How a Vietnamese Refugee Became a Celebrity Chef
After his parents fled their native country, Luke Nguyen grew up washing dishes at their tiny Vietnamese eatery in Sydney. He now has multiple restaurants, cookbooks, and TV programs to his name.
All photos courtesy of Moi Moi by Luke Nguyen.
With hunks of rare Wagyu swimming in a broth simmered for 18-plus hours, the pho at Moi Moi by Luke Nguyen on a ritzy block in Hong Kong's Central isn't like anything you'd find on the streets of Hanoi. Neither, for that matter, is the coconut water-braised Kurobuta pork belly buried under a wobbly sous-vide egg, or the salad of banana blossoms and perilla leaves topped with green tea-smoked duck breast so good that one server admits to hanging around the kitchen hoping to snag leftover cuts. Even humble pan-fried rice cakes, apparently culled from a family recipe, get gussied up with prawns and a cloud of slightly sweet pork floss.
If all these dishes sound rather fancy in comparison to the street food that inspired them, the head chef's roots are anything but. Born in a refugee camp in Thailand, Luke Nguyen arrived in Australia with his family with little more than their clothes and a mortar and pestle. The chef and his three siblings spent most of their childhoods toiling away in his parents' small Vietnamese restaurant while the family fought to stave off bankruptcy.
Despite starting off with next to nothing, Luke managed to open Red Lantern in an old house in a suburb of Sydney at the age of only 23. The makeshift eatery became a smash hit and he's since gone on to pen seven cookbooks, star in multiple television shows, including Luke Nguyen's Vietnam and MasterChef Australia, and open a cooking school in Ho Chi Minh City. Although Moi Moi is only months old, he's already gearing up for the launch of a new restaurant in Vietnam in June.
I spoke with the chef about growing up in a refugee enclave, making tables out of snowboards, and just how much love goes into making a mean bowl of pho.
MUNCHIES: Let's start with the most obvious dish and the one that has the most people talking. There's so much debate that goes into making a proper pho. How did you set out to come up with yours?
Luke Nguyen:. My experience of pho growing up was in Cabramatta in western Sydney. It's where a lot of the Vietnamese boat people migrated to after the refugee camps. It's like Little Saigon in LA, but more condensed. So my palate was trained to that particular style, but I wanted to learn more about the regional variations of pho and where it came from. Who invented it? Who inspired it? I traveled all through Vietnam, all through France.
What did you learn along the way?
What disappoints me about pho is the amount of artificial flavorings that often go into it to cut corners, to save time and to save money. No one's got 18 to 24 hours on their hands to cook a beautiful broth. Pho's not something you can finish in four hours or eight hours. You've gotta give it a bit of love and attention.
What kind of extra TLC goes into your pho then?
I'm not doing anything crazy or even inventive, really. I'm just spending a lot of time and using better products. I'm talking about kilos and kilos of bones. I'm talking about the oxtail. About charring all of my ginger and onions to get a real sweetness out of it all. We played around for months with just the noodles. I'm using all Wagyu, so you've got Wagyu brisket and sliced Wagyu sirloin. We pluck every single bean sprout, so you don't get that wiggly root at the bottom, because that's how I want our bowl of noodles to be.
Is it worth all that effort?
When you have this bowl of noodles, you really appreciate the depth of flavor, the richness from the marrow, and you just feel good. People might say, "Uh, I don't eat this style of pho in Vietnam," to which I'd say, "Yeah, probably not." It's got all the elements that I've picked up from all the research I've done. Pho from Danang, pho from Hanoi, pho from Saigon, pho from Australia, pho from the States.
It's one of your most popular dishes, but it's not on the dinner menu. Why?
It's a bloody awesome bowl of noodles, but I wanted to show that there are so many other dishes as well. I want to show people that Vietnamese food is probably the most refined Southeast Asian cuisine out there. It's a thousand years of Chinese rule; it's a hundred years of French colonization. We're neighbors with Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Burma. Vietnam has taken all these inspirations and influences and created such a refined, elegant, and unique cuisine.
Vietnam's clearly your main inspiration, but you have a pretty international background. Does that factor in at all?
My parents are from Vietnam, I was born in Thailand, I grew up in Australia, and I travel a lot. When people ask what my inspiration is for my cooking, I say it's culture and travel and meeting people and discovering age-old recipes and developing that into something different.
What was it like growing up?
I grew up in a very tough family. My dad was a high-ranking officer in the Vietnam War, so that's how he ran his family and that's how he ran his business. Coming from a refugee migrant boat family, it was hard. We were very poor and my parents borrowed a lot of money to open their own business. My family were in debt all their lives, so the children had to work. As soon as you could walk, you were working. We didn't have much of a childhood, to be honest. We worked before school, we worked after school, sometimes we had to work during school.
Did you ever resent that?
Of course I resented it as a child. All the siblings did. We wanted to be riding our bicycles around the block or going to summer camp, that kind of thing. But hey, we were in Australia and we only had the shirts our backs, so as a family, you've gotta help out. But learning how to choose produce from the markets, learning how to balance flavors from a young age, learning how to take care with your cooking, were things I grew to really enjoy.
At what point did you start to think you might want to make a career out of this?
When I was going through my resentful stage, around age 12 or 13, the teachers asked us, "Right, what do you want to be when you grow up?" Everyone was like, "I wanna be a fireman!" or "I wanna be a policeman!" I said, "I want to open my own restaurant." When I opened Red Lantern, I invited my best friend from school and he said, "You remember when you described what your restaurant would look like? This is it!"
You were also only 23 when it opened. How did you pull that off?
I'd saved a bit of money and I got tired of talking about it. I thought, I'm just going to do it. I didn't have any financial backers. Basically, we found an old Victorian terrace house in a suburb called Surrey Hills. The idea was to open a very small restaurant. It only seated 40. It had a domestic-size kitchen. I didn't have any money and no one would give me any credit, so I was just doing everything myself. I bought old tables from auctions. My workbench was one of my old snowboards turned upside-down and sanded back. It was a very ma-and-pa-type operation, but it was real.
You really made a name for yourself with the books and the television programs. How did all that start?
All the travel I did back and forth to Vietnam for research, I documented all of that. At some point, book publishers started asking to work with me. During the cookbook stage I thought, I've got great pictures, but I would love to do something with movement, something where I can really feel the sound and the colors and the action, the energy of a place. I wanted to do traveling cooking shows, but of course no one would back me on that. When all the publishing houses turned me down, I did what my parents always taught me. I did it myself.
I started my own production company. Shot the whole series. Now we sell it to 160 countries worldwide.
Wow. With so many projects going on at once, do you ever worry about it all getting too big for you to control?
I don't run a chain of restaurants. That's not how I want to do things. For me, it's always personal. So with every restaurant we have, I'm bringing my team. For Moi Moi, I brought my brother Leroy, my assistant manager, and two chefs from Sydney. My head chef's been with me for almost ten years; my sous-chef, same. It's all very close friends and family. I wouldn't have it any other way.
A lot of second-generation children of immigrant families want to do exactly the opposite of what their parents did, but you and your siblings have followed a version of the same path. Why?
I think being foodies runs in our bloodline. It's part of our culture. We were raised in Australia, but we all speak fluent Vietnamese. So for the siblings, it's about delving deeper into our mother's country and learning about the history of where we're from. Heritage is a big thing for us, which is something we didn't always see while growing up.
Thank you for speaking with me.