Good morn­ing Viet­nam

Luke Nguyen epit­o­mises all that is good about Viet­namese cui­sine and hos­pi­tal­ity. He speaks with Jonathan Jack­son about an undy­ing love for the sights, sounds, tastes and smell of his an­ces­tral home­land.

Business First - - EAT & DRINK -

For those who have dined at the Red Lan­tern, seen the chef on SBS tele­vi­sion’s Luke Nguyen’s Viet­nam or even read his cook­books, one thing is clear, Viet­nam is a prom­i­nent player in all that he does.

His love for Viet­nam stems from his child­hood: work­ing in his par­ents’ Cabra­matta res­tau­rant where he would wait ta­bles, en­ter­tain guests – as chil­dren are wont to do – and learn the pro­cesses of cook­ing tasty Viet­namese broth.

It was a dif­fi­cult child­hood, but happy nonethe­less. There was no rest; the Nguyen sib­lings grew up in the res­tau­rant in­dus­try. They worked and went to school and it could have been enough to drive any nor­mal kid out of the in­dus­try. But not Luke, he knew even in rel­a­tive in­fancy that the res­tau­rant in­dus­try was his call­ing.

He fondly re­mem­bers the cook­ing process and learn­ing all el­e­ments of a great Viet­namese soup.

“It was all about the soup; the beau­ti­ful aro­matic broth and how to ex­tract all the flavour from the mar­row and how to put the veg­eta­bles in a way where all the flavours would sift through,” Luke says. “There were 13 or 14 va­ri­eties of spice and I was learn­ing the bal­ance of flavour – what’s es­sen­tial be­fore ac­tu­ally com­plet­ing a dish. It was like the 10-year process a sushi chef has to un­dergo be­fore be­ing al­lowed to pre­pare a piece of sushi for a guest.”

Luke learnt how to make a full flavoured Pho. He also had in­stilled in him a work ethic that has car­ried through to this day.

“It was in­grained in me,” Luke says. “You don’t want to be work­ing the whole time, you want to hang out with friends, but we had to do well in school, we had to get top grades and at the same time, we had to help the fam­ily busi­ness.”

He de­cided that he would open his own din­ing es­tab­lish­ment when he was 12. A year-six school dis­cus­sion with re­gard to fu­ture pro­fes­sions raised all the likely sus­pects in­clud­ing fire­man, as­tro­naut and doc­tor, how­ever Luke was adamant that he would open a Viet­namese res­tau­rant. Thir­teen years later, at the age of 23, Red Lan­tern opened for busi­ness, boast­ing the same colour scheme and rus­tic charm that he had en­vi­sioned all those years ago.

With lit­tle money be­hind him, Red Lan­tern was de­signed to be an in­ti­mate and au­then­tic ex­pe­ri­ence. Luke ral­lied some friends and fam­ily and painted, bought the wines at auc­tion and did ev­ery­thing on a very tight bud­get.

“When we opened the doors, I had $100 left in my pocket, but I had no fear of fail­ure.”

With the ‘Open for Busi­ness’ sign fac­ing the street, the only way to stop the res­tau­rant from join­ing a host of oth­ers in hos­pi­tal­ity heaven was to build rep­u­ta­tion. Ac­cord­ing to Luke this was hard work, but he says the Syd­ney res­tau­rant in­dus­try is ex­traor­di­nar­ily sup­port­ive.

“On a Mon­day at night, when most restau­rants have closed for the day, we would get to­gether and sup­port each other. We would go to each other’s restau­rants and re­ally talk about what was go­ing on. I found when Red Lan­tern opened, that we had all the great chefs come and of­fer sup­port and talk about it. So it grew through word of mouth, be­cause we never had a bud­get for advertising or mar­ket­ing.”

Another rea­son for Red Lan­tern’s suc­cess is its au­then­tic­ity. This small 48-seater opened as one of the only Viet­namese restau­rants in the city, how­ever Luke wanted to make it a

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