Saturday, February 07, 2009

Beauty queen turned spy and now chef

Thai Takes

LINING the walls of a Vietnamese restaurant in Bangkok are newspaper clippings trumpeting the owner’s illustrious past as an FBI agent.

And yet some of 58-year-old Vietnamese-American Meyung Robson’s customers still think the former spook is in deep cover.

“Many people suggest that I’m working undercover as a restaurant owner. But once I quit (the FBI), I quit,” says the owner of Xuan Mai restaurant.

Pointing at the framed articles from American, French, Japanese and Thai newspapers and magazines, Robson continues: “If I’m undercover, I would not – you know – show off.”

Asked why she displayed her clippings, she replies, “I’m proud of my past (as a FBI agent).” Her past reads like a best-seller memoirs.

Robson, the daughter of a threestar general who was second-incommand of the South Vietnamese army, was Miss Saigon in 1970.

On the afternoon of April 29, 1975, a day before the fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese army, her family – carrying only US$60 – fled the city via a South Vietnam navy ship for the US.

“We went from the sky (a privileged existence in American-backed Saigon) to the bottom (refugees picking strawberries in New York),” she relates.

In 1984, she became the FBI’s first Vietnamese-American special agent.

She went through a 16-week training programme, and to pass she had to score 85% in 10 exams (including firing 8,000 live rounds).

Although she is not generous with anecdotes of her undercover days, Robson did show me a photograph of her masquerading as a refugee. It was amazing to see the beauty queen transformed into a downtrodden immigrant.

In 1999, Robson was posted to Bangkok, working at the FBI legal attache office at the US Embassy.

Her two biggest achievements as an agent are assisting in the capture of two fugitives in the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list – a Vietnamese-American murderer who fled to Vietnam and an American paedophile who jumped bail when he was arrested in Bangkok.

On Christmas night in 2005, Robson – after retiring from the FBI – opened Xuan Mai (which is named after her daughter).

The plan was for her to be a silent investor while her Vietnamese friend, a professional chef, took charge of the kitchen.

“On opening night we had a huge fight (it had been simmering for three months because she disagreed with the chef’s preference for MSG and artificial colouring) and I was left to cook the ten dishes on our original menu,” she says.

It turned out to be “a totally happy accident” of how she became a chef.

Robson taught herself Vietnamese cuisine. And she does not use a recipe book. “I have a gift of taste. I can even remember the taste of dishes that I ate when I was 10,” she says.

Back in the 70 s, her family who “entertained a lot” had two full-time chefs. “I grew up watching the chefs prepare the dishes and, somehow, I can cook the dishes from memory,” she says.

Since her debut three years ago as a Vietnamese cook, numerous Thai publications have named her as one of Bangkok’s top chefs. She credits her accolades to her philosophy of serving authentic Vietnamese dishes.

Is her restaurant popular because she is an ex-FBI agent or is it her cooking?

“At first customers come because of the write-ups. For some reason – I did not plan it – this formula of ‘exbeauty queen + ex-FBI agent + chef’ works,” she says.

“FBI is a catchword. But if you cook junk, trust me, they will not come back.”

Asked if she had used her FBI skills in running her restaurant, Robson says: “Profiling? It is fun to watch people.”

How? “It is a trick of the trade, so I can’t tell you,” she replies, giggling. Who do you profile – your staff or your customers?

“My customers,” she says, quickly adding “sometimes so that I can serve them better”.

“What other FBI skills have you found useful as a restaurateur?” I query.

“No, I can’t tell you,” she says. Probably if she did, she would have to shoot me.

(Published in The Star on Feb 7, 2009)


DeePo said...

profiling makes me remember the CRIMINAL MINDS of the best in FBI job is profiler