Luke Nguyen, chef, restau­ra­teur & TV pre­sen­ter, 41

The Weekend Australian - Magazine - - Front - By Cathy Os­mond ◖ ◗

First things first: how do you pro­nounce pho – “foh” or “fur”? Fur – but you need to put a ques­tion mark at the end of it, like “fu­urr?” The Viet­namese lan­guage is very tonal, and with­out that ris­ing in­flec­tion it’s com­pletely wrong.

You have restau­rants on the boil in Ho Chi Minh City – but what’s go­ing on in Aus­tralia? My new restau­rant, Botanic House in Syd­ney, tells you who I am cul­tur­ally. My par­ents were born in Viet­nam; I was born in a Thai refugee camp; and I have Chi­nese her­itage on my mother’s side. The cook­ing is a mar­riage of all that – and also be­ing raised in Aus­tralia.

Can you tell us about your strict up­bring­ing in Syd­ney’s west? My fa­ther was a lieu­tenant in the South Viet­namese army and ex­pected his kids to be like sol­diers ... Do what I say and do it now! If you don’t be­have I’ll beat you! I’m sure the war had messed him up psy­cho­log­i­cally. And when we ar­rived in Aus­tralia we had no help. There was no coun­selling… no time to heal him­self. We three kids were forced to work in the restau­rant. We de­spised it but as I grew I re­alised I loved cook­ing. The dream of open­ing my own place was born.

You could have re­belled... I tried! I went to uni and did IT and I was so bored. I just wanted to get out there and cook.

In your new SBS se­ries you travel around Viet­nam by rail. What’s the most un­usual thing you’ve eaten there? Whole char­grilled bat was a bit chal­leng­ing. But I tried it; it was OK [laughs]. And in the Mekong, re­ally fat juicy worms that live off co­conuts. The grow­ers said, “If you’re Viet­namese, you have to try them. And if you’re a Viet­namese man, you have to try them live.” They gave me a bowl of fish sauce with the worms wrig­gling in it. They said I couldn’t chew one un­til it bit the in­side of my mouth first. It was de­li­cious. So I ate a few more...

You travel a lot – with twin four-year-old boys, is that hard? Kian and Kohl love fly­ing – I take them ev­ery­where with me! You should see the other pas­sen­gers’ faces when we get on the plane – they’re like Nooo… but by the end of an eight-hour flight they’re shak­ing our hands and say­ing, “They’re awe­some!” The boys are ad­ven­tur­ous with food, too. Like me, they’ll eat any­thing.

WHOLE Char­grilled BAT Was a BIT Chal­leng­ing. BUT i ate it

What do you and your part­ner Lynne like to cook at home? Very sim­ple, pre­mium in­gre­di­ents done on the char­grill. In Ho Chi Minh City we’ll go to the wet mar­ket to get the best river prawns, beau­ti­ful oc­to­pus, crab. For me it’s all about live seafood, sim­ply sea­soned and put on the bar­be­cue.

What’s your favourite place to eat in Cabra­matta, where your mum still lives? My go-to restau­rant there is a place called Phu Quoc. It’s very au­then­tic. And if you’re crav­ing pho, there’s this place called Pho 54 that’s been there since my par­ents had their restau­rant. Re­ally tiny place, beau­ti­ful pho.

If you could keep just one piece of equip­ment from your kitchen, what would it be? I al­ways carry my mor­tar and pes­tle with me. When my par­ents fled Viet­nam they brought theirs – can you be­lieve it? We’ve been us­ing it since open­ing Red Lantern [in Syd­ney] in 2002. It had a mas­sive crack in it and it’s a bit bat­tered but we still use it. It goes ev­ery­where with us. There’s so much love in it!

The 10-part se­ries pre­mieres on De­cem­ber 5 on SBS, 7.30pm

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