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.
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