When Anthony Bourdain Invited Obama to Dinner... in Hanoi
Finding a funky restaurant was easy. Finding one the Secret Service would approve? Not so much. Then the AC broke. Would this meal happen or not?
Landing in Hanoi, I knew shockingly little about what to expect. At least the surroundings were familiar. Heading into town from the airport, my car was adrift in the usual sea of motorbikes, some carrying well-dressed commuters in suits or high heels, others laden with an impossible cargo, like a mattress or a family of eight, toddler perched on the handlebars.
Out the window passed larger buildings and an ever-increasing number of new retail shops and neon lights, but also just as many restaurants with those low plastic stools as there’d always been. Since my first trip to Vietnam a decade ago, I’d learned it was one of those rare places with the ability to change as much as it stayed the same. But as far as our shoot was concerned, there was going to be one rather significant difference this time.
It was May 2016, and President Barack Obama was traveling through Asia, solidifying support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and, for some reason, taking time out of his busy schedule to have a meal with Tony on camera. I couldn’t wrap my head around how or why it was happening or that we’d even passed the background checks. But this was no time to ask questions. Despite all the bewildering shit we’d done over the years, this promised to be the most impressive, insane, wonderful, and terrifying experience yet. That is, if I didn’t fuck it up.
The Secret Service had warned that in the interest of security we were to tell absolutely nobody about the shoot. Not significant others, not parents, not Vietnamese members of the crew, not even the camera guys. If word leaked, the shoot wouldn’t happen. This presented a slight problem, as Vietnam was one of those countries where government minders are supposed to track your every move, and there was a lot that still needed to be figured out and arranged over the next week before the shoot began. Namely, where would we be filming the scene with Tony and President Obama?
“You don’t negotiate with the Secret Service,” I said. “We’re lucky it’s even happening.”
“Trust me,” Jared said. “When we meet with the White House people today, we need to push back.”
Jared and I used to go everywhere together, but he’d stopped traveling on the show years ago after being promoted to an executive office job within the company. I was beyond thankful he’d dusted off his producing hat for this particularly high-profile and complex shoot. We’d both been in our mid-twenties when we started traveling together on No Reservations and had shared some pretty transformative experiences along the way. As a result, our relationship was sort of fraternal, and Jared always looked out for me, especially when I was coming apart at the seams.
Now that we were in Vietnam, the reality of filming with President Obama was sinking in. I knew it was the pressure getting to me; but I was so deep in the weeds I felt powerless to stop it from clouding my judgment.
“We only got one chance at this,” Jared said as we were driving to meet with the White House team. “Think about it. The president, or at least somebody powerful on his team, wants to film a scene with us, because of what we do. So let’s do what we do! I know you liked the Bun Cha place as much as I did.”
Jared was referring to a local noodle shop we’d scouted the other day. Located in the old part of Hanoi, it was so much more visual and in line with the ethos of the show than the safe and sterile locations where the Secret Service wanted us to film. But who were we to interfere with their judgment? Enough people had been put in harm’s way over the years as we pushed boundaries with the show, and I wasn’t eager to add the leader of the free world to that list. In fact, it was keeping me up at night. At the same time, I was also terrified of under-delivering with the stakes so high.
“Yes, the Bun Cha restaurant was amazing, but I don’t know. The place has gotta be a firetrap. If one of those woks bursts into flame, we’d all be fucked!”
“Pull yourself together,” Jared said, shooting me one of his trademark withering stares. “For starters, let’s not talk about shit that we don’t know—like whether or not the restaurant will blow up,” Jared said. “Let’s talk about what we do know, like food.”
“You’re right, you’re right,” I said, trying to calm myself. “But what if the president gets food poisoning because of us?”
“Woah! Pump the brakes!” Jared ordered as we pulled up to the JW Marriott. The high-end hotel was nearly completed but hadn’t officially opened yet. Situated atop a hill lording over a neighborhood that had only recently risen from rice paddies, the structure seemed to have been designed with a futuristic “Evil Star Wars” theme. The American delegation would be taking over the entirety of the gargantuan property when they arrived the following week, but at the moment it was ghostly desolate.
Even though we’d just stepped out of the car, I was already sweating, but not from the tropical heat and humidity. I put out my cigarette and took a deep breath in an attempt to appear sane to our White House liaisons. It wasn’t hard to spot them, as they were the only other people in the cavernous lobby. Nicole and Rachel worked in the Executive Office of the President where—as best I understood—they helped to communicate Obama’s message.
It wasn’t just that we were filming with the president. Thanks to the years of accumulated stress and overstimulation, my confidence, perspective, and nerves were generally shot. I’d developed some repetitive tics, and worst of all, I’d started to catch myself talking to myself. Out loud. In public. I really needed a vacation from my vacation of a job.
“We’re all really excited about the opportunity to work with you guys,” Nicole said as we sat down on a bank of sofas.
“Everyone on our end too!” I said. No sooner had the words come out of my mouth, I realized I’d managed to gaff in the first two seconds of talking. “I don’t mean everyone, I-I just mean everyone who’s allowed to know about the shoot. I mean filming, filming, not shoot… I didn’t mean to say shoot, and no random extraneous people know about our plans.”
A silence descended on the conversation. Despite the lobby being kept at refrigerator temperature, I felt the sweat break out on my forehead. After a pause that felt like it lasted forever, Nicole asked, “Sooo . . . what did you think of the locations the Secret Service suggested?”
“Well… frankly, we didn’t love them,” Jared said, turning to me. I knew this was my cue to mention the Bun Cha restaurant, but I couldn’t quite find the words to speak up. So Jared continued, “The Secret Service suggestions didn’t exactly have the local vibe we go for.”
“Yeah, those spots were a little stuffy,” Rachel said. “It’s tough. I know one of the big sticking points is the guys prefer a restaurant with a private dining area instead of general seating.”
“The big sticking point is a private dining room?” I asked, sensing an opportunity.
“There’s this great locals-only bun cha noodle shop.” I took a deep breath and did my best to channel Jared-style confidence. “The restaurant has a separate upstairs overflow room we could take over for the scene.”
“That sounds interesting,” Nicole said.
“We could fill the other tables with trusted people,” I said. As always, Jared’s instincts were spot on. There was only one opportunity to get this right, and we owed it to ourselves to film at the best possible location. “It would be totally safe as long as windows aren’t an issue. Is line of sight a problem?”
Both Nicole and Rachel’s faces went stone cold. By the way they were staring at me, I could tell I’d said something very, very wrong.
“Line of sight?” Nicole repeated.
“It’s just that we don’t wanna—” I shut up, seeing Jared flash me his “I didn’t come all the way to Vietnam for you to fuck this up now” look.
“What Tom means is that we just want to make sure we don’t get in the way of anything you guys do,” Jared said, saving me from self-immolation. “The restaurant Tom mentioned is one of the best places for bun cha in Hanoi. We can have lunch there if you like.”
After a taxi ride across town through bustling traffic, we arrived at Bún Chả Hương Liên.
Rows of stainless-steel tables jam-packed with hungry locals lined the narrow, tiled dining room. A never-ending procession of trays loaded with bun cha came from the kitchen, along with the savory aroma of grilling pork. The atmosphere was punctuated by an occasional flash-bang, the result of a pyrotechnic wok-related explosion. We ordered a bun cha for each of us and went up the staircase to the overflow rooms.
“Oh, wow,” Rachel said, tasting the rice noodle and pork meatball soup. “This is delicious.”
“I see what you mean,” Nicole said. “The energy here is so much better than the other locations we’ve been considering.”
“According to Ha, who’s been fixing our Vietnam episodes for a decade, bun cha is the quintessential Hanoi dish,” I said. “Eating it on camera is definitely the sort of thing that ‘makes the home team proud.’”
“Maybe we should bring the security detail here for lunch?” Rachel suggested to Nicole. “It might be a good way to try to sell it to them.”
Nicole and Rachel were in; now it was up to them to convince the Secret Service. Jared and I were anxious to get back before our government minders realized we were missing, so we agreed to keep each other updated on plans as they fell into place, and we parted ways.
“It was a meeting about noodles,” Jared said, once we were safely on the way back to our hotel. “‘Shoot,’ ‘windows,’ and ‘line of sight’ was too much sniper terminology for meeting with White House people. You don’t need to be worried about stuff like that. There are plenty of real things for you to worry about.”
Several days later Nicole, Rachel, and a very serious-looking Secret Service agent named Mitchell came to our hotel for a clandestine poolside meeting. Mitchell was wearing dark aviator sunglasses and a Hawaiian shirt. The whole thing reminded me of some sort of B-movie spy thriller. I was about to say as much when I thought better of it and decided to keep my mouth shut.
“Mitchell is head of the president’s detail the day we’re filming,” Nicole said. “Great news, he’s agreed to the bun cha restaurant!”
“Oh my god, that’s fantastic!” I practically shouted. “Thank you, thank you!”
“There are some logistics I want to go over,” Mitchell said. “You’ll have forty-five minutes with the president beginning at 7:30 p.m. Local Vietnamese authorities will be performing security checks throughout the day and then begin shutting down the area surrounding the restaurant in the early afternoon. So anybody and anything you want there needs to arrive by 1 p.m.”
“Everyone?” I asked.
“Yes,” Mitchell said. “Is that a problem?”
“No, no, of course not,” I said, swallowing hard. I usually had Tony arrive about ten minutes before we started rolling. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like having him there six hours early.
“We do have one very important request,” Nicole said. “The upstairs air-conditioning unit is broken; can you have it fixed? We don’t want the president sweating on camera.”
“Absolutely, of course, no problem,” I said. “It’s the least we can do.”
I was overjoyed. Thank God Jared had pushed to shoot for the stars. That afternoon the crew and Sandy arrived from New York. As executive producer, Sandy didn’t get out of the office much, but as far as I could tell, her presence had yet to tip the camera guys off to the fact that something out of the ordinary was underfoot. As far as I knew, they were still thoroughly unaware of our special guest, and I couldn’t wait to see the looks on their faces when they found out. Once everyone settled in and got some rest, we gathered for a meeting.
“So… I have some news,” Sandy said. “Tomorrow evening… President Obama will be joining Tony for dinner on the show!”
After a minute or two of what looked like jet lag–related non-comprehension and a lot of blinking, Todd was the one to break the silence.
“Aww geez, a lame duck president?” he said.
The first day of shoots was always a bit bumpy, but this first day was going to be positively Himalayan. We hadn’t taken any chances regarding the impending security cordon, so everyone and everything—including Tony—had made it through the restaurant’s front door by noon for a 7:30 p.m. scene. But there was plenty of work to do, and I had a feeling time was going to move quickly. The first thing I noticed on arriving upstairs was the temperature.
“Please tell me the air conditioner is working,” I said to nobody and everybody at the same time. “Perhaps it’s just off at the moment to save energy?”
Somehow, attending to the air conditioner—the sole request from the White House—had slipped through the cracks.
“Oh no, oh no! We need to get a functioning AC unit immediately.”
“You’re not helping, go have a cigarette, I’ll take care of this,” Jared said.
While our fixers Ha and Phi attempted to figure out how to resolve the air-conditioning situation before the entire city around us shut down, Zach, Todd, and I set to work figuring out a seating plan. There were two upstairs dining rooms, each about thirty feet by fifteen feet. We chose the back room for filming, while the other would be used for staging gear and holding people.
Given that it was a pretty small space, there was no way to place light stands in the background without them being in the shot. So Zach decided the best option was to suspend the lights from a concrete support beam on the ceiling, right above the table.
“If the clamps come loose, the whole lighting rig would fall right on the president and Tony,” I pointed out.
“It’s strong, don’t worry,” Zach said.
“But what if the Secret Service doesn’t agree?” I asked.
“Don’t worry,” Zach shot back.
“It’s less about me personally worrying the lights will collapse and more that when a whole bunch of Secret Service agents rush here right before filming, one of them might have a concern about seven hundred pounds of sharp metal film equipment dangling above the president’s head,” I said.
I probably would have continued fretting about the death lights Zach was hanging, but I was distracted by two teenagers in flip- flops, carrying a massive box.
“The new air-conditioning unit has arrived,” Jared said.
It wasn’t the window type, but instead the kind that went on a wall with a big condenser outside. I remember thinking the installers looked like they couldn’t be more than fifteen as I watched them climb out on the roof with a ladder, still wearing flip-flops. It had started raining, and one of them was clearly going to fall three floors to his death, which would probably mean the shoot with the president would be canceled. So we made the unpleasant decision to risk the heat and sent the air-conditioner boys home.
“What else could go wrong?” I said, instantly regretting having just jinxed myself. My mind involuntarily ran through a laundry list of worst-case scenarios. What if someone picks up a chopstick and stabs the president through the ear before the Secret Service could do anything? What if Tony only talks about Richard Nixon’s obsession with cottage cheese? Are we going to get a scene out of this? And is that guy who carries the nuclear football going to be here?
In the final sixty seconds before the presidential motorcade arrived, I could feel the energy in the restaurant intensify, almost like a charge of electricity in the air. This must be what a dog feels when it senses an earthquake before it happens, I thought.
“Make sure to get a good picture I can tweet,” Tony called as Zach and I squeezed through the crowd of security personnel and bureaucrats on our way downstairs to film an entrance shot. We got into position just in time. Seeing President Obama walk through the restaurant’s front door, everyone erupted into applause. He grinned ear to ear, waving back.
I can only describe what I felt as sort of a surreal, even out-of- body experience. It was almost like I wasn’t actually there. Ironically, it felt more like I was watching the whole thing on TV.
I stood behind Zach as the president walked right past us with a big smile and a nod. Arrival shot in the can, Zach and I squeezed our way back up the staircase, which was now even more crowded with people. Zach got through first, then just as I reached the top of the stairs, the president moved through the narrow hallway landing from the holding room to the camera room. As I learned, when the president is on the move there’s no time to say, “Please stand back.” The Secret Service just pushes you out of the way. I started to fall backward down the stairs, but fortunately, in addition to pushers, they also have catchers.
I arrived in the dining room unharmed, and it was decided I would be the one to put the microphone on the president. He was relaxed, friendly, and kind enough to not mention anything about my trembling hands. In the dining room were fifteen local Vietnamese in the background filling the tables, Tony sitting with President Obama, the three cameras, and I stood just next to the table. Jared was by the door next to the president’s head Secret Service guy. The official White House photographer came in a few times to snap some pics. And that was it. The experience was unbelievably intimate.
“I feel a little awkward sitting in front of all this good food with you guys standing there working. Did you get something to eat?” President Obama asked before starting the scene. He was one of the few people in the thousands we’d filmed who inquired if the crew was hungry.
This is an adapted excerpt from IN THE WEEDS: Around the World and Behind the Scenes with Anthony Bourdain by Tom Vitale to be published October 5, by Hachette Books. ©2021 Tom Vitale and reprinted by permission from Hachette Books.
Tom Vitale began his career in television at the age of twenty-two. Desperately afraid of flying, meeting new people, germs, and fish, he would somehow go on to spend much of the next sixteen years confronting his fears while traveling the world with Anthony Bourdain. Tom’s work directing and producing nearly 100 episodes of No Reservations, The Layover, and CNN’s Parts Unknown has rewarded him with five Emmys, and most importantly the privilege of having got to know Tony.