Luke Nguyen, chef, restaurateur & TV presenter, 41
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