At his barbecue joint and on fishing trips (next slide), Bobby Egan entertains… (Helayne Seidman For The…)
HACKENSACK, N. J.
Waiting for the North Korean ambassador to show up for dinner, Bobby Egan, who is the world's only barbecue chef/self-appointed unofficial American ambassador to rogue nations, launches into an impassioned monologue on why he, Bobby Egan, is a better diplomat than America's real diplomats.
"You couldn't put Condoleezza Rice or Madeleine Albright on a level with me in dealing with the Koreans," he says. "They've never even been in a fistfight. I've been in fistfights -- including with the Koreans. These are tough guys. Condoleezza Rice is a piano p layer. She's not a rugged, all-American boy."
Egan keeps peeking out the window of Cubby's, his barbecue joint, looking for North Korea's ambassador, Pak Gil Yon. Pak isn't here yet so Egan hops up on a chair to point out some souvenirs of his bizarre career as a diplomat without portfolio.
He points out a photo of himself sitting in a limo with Nizar Hamdoun, who was Saddam Hussein's ambassador to the United Nations. They were on their way to a Giants game.
"Hamdoun was a great, great guy," Egan says. "His daughter took karate lessons with my daughter."
He points to a picture of himself on a boat with a group of Korean men holding big, dead fish. "This is the first time I took the North Koreans fishing," Egan says. "The FBI didn't want me to take them. I said, 'This is the United States of America -- I need your permission to go fishing?' We caught a ton of fish, and when we came back to the dock, the FBI was taking pictures so I said, 'Let's show 'em what we caught!' "
What do Egan's customers make of these pictures of the owner entertaining diplomats from two-thirds of the "axis of evil"?
"They don't care," he says. "Most Americans understand that as much as the Koreans are full of [bleep], so is our own government."
Intense, garrulous and profane, Egan, 50, looks and sounds like an extra in "The Sopranos." Now, he steps off the chair and bounds into the kitchen. Cubby's is closed today, but a few cooks are whipping up a private barbecue banquet for Pak and his entourage. Egan issues a few orders to his crew, then glances out a window and spots the Koreans in the parking lot.
"They're here," he says. "Get in the back!"
North Koreans don't like reporters, Egan explains, as he hustles his interviewer into a tiny office behind the kitchen. He fiddles with a TV that sits on the desk, behind a crucifix. A picture appears -- a silent, closed-circuit TV image of the Koreans entering Cubby's dining room. Egan leaves the office, closing the door.
"If anybody knocks," he says, "don't open it."
A moment later, Egan appears on the TV screen, greeting the Koreans. There are a dozen of them, including two women and several kids. Egan escorts them to tables and delivers mugs of beer. Soon, workers appear bearing trays of salad. Egan sits down and starts talking, his mouth moving silently on the screen as his hands gesticulate grandly.
After a while, he stands up, walks off-screen, then returns holding a fishing rod, which he presents to Pak. The Koreans stand and applaud.
A few minutes later, Egan walks off-screen and pops into the tiny office, bearing a tray of sizzling barbecued ribs. "Eat these [bleeping] ribs," he says, "then tell me about [bleeping] Texas!"
He hustles off, and reappears on the TV screen, carrying ribs out to the Koreans, accompanied by his wife, Lilia, and their two daughters, who are also serving food. He sits down to eat and chat, then he stands up, walks off the screen then returns holding a fancy bow and arrow, the bow equipped with high-tech pulleys, the arrow bearing a razor-tipped point.
Several Koreans wipe the barbecue sauce off their hands and examine the bow and arrow, looking suitably impressed.
"They like weapons," Egan says later.
It all began with Vietnam.
In the early '70s, when Bobby Egan was growing up in the tough Jersey town of Fairfield, son of a roofing contractor, he figured he'd finish high school, then go fight in Vietnam, like so many other Fairfield kids. To prepare, he took up shooting and hunting. But by the time he graduated the war was over, so Bobby worked as a roofer for his father, and in 1982, started his barbecue business.
But he remained obsessed with Vietnam and with reports that the Vietnamese were holding American prisoners of war in secret prison camps. He decided to investigate by befriending the diplomats at the Vietnamese mission to the United Nations, inviting them to Cubby's and taking them fishing.
When his father saw him hanging around with communist diplomats, he was shocked. "Jesus, what's going on here?" Walter Egan recalls thinking. " Do they have himbrainwashed?" He reported his son to the FBI -- "I'm a flag-waver," he explains -- and he was relieved to learn that Bobby was informing the bureau about his activities. "They said, 'We know everything he's doing.' "