Star chef brings Vietnamese cuisine to world stage

September 17, 2017 - 09:00

Vietnamese-Australian celebrity chef Luke Nguyễn is overseeing the rebirth of the newly renovated Vietnam House in the heart of HCM City, offering a new twist on old favorites. He speaks to Mỹ Duyên.  

Chef Luke Nguyễn
Viet Nam News

Vietnamese-Australian celebrity chef Luke Nguyễn is overseeing the rebirth of the newly renovated Vietnam House in the heart of HCM City, offering a new twist on old favorites. Nguyễn became famous at aged 23 when he opened his first restaurant, the critically acclaimed Red Lantern in 2002.

He was also behind the much-loved Fat Noodle, an Asian noodle bar concept in Sydney and Brisbane. Recently inducted in the Food Hall of Fame for his cooking and travel TV programmes seen in over 150 countries, Nguyễn has been the host of Masterchef Việt Nam series 1 and 2, and has appeared on Gordon Ramsay’s Great Escape and Masterchef Australia. He speaks to Mỹ Duyên.    

Inner Sanctum: Could you tell us about your return to Việt Nam? 

I think this is a good chance to explain my love for Việt Nam. I don’t really view this as a “return”, as Việt Nam is my second home. I’ve been visiting Việt Nam since I was young, and I always return not only to work or for filming, but also to visit my extended family. I bring my family here to visit the country that has really become a part of my life. I now spend a significant time here as I will do a lot more filming and am overseeing our new restaurant Vietnam House.

Inner Sanctum:  The old Vietnam House was a successful destination for tourist and businesspeople for many decades. Why did you choose it for your first restaurant opening here? Did you feel any pressure about reopening such a well-known outlet?

This luxury Vietnamese restaurant is in a colonial building that once housed the famed Café L’Imperial in the early 1900s and was a popular destination for the city’s affluent business class. I’ve always admired the building and its iconic location. I’m excited to take the restaurant to new heights. I know customers will really enjoy the experience.

Of course, the previous success is pressure for myself and the team. We still want to strive to be a destination for tourists to experience the cuisine of Việt Nam. However, we feel this is an opportunity to bring something new to the table. We’ll offer menus for groups that present traditional Vietnamese fare, but we’ll also provide a carefully curated a la carte menu with some of my favourite Vietnamese recipes, but with a modern twist. 

Inner Sanctum: In what way do your Vietnamese recipes elevate the dining experience at the new Vietnam House?

I’ve tried to add my personal touch to some traditional recipes. Of course, I have influences from around the globe, and take ingredients and cooking styles from Europe, Australia, and other Asian countries, which I’ve used in the recipes. So I think Vietnam House will definitely be a unique dining experience for patrons. My goal is to take Vietnamese cuisine to the world stage.

Inner Sanctum: Some assume that most of your Vietnamese dishes are fusion, so how can you convince connoisseurs of Vietnamese cuisine who are keen on authentic recipes?   

I want to clarify that I do not feel these are fusion dishes. The recipes we’ve developed for Vietnam House are based on authentic recipes and traditional ingredients in Việt Nam. Of course, we’re using some new cooking styles and some premium imported ingredients to elevate the cuisine. But it’s our mission to provide an authentic experience that is also a new and unique take on Vietnamese cuisine.

Inner Sanctum: What do you think about the way Vietnamese eat today? 

Each country has its own style and Việt Nam definitely has a unique dining style. I’ve always loved street food and even the tiny plastic red stools for my morning coffee. Vietnamese dining is about excitement, from the spices and flavours to the bustle on the streets. However, the culture is changing as the country develops. We’re really starting to see some unique restaurants and high-end dining in major cities, and it’s exciting to be a part of that change. I think it’s important to have a balance of tradition and new, so we’ll still see the little red stools on the street corner, but we’ll now also see fine dining restaurants like Vietnam House opening up.

Inner Sanctum: What dishes would you  present if you were chosen to be an ambassador for Vietnamese cuisine?  

I think we need to reflect on tradition and present a selection of recipes that reflect the culinary culture of Việt Nam. However, I also think Việt Nam needs to implement new cooking styles to bring our cuisine to the world stage. There are so many great cooking styles, ingredients, and even ways of presenting food that chefs in Việt Nam can use to take their dishes to the next level. And that is what I’m striving to accomplish at Vietnam House. You will recognise some dishes, but they’ll have a modern twist to really make them stand out. For example, our rolls are made with Iberico pork, salmon or even fresh lobster. And our Wagyu beef phở is a must-try.

Inner Sanctum: You reached fame at an early age, so tell us how you became a master chef. Who influenced you in your choice of career or did you follow your family’s tradition?

To achieve technical prowess in any career, the most important thing is practice and study. And that is exactly what I’ve been doing my entire life. From learning in my auntie’s kitchen here in Việt Nam to working with famed and celebrated chefs around the globe, I’m always seeking out new ways to improve and learn. Of course, my family always supported my decision to go down this career path, and I did learn a lot from my relatives and our traditions, so that definitely did help in influencing my culinary career.

Inner Sanctum: Is passion important in your cooking career?

Passion is certainly important for a cooking career, but there is much more to my job than being in the kitchen and working with recipes and ingredients. I love to meet new people and try new things, and I have been truly blessed to have a career which allows me to explore not only Việt Nam and Asia but all of the world to learn about cultures, people and of course recipes and ingredients throughout the globe. I love what I do and it’s true that passion is important, but it’s not the only thing.

Inner Sanctum: You are the author of seven best-selling and award-winning cookbooks. Are you planning a new cookbook?       

Currently, I’m working on a few projects including a new TV show which will feature Việt Nam as well as some of my favourite dishes and restaurants in HCM City. Another cookbook is in the works, and in addition, I am continually flying around the globe working in my restaurants in Sydney, Brisbane, Hong Kong, and now Vietnam House. VNS