Luke Nguyen talks with Selector
Luke Nguyen tells an amazing story about his journey to Australia as a child escaping the ravages of post-war Vietnam and the important role food played in his upbringing.
“When we escaped Vietnam by boat my parents took two things – the kids and their mortar and pestle,” he says in his warm and delicate manner that has made him a favourite on his SBS TV series.
“When we first came to Australia we didn’t have anything. Us kids would live on a cube of fermented bean curd and rice for the week.
“My parents worked really hard in restaurants before we opened our own in Cabramatta. As soon as we could walk we were working – before school, after school, weekends, school holidays. We worked a lot but I really enjoyed it.”
It is this sense of ‘belonging’ to food that has contributed to Luke’s drive for sustainability. His restaurant Red Lantern is recognised as one of the most sustainable in the country. He only uses sustainable produce, it runs on green energy and has a waterless wok system.
“For me, morally, I want to conserve the environment and all the produce we have,” Luke says. “Our whole philosophy is to leave as light a footprint on earth as possible.
“You are paying a little bit more but we are not over-priced. And you can tell in the simple things like garlic and ginger that when it is organic there is a huge difference and you don’t have to do much to the produce at all – it just speaks for itself. So when you have the flavours of Vietnamese cuisine with great produce it is a great formula.”
When talking of the flavours of Vietnam, Luke points to vibrant herbs and fresh vegetables.
“Lots of Vietnamese mint, parilla leaf, lemongrass. The taste of Vietnam is lots of fresh produce and delicate flavours. None of our dishes have big, bold punchy flavours. There are always quite a few things going on, but they are always quite light and elegant and in balance.”
There is no doubting Luke has a love of food and the hospitality industry. And with his TV series focused on Vietnam, he has the chance to explore more about his culinary heritage.
“I think what drives me is culture,” he says. “Every dish has a story, every dish has a region – it comes from somewhere and I love going back and learning where it came from, I love learning about street food, hawker food.
“You see ladies that have been sitting on the same spot on the street selling that one dish for the last 40 years – these are dishes that inspire me.”
Recently, Luke has released his own sustainable range of Asian cooking utensils and equipment including bamboo chopping boards, ceramic-coated woks and his own mortar and pestle, based on the design of the one his family brought from Vietnam.
“I still have my parents’ mortar and pestle at Red Lantern. It is a bit broken and chipped, but it has so much history and there is a story there about our family and culture, so it means so much to me.”
Check out Luke's
Char-grilled salmon salad