WA News Celebrity Profiles 10 Minutes with … Luke Nguyen
10 Minutes with … Luke Nguyen
Written by Ms Jan Hallam
Monday, 01 July 2013

 

Chef-Luke-Nguyen Jun13250x320 "when the family gets together it inevitably involves food, lots of it"

What was it like growing up in Cabramatta in the 1980s? 

It was tough. My siblings and myself were very young, we all worked day and night at my parents’ restaurant, but was also expected to score high grades at school. We didn’t have much of a childhood really. It was all work, work, work.

In your book, Secrets of the Red Lantern, food was at your family’s heart. How did cooking bring you together?

Working at the restaurant was the only ‘family’ time we would share outside of the house, cooking together at our home kitchen was always special. We would then, of course, enjoy the many courses we cooked, over several hours.

Is your family still in the kitchen together?

Our family is all quite dispersed now, my brother is in London, and I spend my time between Vietnam and Sydney, but when the family gets together it inevitably involves food, lots of it.

Cabramatta can be a violent place. How did you cope with that?

I was in my teens during the violent era of Cabramatta and, I must say, if my parents didn’t fill all my time with restaurant work, I could easily have got myself into some trouble. I think team sports and hard work is a great way of keeping teenagers out of mischief.

Racism can be a real problem in Australian society. Did you feel accepted as a child and teenager?

It was very hard for boat people to be accepted in Australia. The Vietnamese experienced a lot of racism throughout the years, in fact we still do.

We have all fallen in love with Vietnam through your cooking shows on SBS. How important was it to reconnect with your family’s heritage?

It was very important for me to reconnect not only with my family’s heritage, but also my own Vietnamese culture. I arrived in Australia when I was very young, so I really wanted to learn more about Vietnamese history and, of course, discover regional Vietnamese cuisine. It was something I needed to do as an adult and I feel very lucky that I can make it part of my work and share it with the rest of Australia and the world.

What emotions do you feel when you return to Vietnam?

I have never lived in Vietnam, however, every time I return, I feel like I have arrived home. I definitely have a close connection to the country. I am constantly learning when I am there – something new every day. I learn more about my language, culture, history and of course the food.

Do you have a favourite region in a culinary sense?

My favourite region for food would have to be Saigon, as it is the most diverse and contemporary. It has tropical weather, which means it is more abundant in herbs, fruits and vegetables and it is also close to the Mekong River and the sea, so the seafood is incredibly fresh.

We hear that you are to be on the first series of MasterChef Vietnam. What do you think will come from the show being produced there?

I decided to be a judge on MasterChef to promote Vietnamese cuisine and to put it on the world culinary map. It is currently airing in Vietnam and it is getting rave reviews. The great thing about MasterChef is that it gets people cooking, and especially the younger generation who are sadly cooking less and moving towards fast foods.

Is traditional Vietnamese cooking under threat from the West and fast food?

Absolutely, which is one of the main reasons why I wanted to be involved in MasterChef. I have noticed during my travels through Vietnam that the children are becoming overweight because of all the western fast food available. There are a lot of herbs and vegetables used in Vietnamese cooking, it is such a healthy cuisine, so for me, it is extremely sad to see the younger generation eating so badly.

You’re heading West soon for the Good Food & Wine Show. Do you have a favourite restaurant/chef here?

I have only been to the West once, and it was for only five hours, so unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to check places out. This time will be different though…

What dish could you never remove from the Red Lantern menu?

Chilli salted squid

What would be your last meal?

Banh Xeo – A crisp rice flour crepe, filled with mung beans, tiger prawns, pork belly, bean sprouts, spring onions and wrapped in fresh mustard lettuce and perilla leaves, dipped in a sweet fish sauce.