When Anthony Bourdain Invited Obama to Dinner… in Hanoi

Landing in Hanoi, I knew shockingly little about what to anticipate. At the very least the environment have been acquainted. Heading into city from the airport, my automobile was adrift within the typical sea of motorbikes, some carrying well-dressed commuters in fits or excessive heels, others laden with an not possible cargo, like a mattress or a household of eight, toddler perched on the handlebars.

Out the window handed bigger buildings and an ever-increasing variety of new retail retailers and neon lights, but in addition simply as many eating places with these low plastic stools as there’d at all times been. Since my first journey to Vietnam a decade in the past, I’d discovered it was a kind of uncommon locations with the power to vary as a lot because it stayed the identical. However so far as our shoot was involved, there was going to be one moderately important distinction this time.

It was Might 2016, and President Barack Obama was touring by means of Asia, solidifying help for the Trans-Pacific Partnership commerce deal and, for some motive, taking day trip of his busy schedule to have a meal with Tony on digicam. I couldn’t wrap my head round how or why it was occurring or that we’d even handed the background checks. However this was no time to ask questions. Regardless of all of the bewildering shit we’d executed through the years, this promised to be essentially the most spectacular, insane, fantastic, and terrifying expertise but. That’s, if I didn’t fuck it up.

The Secret Service had warned that within the curiosity of safety we have been to inform completely no person concerning the shoot. Not important others, not dad and mom, not Vietnamese members of the crew, not even the digicam guys. If phrase leaked, the shoot wouldn’t occur. This introduced a slight drawback, as Vietnam was a kind of international locations the place authorities minders are supposed to trace your each transfer, and there was so much that also wanted to be discovered and organized over the following week earlier than the shoot started. Particularly, the place would we be filming the scene with Tony and President Obama?

“You don’t negotiate with the Secret Service,” I mentioned. “We’re fortunate it’s even occurring.”

“Belief me,” Jared mentioned. “Once we meet with the White Home individuals immediately, we have to push again.”

Jared and I used to go all over the place collectively, however he’d stopped touring on the present years in the past after being promoted to an govt workplace job throughout the firm. I used to be past grateful he’d dusted off his producing hat for this significantly high-profile and sophisticated shoot. We’d each been in our mid-twenties once we began touring collectively on No Reservations and had shared some fairly transformative experiences alongside the best way. In consequence, our relationship was kind of fraternal, and Jared at all times appeared out for me, particularly after I was coming aside on the seams.

Now that we have been in Vietnam, the truth of filming with President Obama was sinking in. I knew it was the strain attending to me; however I used to be so deep within the weeds I felt powerless to cease it from clouding my judgment.

“We solely received one probability at this,” Jared mentioned as we have been driving to satisfy with the White Home crew. “Give it some thought. The president, or not less than anyone highly effective on his crew, needs to movie a scene with us, due to what we do. So let’s do what we do! I do know you preferred the Bun Cha place as a lot as I did.”

Jared was referring to an area noodle store we’d scouted the opposite day. Situated within the previous a part of Hanoi, it was a lot extra visible and consistent with the ethos of the present than the secure and sterile places the place the Secret Service needed us to movie. However who have been we to intrude with their judgment? Sufficient individuals had been put in hurt’s manner through the years as we pushed boundaries with the present, and I wasn’t keen so as to add the chief of the free world to that listing. In actual fact, it was preserving me up at evening. On the similar time, I used to be additionally petrified of under-delivering with the stakes so excessive.

“Sure, the Bun Cha restaurant was wonderful, however I don’t know. The place has gotta be a firetrap. If a kind of woks bursts into flame, we’d all be fucked!”

“Pull your self collectively,” Jared mentioned, taking pictures me one in every of his trademark withering stares. “For starters, let’s not speak about shit that we don’t know—like whether or not or not the restaurant will blow up,” Jared mentioned. “Let’s speak about what we do know, like meals.”

“You’re proper, you’re proper,” I mentioned, attempting to calm myself. “However what if the president will get meals poisoning due to us?”

“Woah! Pump the brakes!” Jared ordered as we pulled as much as the JW Marriott. The high-end resort was practically accomplished however hadn’t formally opened but. Located atop a hill lording over a neighborhood that had solely not too long ago risen from rice paddies, the construction appeared to have been designed with a futuristic “Evil Star Wars” theme. The American delegation can be taking on everything of the gargantuan property after they arrived the next week, however in the mean time it was ghostly desolate.

Despite the fact that we’d simply stepped out of the automobile, I used to be already sweating, however not from the tropical warmth and humidity. I put out my cigarette and took a deep breath in an try to seem sane to our White Home liaisons. It wasn’t laborious to identify them, as they have been the one different individuals within the cavernous foyer. Nicole and Rachel labored within the Govt Workplace of the President the place—as finest I understood—they helped to speak Obama’s message.

It wasn’t simply that we have been filming with the president. Due to the years of accrued stress and overstimulation, my confidence, perspective, and nerves have been usually shot. I’d developed some repetitive tics, and worst of all, I’d began to catch myself speaking to myself. Out loud. In public. I actually wanted a trip from my trip of a job.

“We’re all actually excited concerning the alternative to work with you guys,” Nicole mentioned as we sat down on a financial institution of sofas.

“Everybody on our finish too!” I mentioned. No sooner had the phrases come out of my mouth, I noticed I’d managed to gaff within the first two seconds of speaking. “I don’t imply everybody, I-I simply imply everybody who’s allowed to know concerning the shoot. I imply filming, filming, not shoot… I didn’t imply to say shoot, and no random extraneous individuals learn about our plans.”

A silence descended on the dialog. Regardless of the foyer being saved at fridge temperature, I felt the sweat escape on my brow. After a pause that felt prefer it lasted without end, Nicole requested, “Sooo . . . what did you consider the places the Secret Service recommended?”

“Effectively… frankly, we didn’t love them,” Jared mentioned, turning to me. I knew this was my cue to say the Bun Cha restaurant, however I couldn’t fairly discover the phrases to talk up. So Jared continued, “The Secret Service options didn’t precisely have the native vibe we go for.”

“Yeah, these spots have been somewhat stuffy,” Rachel mentioned. “It’s powerful. I do know one of many large sticking factors is the blokes favor a restaurant with a non-public eating space as a substitute of basic seating.”

Someway, attending to the air conditioner—the only real request from the White Home—had slipped by means of the cracks.

“The massive sticking level is a non-public eating room?” I requested, sensing a possibility.

“There’s this nice locals-only bun cha noodle store.” I took a deep breath and did my finest to channel Jared-style confidence. “The restaurant has a separate upstairs overflow room we might take over for the scene.”

“That sounds fascinating,” Nicole mentioned.

“We might fill the opposite tables with trusted individuals,” I mentioned. As at all times, Jared’s instincts have been spot on. There was just one alternative to get this proper, and we owed it to ourselves to movie at the absolute best location. “It might be completely secure so long as home windows aren’t a problem. Is line of sight an issue?”

Each Nicole and Rachel’s faces went stone chilly. By the best way they have been observing me, I might inform I’d mentioned one thing very, very mistaken.

“Line of sight?” Nicole repeated.

“It’s simply that we don’t wanna—” I shut up, seeing Jared flash me his “I didn’t come all the best way to Vietnam so that you can fuck this up now” look.

“What Tom means is that we simply need to be sure that we don’t get in the best way of something you guys do,” Jared mentioned, saving me from self-immolation. “The restaurant Tom talked about is among the finest locations for bun cha in Hanoi. We will have lunch there in the event you like.”

After a taxi trip throughout city by means of bustling visitors, we arrived at Bún Chả Hương Liên.

Rows of stainless-steel tables jam-packed with hungry locals lined the slim, tiled eating room. A endless procession of trays loaded with bun cha got here from the kitchen, together with the savory aroma of grilling pork. The environment was punctuated by an occasional flash-bang, the results of a pyrotechnic wok-related explosion. We ordered a bun cha for every of us and went up the staircase to the overflow rooms.

“Oh, wow,” Rachel mentioned, tasting the rice noodle and pork meatball soup. “That is scrumptious.”

“I see what you imply,” Nicole mentioned. “The power right here is so significantly better than the opposite places we’ve been contemplating.”

“In response to Ha, who’s been fixing our Vietnam episodes for a decade, bun cha is the quintessential Hanoi dish,” I mentioned. “Consuming it on digicam is unquestionably the kind of factor that ‘makes the house crew proud.’”

“Possibly we should always convey the safety element right here for lunch?” Rachel recommended to Nicole. “It could be a great way to attempt to promote it to them.”

Nicole and Rachel have been in; now it was as much as them to persuade the Secret Service. Jared and I have been anxious to get again earlier than our authorities minders realized we have been lacking, so we agreed to maintain one another up to date on plans as they fell into place, and we parted methods.

“It was a gathering about noodles,” Jared mentioned, as soon as we have been safely on the best way again to our resort. “‘Shoot,’ ‘home windows,’ and ‘line of sight’ was an excessive amount of sniper terminology for assembly with White Home individuals. You don’t should be frightened about stuff like that. There are many actual issues so that you can fear about.”

A number of days later Nicole, Rachel, and a really serious-looking Secret Service agent named Mitchell got here to our resort for a clandestine poolside assembly. Mitchell was sporting darkish aviator sun shades and a Hawaiian shirt. The entire thing jogged my memory of some kind of B-movie spy thriller. I used to be about to say as a lot after I thought higher of it and determined to maintain my mouth shut.

“Mitchell is head of the president’s element the day we’re filming,” Nicole mentioned. “Nice information, he’s agreed to the bun cha restaurant!”

“Oh my god, that’s improbable!” I virtually shouted. “Thanks, thanks!”

“There are some logistics I need to go over,” Mitchell mentioned. “You’ll have forty-five minutes with the president starting at 7:30 p.m. Native Vietnamese authorities might be performing safety checks all through the day after which start shutting down the realm surrounding the restaurant within the early afternoon. So anyone and something you need there must arrive by 1 p.m.”

“Everybody?” I requested.

“Sure,” Mitchell mentioned. “Is that an issue?”

“No, no, after all not,” I mentioned, swallowing laborious. I normally had Tony arrive about ten minutes earlier than we began rolling. I couldn’t think about what it might be like having him there six hours early.

“We do have one crucial request,” Nicole mentioned. “The upstairs air-conditioning unit is damaged; can you could have it fastened? We don’t need the president sweating on digicam.”

“If the clamps come unfastened, the entire lighting rig would fall proper on the president and Tony,” I identified.

“Completely, after all, no drawback,” I mentioned. “It’s the least we are able to do.”

I used to be overjoyed. Thank God Jared had pushed to shoot for the celebs. That afternoon the crew and Sandy arrived from New York. As govt producer, Sandy didn’t get out of the workplace a lot, however so far as I might inform, her presence had but to tip the digicam guys off to the truth that one thing out of the unusual was underfoot. So far as I knew, they have been nonetheless totally unaware of our particular visitor, and I couldn’t wait to see the seems to be on their faces after they came upon. As soon as everybody settled in and received some relaxation, we gathered for a gathering.

“So… I’ve some information,” Sandy mentioned. “Tomorrow night… President Obama might be becoming a member of Tony for dinner on the present!”

After a minute or two of what appeared like jet lag–associated non-comprehension and plenty of blinking, Todd was the one to interrupt the silence.

“Aww geez, a lame duck president?” he mentioned.

The primary day of shoots was at all times a bit bumpy, however this primary day was going to be positively Himalayan. We hadn’t taken any possibilities relating to the upcoming safety cordon, so everybody and all the things—together with Tony—had made it by means of the restaurant’s entrance door by midday for a 7:30 p.m. scene. However there was loads of work to do, and I had a sense time was going to maneuver rapidly. The very first thing I seen on arriving upstairs was the temperature.

“Please inform me the air conditioner is working,” I mentioned to no person and all people on the similar time. “Maybe it’s simply off in the mean time to save lots of power?”

Someway, attending to the air conditioner—the only real request from the White Home—had slipped by means of the cracks.

“Oh no, oh no! We have to get a functioning AC unit instantly.”

“You’re not serving to, go have a cigarette, I’ll care for this,” Jared mentioned.

Whereas our fixers Ha and Phi tried to determine methods to resolve the air-conditioning state of affairs earlier than the whole metropolis round us shut down, Zach, Todd, and I set to work determining a seating plan. There have been two upstairs eating rooms, every about thirty toes by fifteen toes. We selected the again room for filming, whereas the opposite can be used for staging gear and holding individuals.

Provided that it was a reasonably small house, there was no strategy to place mild stands within the background with out them being within the shot. So Zach determined the best choice was to droop the lights from a concrete help beam on the ceiling, proper above the desk.

“If the clamps come unfastened, the entire lighting rig would fall proper on the president and Tony,” I identified.

“It’s sturdy, don’t fear,” Zach mentioned.

“However what if the Secret Service doesn’t agree?” I requested.

“Don’t fear,” Zach shot again.

“It’s much less about me personally worrying the lights will collapse and extra that when a complete bunch of Secret Service brokers rush right here proper earlier than filming, one in every of them might need a priority about seven hundred kilos of sharp steel movie gear dangling above the president’s head,” I mentioned.

I in all probability would have continued fretting concerning the loss of life lights Zach was hanging, however I used to be distracted by two youngsters in flip- flops, carrying a large field.

“The brand new air-conditioning unit has arrived,” Jared mentioned.

It wasn’t the window sort, however as a substitute the type that went on a wall with an enormous condenser exterior. I bear in mind considering the installers appeared like they couldn’t be greater than fifteen as I watched them climb out on the roof with a ladder, nonetheless sporting flip-flops. It had began raining, and one in every of them was clearly going to fall three flooring to his loss of life, which might in all probability imply the shoot with the president can be canceled. So we made the disagreeable resolution to danger the warmth and despatched the air-conditioner boys dwelling.

“What else might go mistaken?” I mentioned, immediately regretting having simply jinxed myself. My thoughts involuntarily ran by means of a laundry listing of worst-case situations. What if somebody picks up a chopstick and stabs the president by means of the ear earlier than the Secret Service might do something? What if Tony solely talks about Richard Nixon’s obsession with cottage cheese? Are we going to get a scene out of this? And is that man who carries the nuclear soccer going to be right here?

Satirically, it felt extra like I used to be watching the entire thing on TV.

Within the ultimate sixty seconds earlier than the presidential motorcade arrived, I might really feel the power within the restaurant intensify, nearly like a cost of electrical energy within the air. This should be what a canine feels when it senses an earthquake earlier than it occurs, I believed.


“U.S. President Barack Obama and american chef Anthony Bourdain shake arms at a buying space in Hanoi, Vietnam, Tuesday, Might 24, 2016. President Barack Obama taped the second a part of an interview with CNN character Anthony Bourdain earlier than leaving the Vietnamese capital for his subsequent cease: Ho Chi Minh Metropolis.”

Carolyn Kaster/AP

“Be sure to get a very good image I can tweet,” Tony known as as Zach and I squeezed by means of the gang of safety personnel and bureaucrats on our manner downstairs to movie an entrance shot. We received into place simply in time. Seeing President Obama stroll by means of the restaurant’s entrance door, everybody erupted into applause. He grinned ear to ear, waving again.

I can solely describe what I felt as kind of a surreal, even out-of- physique expertise. It was nearly like I wasn’t really there. Satirically, it felt extra like I used to be watching the entire thing on TV.

I stood behind Zach because the president walked proper previous us with an enormous smile and a nod. Arrival shot within the can, Zach and I squeezed our manner again up the staircase, which was now much more crowded with individuals. Zach received by means of first, then simply as I reached the highest of the steps, the president moved by means of the slim hallway touchdown from the holding room to the digicam room. As I discovered, when the president is on the transfer there’s no time to say, “Please stand again.” The Secret Service simply pushes you out of the best way. I began to fall backward down the steps, however happily, along with pushers, in addition they have catchers.

I arrived within the eating room unhurt, and it was determined I might be the one to place the microphone on the president. He was relaxed, pleasant, and sort sufficient to not point out something about my trembling arms. Within the eating room have been fifteen native Vietnamese within the background filling the tables, Tony sitting with President Obama, the three cameras, and I stood simply subsequent to the desk. Jared was by the door subsequent to the president’s head Secret Service man. The official White Home photographer got here in just a few instances to snap some pics. And that was it. The expertise was unbelievably intimate.

“I really feel somewhat awkward sitting in entrance of all this good meals with you guys standing there working. Did you get one thing to eat?” President Obama requested earlier than beginning the scene. He was one of many few individuals within the hundreds we’d filmed who inquired if the crew was hungry.


That is an tailored excerpt from IN THE WEEDS: Around the World and Behind the Scenes with Anthony Bourdain by Tom Vitale to be revealed October 5, by Hachette Books. ©2021 Tom Vitale and reprinted by permission from Hachette Books.

Tom Vitale started his profession in tv on the age of twenty-two. Desperately afraid of flying, assembly new individuals, germs, and fish, he would one way or the other go on to spend a lot of the following sixteen years confronting his fears whereas touring the world with Anthony Bourdain. Tom’s work directing and producing practically 100 episodes of No Reservations, The Layover, and CNN’s Elements Unknown has rewarded him with 5 Emmys, and most significantly the privilege of getting received to know Tony. way of=rss | When Anthony Bourdain Invited Obama to Dinner… in Hanoi


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