they called him.

“The effect was extraordinary,” he writes. “I cannot possibly overstate the warmth with which [Obama] was received by the Vietnamese.”

In the end, the dinner was an opportunity not only for Bourdain to introduce the leader of the free world to one his favorite meals but for the everyday culture of Vietnam to shine on its own. Though we’re still waiting to view an online version of the episode over here, Parts Unknown’s host certainly talks it up.

“As the show will remind you, Vietnam remains an extraordinarily beautiful place,” he writes. “It is enchanting. Its people, for as long as I've been going there, warm, food crazy, hospitable and proud.”

[Video via CNN]

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