Luke Nguyen, award-winning chef, restaurateur, author of seven best-selling cookbooks, TV presenter with his own global travel and food shows, host of MasterChef Vietnam, inductee to the Food Hall of Fame, the list of achievements is endless…
Food and Travel caught up with award-winning chef Luke Nguyen in Vietnam as he opened his latest restaurant ‘Vietnam House’, an iconic downtown Saigon restaurant. Known for his authentic Vietnamese cuisine created from family recipes that draw upon the Chinese, French and Thai influences that reflect the heritage of the unique local culture; food for Nguyen is not just a family affair that brings people together, “Food is a really important expression of Vietnamese culture. It tells a story – a story of the land and of the history of the Vietnamese people.” he says with a genuine passion. Although brought up in New South Wales, Australia, Nguyen has a close connection to Asia. “My mother is Vietnamese / Chinese; I
was born in Thailand and raised in a restaurant.” he adds.
“Becoming a chef wasn’t a given, I come from a strict Vietnamese family and my parents wanted me to study hard and become a doctor or a lawyer, but I knew from a very early age, that I wanted to be a chef or a restaurateur; I started working in the family restaurant when I was 10, which I enjoyed immensely. I grew to enjoy the hospitality business and restaurants in particular; opening my first restaurant Red Lanterns in Sydney at the tender age of 23.” explained Nguyen.
“Originally I stayed true to traditional Vietnamese recipes – but now my own cooking has evolved – although I love traditional food – I wanted to raise Vietnamese to the level of Japanese or French cuisine– to change the perception of Vietnamese food as the cheap and cheerful option.” he reflects. “But now I have a unique approach; lifting Vietnamese cuisine to a fine dining level, by adding other elements – tapping into emotions and elevating each dish.”
Nguyen never uses MSG or artificial flavourings. “I just want to use the very best natural ingredients creating fresh flavours.”
We asked Nguyen why Vietnamese food has become so popular across the globe? “In my opinion, it’s because it offers such a delicate balance of flavours, yet it can also be gutsy and brave when it wants to. It’s a stunning combination that always surprises and delights; and that’s what keeps people coming back for more.” he replied.
It probably shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that this most personable and talented man should be at the helm of a chain of successful restaurants and a much-deserved global reputation for fine food. We asked for an insight into what makes his restaurants stand-out and where the inspiration for many of his dishes come from. “In addition to family recipes, whenever I am in Vietnam I try all the street food, these recipes have been passed on from generation to generation. The street vendors have been cooking these dishes for 30-40 years, so they have them perfected.” he replied “I learn these traditional dishes and recreate them adding my own accent and raising them to restaurant quality. My food is all about opening the door to the Vietnamese way of life.”
For Nguyen, the hardest and probably most important part of opening a new restaurant is finding the right team. “Finding chefs who are passionate about Vietnamese food is key, and if I can’t find them I won’t open a restaurant.” he says firmly.
Nguyen has taken his unique culinary ethos back to its spiritual home with the opening of Vietnam House, a downtown Saigon restaurant, in a building whose beautiful 1910 façade stays true its French colonial roots, located in the city’s famed Dong Khoi Street. The original restaurant opened in the early 1900s and was known as Cafe L’Imperial, before the first Vietnam House opened over 25 years ago and quickly set the standard for Vietnamese fine-dining.
This latest iteration raises the bar further with its ornate Art Deco Vietnamese décor and Nguyen’s distinct culinary style. “With Vietnam House, I’m bringing together the strands of my heritage, my journey of discovery in Vietnam and my career in the culinary industry to make this place something very special,” offered Nguyen. “Perhaps it is daring to bring my own take on classic Vietnamese dishes back to Vietnam, cooked with an Ozzie accent!”.” he concluded.
Nguyen has taken the best of Vietnam and combined it with finest produce from around the world; fish from Japan, Wagyu beef from Australia, pigeons from France – ingredients that will ensure his new modern take on the classic dishes are simply delicious.
The exceptional menu crafted through Nguyen’s extensive exploration of Vietnamese cuisine, includes favourite dishes such as: banh xeo, a crispy Vietnamese-style savoury pancake filled with local produce and fresh tofu, an elevated classical version of Wagyu Beef Pho and Wagyu Beef La Lot, succulent tender beef served with betel leaves, herbs and angel hair noodles. The Antipodean influence is showcased in vibrant fusion dishes such as slow-cooked ribs, in coconut juice, served with a delicious carrot purée and choy sum; and of course, mouth-watering seafood, from chargrilled lobster in a Phu Quoc pepper sauce, and soft rice paper rolls with seared sesame salmon. It’s no wonder this new outpost is so busy.
However, Vietnam House is not the only successful venture that Nguyen has in Saigon; he also operates GRAIN his cooking school. “When we were interviewing kids for MasterChef Junior in Vietnam I discovered that virtually none of them could cook beyond pot noodles or boiled eggs.” he noted “When I was young we all knew how to cook – but today in Vietnam, with its growing Middle Class, it has become a fast food culture, and the art of cooking has been lost. So I decided to launch GRAIN and teach kids how to cook, from market to plate; To ingrain cooking back into the Vietnamese culture.”
GRAIN is a Vietnamese culinary experience. In addition to learning the fundamentals of food preparation and presentation, you will experience a glimpse of Vietnamese history and hands-on approach that allows you to select and choose your own produce, herbs, spices, and sauces, from the in-house mini-market “What I want to achieve with GRAIN is that when you leave our cooking studio, you are already planning and looking forward to the next time you will be cooking.” says Nguyen.
With such range of commitments, we wondered how he managed to balance his successful TV career? “Making my TV series every series takes about 4 months of my year, plus I spend about a month a half researching the region, finding local restaurants and discovering new dishes, which motivates me to learn about age-old techniques, visit old “Ma & Pa” restaurants – then I take all that knowledge and experience back with me and put it on the menu!” offered Nguyen “I grow as a person after every series, which gives me so much as a person and as chef.” he concluded.
“I love travelling – I travel to eat – I go to great destinations to discover new foods, and new cuisines.”