Friday, February 24, 2017

President Obama sneaks out



From the New Yorker (Anthony Bourdain's Moveable Feast):

When the President of the United States travels outside the country, he brings his own car with him. Moments after Air Force One landed at the Hanoi airport last May, President Barack Obama ducked into an eighteen-foot, armor-plated limousine—a bomb shelter masquerading as a Cadillac—that was equipped with a secure link to the Pentagon and with emergency supplies of blood, and was known as the Beast. Hanoi’s broad avenues are crowded with honking cars, storefront venders, street peddlers, and some five million scooters and motorbikes, which rush in and out of the intersections like floodwaters. It was Obama’s first trip to Vietnam, but he encountered this pageant mostly through a five-inch pane of bulletproof glass. He might as well have watched it on TV.

Obama was scheduled to meet with President Trần Đại Quang, and with the new head of Vietnam’s national assembly. On his second night in Hanoi, however, he kept an unusual appointment: dinner with Anthony Bourdain, the peripatetic chef turned writer who hosts the Emmy-winning travel show “Parts Unknown,” on CNN...

The White House had suggested the meeting in Vietnam. Of all the countries Bourdain has explored, it is perhaps his favorite; he has been there half a dozen times. He fell for Hanoi long before he actually travelled there, when he read Graham Greene’s 1955 novel, “The Quiet American,” and the city has retained a thick atmosphere of colonial decay—dingy villas, lugubrious banyan trees, monsoon clouds, and afternoon cocktails—that Bourdain savors without apology. Several years ago, he seriously considered moving there.

Bourdain believes that the age of the fifteen-course tasting menu “is over.” He is an evangelist for street food, and Hanoi excels at open-air cooking. It can seem as if half the population were sitting around sidewalk cookfires, hunched over steaming bowls of phở. As a White House advance team planned the logistics for Obama’s visit, an advance team from Zero Point Zero, the company that produces the show, scoured the city for the perfect place to eat. They selected Bún chả Hương Liên, a narrow establishment across from a karaoke joint on a busy street in the Old Quarter. The restaurant’s specialty is bún chả: springy white noodles, smoky sausage, and charred pork belly served in a sweet and pungent broth...

At the appointed hour, Obama exited the Beast and walked into the restaurant behind a pair of Secret Service agents, who cleared a path for him, like linemen blocking for a running back. In a rear dining room on the second floor, Bourdain was waiting at a stainless-steel table, surrounded by other diners, who had been coached to ignore the cameras and Obama, and to focus on their bún chả. Like many restaurants in Vietnam, the facility was casual in the extreme: diners and servers alike swept discarded refuse onto the floor, and the tiles had acquired a grimy sheen that squeaked beneath your feet. Obama was wearing a white button-down, open at the collar, and he greeted Bourdain, took a seat on a plastic stool, and happily accepted a bottle of Vietnamese beer.

“How often do you get to sneak out for a beer?” Bourdain asked.

“I don’t get to sneak out, period,” Obama replied. He occasionally took the First Lady to a restaurant, he said, but “part of enjoying a restaurant is sitting with other patrons and enjoying the atmosphere, and too often we end up getting shunted into one of those private rooms.”

As a young waitress in a gray polo shirt set down bowls of broth, a plate of greens, and a platter of shuddering noodles, Bourdain fished chopsticks from a plastic container on the table. Obama, surveying the constituent parts of the meal, evinced trepidation. He said, “All right, you’re gonna have to—”

“I’ll walk you through it,” Bourdain assured him, advising him to grab a clump of noodles with chopsticks and dunk them into the broth.

“I’m just gonna do what you do,” Obama said.

“Dip and stir,” Bourdain counselled. “And get ready for the awesomeness.”

Eying a large sausage that was floating in the broth, Obama asked, “Is it generally appropriate to just pop one of these whole suckers in your mouth, or do you think you should be a little more—”

“Slurping is totally acceptable in this part of the world,” Bourdain declared.

Obama took a bite and let out a low murmur. “That’s good stuff” he said, and the two of them—lanky, conspicuously cool guys in late middle age—slurped away as three cameras, which Bourdain had once likened to “drunken hummingbirds,” hovered around them. Noting the unaffected rusticity of the scene, Obama was reminded of a memorable meal that he had eaten as a child, in the mountains outside Jakarta. “You’d have these roadside restaurants overlooking the tea fields,” he recalled. “There’d be a river running through the restaurant itself, and there’d be these fish, these carp, that would be running through. You’d pick the fish. They’d grab it for you and fry it up, and the skin would be real crispy. They just served it with a bed of rice.” Obama was singing Bourdain’s song: earthy, fresh, free of pretense. “It was the simplest meal possible, and nothing tasted so good.”

But the world is getting smaller, Obama said. “The surprises, the serendipity of travel, where you see something and it’s off the beaten track, there aren’t that many places like that left.” He added, wistfully, “I don’t know if that place will still be there when my daughters are ready to travel. But I hope it is.” The next day, Bourdain posted a photograph of the meeting online. “Total cost of Bun cha dinner with the President: $6.00,” he tweeted. “I picked up the check”...

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