In our search for the movers and shakers of the new Vietnam, we met with celebrity chef Luke Nguyen. A Vietnamese-Australian chef who owns restaurants in Sydney, Hong Kong, and Brisbane, Luke immigrated to Australia at a young age, visiting Vietnam many times over the last decade. Along the way, Luke has been involved heavily in Vietnam with productions such as Luke Nguyen’s Vietnam and cooking studio GRAIN by Luke in Ho Chi Minh City.
We chatted with Luke during the annual Taste of Australia program, a Vietnam-wide celebration of Australian food, beverages, culinary culture, fashion and design, to learn about his vision and goals for Vietnamese cuisine.
What is the world’s opinion of Vietnamese food?
It’s a much loved and fresh cuisine. It’s light and healthy. It’s delicate with elegant flavors – not too many spices and chillies. It’s not super bold, so it’s easy to eat. The cuisine can adjust to a diverse palette of tastes easily. However many people think it’s just pho, banh mi, and rice paper rolls, as those dishes are the dishes that are featured prominently in Vietnamese restaurants around the world. So what’s next? It’s time to show how diverse Vietnamese food can be. It’s time to showcase regional food from all over Vietnam, from Hanoi, Hoi An, and Saigon. Many customers come for dinner at my restaurants and ask “Where’s my pho?”. Well, we don’t serve pho for dinner. Pho is a morning and breakfast dish, not many outsiders realize that. Vietnamese cuisine needs to be clearer about its story and messaging. The teams at my restaurants make it a point to educate.
So you’ve recently opened a restaurant in Hong Kong for the first time, Moi Moi by Luke Nguyen. Why not Vietnam? Anything on the roadmap here soon? What’s next on your culinary adventure?
I split my time across three different places now: Hong Kong, Sydney, and Vietnam. Hong Kong is one of the toughest restaurant environments in which to set up. And Vietnamese restaurants’ scope is very narrow in Hong Kong. In fact, my newest venue, Moi Moi by Luke Nguyen, caught flack for not featuring pho during dinner oddly enough. My personal mission is to raise Vietnamese cuisine to a level that customers can enjoy the full dining experience, not just something cheap and cheerful. Vietnamese cuisine can be paired up with great wine too, not just your typical bia hoi. It’s time for the world to see the best of Vietnamese cuisine.
So why not Vietnam? Well, I’m happy to break the news to you: I’m opening a restaurant here in Ho Chi Minh City in the next few months on Dong Khoi Street. Look out for more details!
Is there ever a right time for an overseas Vietnamese to look at starting something in Vietnam?
I was inspired by last year’s Taste of Australia program. The initiative showcased the need and demand for high-quality, clean produce and food in Vietnam. And today is the perfect time to source those products. I love taking Vietnamese cuisine and fusing it with high-quality Aussie lamb, seafood, and beef. It’s a reflection of my own personal identity, as a Vietnamese-Australian.
When we pair Vietnamese cuisine with high-quality ingredients, then we can create the best Vietnamese restaurants in the world. It’s time to do something like this. Next year the Michelin Guide is coming to Vietnam, and it’s not even in Australia yet. It’s coming to Thailand this year, and Vietnam is up next.
What are your favorite travel destinations for food inspiration?
Through all my travels in Vietnam, my biggest inspiration remains Hanoi. After that, Da Nang and Hoi An. I grew up influenced by southern Vietnamese cooking through family, so being exposed to different regions of Vietnam has helped me broaden my knowledge of Vietnamese food. I also really love food in Malaysia, specifically Kuala Lumpur and Penang. It’s one of the ultimate melting pots of flavours in Southeast Asia.
What are five nice-to-knows about Luke?
I have twin boys, Kian and Kohl, aged 18 months, and they are going become the biggest foodies!
When I get invited to someone’s house for dinner, my favourite dishes are the simplest ones.
I still love to eat instant noodles.
I’m on a mission to reduce food wastage in the world.
My guilty pleasure is chocolate.
Tell us one memorable story from your experience growing up in Australia as a young Vietnamese.
I come from a foodie family. We share extravagant lunches and dinners with traditional Vietnamese fare like cha. We’d take it outside of the home too. When I was a schoolboy, I’d bring some of these dishes to school while my peers would have vegemite and peanut butter sandwiches. I wanted the Aussie lunch and they wanted the Vietnamese lunch. Enough of my friends wanted my lunch that I had to bring extra! Australia is very multicultural and our country embraces it. I eventually started a small side business as a kid, handing out Vietnamese lunches in Tiffin boxes.
Who should we speak with next?
Thanh Bui, a Vietnamese-Australian singer and artist from Melbourne. He came to Vietnam to open a music institute, SOUL Music & Performing Arts Academy, in Ho Chi Minh City. The institute offers classes in arts, dance, and music. Thanh is all about dance and music.