Tell us about your new restaurant in Hong Kong, Moi Moi by Luke Nguyen. “My goal is to bring Vietnamese cuisine to the world stage. I want to educate people about the diversity of the cuisine – it’s not just rice-paper rolls and pho. My restaurant’s not traditional, authentic cuisine, but it’s essentially core Vietnamese flavours using the best produce. We’ll use wagyu beef, angus beef, slow-braised pork in coconut water, Kurobuta pork. The presentation of the dishes is more modern and fun.”
How did you come to live in Sydney? “We were boat refugees from Vietnam. We lived in refugee camps in Thailand and Sydney. Afterwards, we were given a one-bedroom flat in Sydney. I remember being in that room; during the day only children were around because our parents were working. My dad did the graveyard shift and my mom did sewing. We kids looked after ourselves, cooking and cleaning. But after a year they made enough money to afford our own place and we moved to Cabramatta, where other Vietnamese migrants lived. It was like a little Saigon there.”
What do you remember most about your childhood? “My parents opened a Vietnamese noodle house there. Coming from a refugee migrant family, we were all forced to work really hard, as soon as we could walk. I knew I would open a restaurant at a very young age. I enjoyed serving and cooking. Every morning before going to school I helped buy kilos of chillies, green mango, all the fresh ingredients. I was taught how to buy fresh produce and to not settle for anything less than the best. I also tended to pots of broth simmering for hours on end, to make sure they were clean and clear as water. I’d stand on a blue milk crate, skimming and skimming, watching the temperature.
“Initially a kid doesn’t want to work like this – it’s slave labour. But what I’m getting from this broth is achieving something fantastic and seeing customers get a kick out of it.”
What did you learn from your parents? “Work hard to perfect something, and be passionate. All of us kids love what we do. From a young age I learned the balance of flavour. Vietnamese cuisine is refined and delicate, you have to understand the balance of sweet and sour, spice and bitters. You need to get all those in harmony otherwise it doesn’t work. My parents made me eat and cook to learn.”
What was it like to open your restaurant Red Lantern? “At 23 you don’t have any fear. I didn’t have much money but I had the passion and drive. I invited my friend from primary school to the opening and he remembered back in fifth grade, when the teacher asked us what we wanted to do, I said, ‘This is what the restaurant’s going to look like.’ He said it pretty much looked like what I talked about.”
How did your parents react to your career choice? “My parents didn’t have any money and they didn’t want me to be in the same hard-working industry as them. I didn’t tell them about [becoming a chef] for a while because they would have been disappointed. But now they understand; they are so happy with what I’m doing.”
How did the books and television shows come about? “At Red Lantern, I tell guests about the story of the dishes. One day a book publisher came in and said, ‘You should document this.’ I didn’t want to do a cookbook with just recipes and pictures – I wanted to include travel, culture and history. I travelled with a photographer through Vietnam documenting and telling stories. The Songs of Sapa (2009) sold well around the world.
“About seven years ago I came up with the idea of doing street food in Vietnam, cooking with street vendors and telling their stories. I pitched the idea to production houses but no one was interested. So I started my own production house and, once I had shot the series, everyone wanted to buy it. It was shown in 160 countries through Discovery Asia, UK TV and Food Network Asia.”
What brought you to Hong Kong? “About a year ago, I was on the show Who Do You Think You Are?, where they research your ancestry. It turns out my mother’s side of the family is from southern China, a small village north of Hong Kong (Nguyen doesn’t appear to know its name). We met a family member in Hong Kong who drove us six hours to meet all of our relatives there. I wanted to explore the cultural heritage of that side.”
What are your favourite restaurants in Sydney? “Chef Lennox Hastie’s restaurant Firedoor uses beautiful charcoal from the Blue Mountains and cooks premium produce in a fire pit. There are no tricks, no fancy plating, just great flavour and smokiness from the charcoal. I love Japanese food and The Bridge Room is great. Its Australian chef [Ross Lusted] lived in Japan for a long time. Another cool place is Sokyo, for contemporary Japanese food by chef Chase Kojima, a Japanese-American.”
What do you do when you’re not working? “I get inspired most by travel, not only where there is good food, of course. If I don’t travel I’m uninspired and bored. I love to explore new cultures, new ingredients; as a chef you never stop learning. As a chef you need to keep evolving.”