The night before Luke Nguyen's Cabramatta Tour, I read Secrets of the Red Lantern, written by Luke's sister, Pauline.
As Pauline unravelled the threads of her family story, there was one anecdote that immediately leapt off the pages, making me smile. It was her description of her younger brother Luke as a kid...
It came as no surprise to any of us when Luke told of his plans for Red Lantern. For as long as I can remember, he has always dreamed of opening his own establishment. Whilst Lewis and I pursued other careers, the art of hospitality is all that Luke has ever known. It is in his blood.
Merely to watch Luke work is to die a little. At the age of four he was already dashing around like an efficient midget, cleaning ashtrays, wiping tables and taking orders. While Lewis and I worked for my parents simply because we had no choice, Luke performed all his duties with genuine enthusiasm and an unceasing ‘can do’ attitude.
I can still picture him, carefully carrying individual cups of coffee to the customers with both hands, taking tiny steps with the focus of a tightrope walker, making sure not to spill a single drop. When the bowls of noodle soup went out, he would remind his customers in his authoritative little mean voice to "…eat slowly, and be careful, don’t burn your tongue."
Of course, all the regulars loved him. He was their little star and he knew it.
All around the restaurant, Luke liked to think of himself as a speed demon.
"Bread…" he would coach me, "…should arrive to the customer as quick as Flash Gordon."
"Oh yeah? Why’s that?" I humoured him.
"So that it’s still as hot and crusty as possible."
"Oh really? Why’s that?"
With great annoyance he would sigh, "It is the only way."
- from Secrets of the Red Lantern by Pauline Nguyen
It's obvious when you meet Luke in the flesh that his passion for food is still just as strong. These days he's a restauranteur, a cookbook author and gracing our tv screens in the new SBS series Luke Nguyen's Vietnam.
I was keen to find out more about the affable Luke and he was happy to oblige. He even dug out some kiddie photos from the family photo album!
Ten Questions with Luke Nguyen
1. I loved your sister’s description of you in the passage above from Secrets of the Red Lantern. Is this how you remember your childhood and what it was like working in your parents’ restaurants? And does the Flash Gordon reference mean you were a keen fan?
I worked at my family restaurant every day - before school, after school and even during school holidays. In this description I was must have been only 10 or 12 years old - most of the guests had watched me grow up, they were all family to me, so I actually enjoyed looking after them. It was a very busy little place so I had to work fast, zipping around like ‘Flash Gordon’. I watched the cartoons but I didn’t have his comics.
2. Can you remember the first dish you learned how to cook?
Pho was the first dish I was taught to cook. It's a medicinal beef broth served with rice noodles and fine slices of beef sirloin and brisket.
I was 10, standing on a blue milk crate watching over dad’s huge 200 litre pot of beef broth. I would stand there skimming for hours, making sure it was clean and clear. Once I achieved that, I was eventually shown what secret spices and Chinese medicinal herbs went in tothe spice bag – it was all very hush hush.
3. Is there a food or smell that instantly transports you back to your childhood?
Definitely slow braised baby goat cooked in a delicate turmeric curry. My parents would have this cooking for around 6 hours, allowing the goat meat to just slide off the bone. The aroma of curry leaves and dry spices makes me feel like a youngster again.
Can you spot the young Luke Nguyen?
4. What was a typical packed lunch for you when you were a kid?
Mum used to give us kids a tiered Asian lunch box – which was made out of stainless steel and had four levels. There was a tier of rice, a soup of Asian greens, a tier with a braised meat dish and the last, a salad. I was always quite embarrassed carrying this shiny tall lunch box to school as everyone else had a simple sandwich and Doritos, but looking back now as an adult - it was pretty cool!
I still have the same lunch box from school. I bring it out for picnics and when not in use, I store varieties of tea in it.
5. What inspired you to write The Songs of Sapa? Did you have a clear idea from the start?
My family is from the south of Vietnam, so I am familiar with all the southern dishes. However I wanted to explore the rest of the country and learn more about the diverse cuisine that each region in Vietnam has to offer.
I headed off on a research trip with my partner, Suzanna, who took beautiful photos to go with my recipes and stories. I got to meet amazing locals, make new friends, discover age old recipes, and share it with the rest of the world through a book.
Luke's mum with copies of his new book The Songs of Sapa
6. How did the series Luke Nguyen’s Vietnam come about? Were the TV series and the book created concurrently during your visits to Vietnam? How many days did you spend in Vietnam to create the book and the series?
The series came about after I had completed the book. The book was so vibrant, colourful, and raw and showed the real Vietnam. It only made sense to follow it with a cooking travel series through Vietnam to allow viewers to experience it through their tv screens.
I spent 2 months researching and documenting recipes for The Songs of Sapa and I spent 9 weeks with a crew of 12 filming Luke Nguyen’s Vietnam.
7. Your father, Lap Nguyen, has been quoted as saying “Luke was born and grew up abroad so he doesn’t understand thoroughly about Vietnam. We have returned to Vietnam to help him.”
How much of a help or a hindrance were your parents on your trips?!
My parents played a huge role in the making of the series. They introduced me to family members I had never met, introduced ingredients that were foreign to me, bought produce for my recipes, and acted as interpreters to the crew. They were parents to everyone working on the project.
And yes there were days where they would drive me insane – but that’s what parents do.
Luke Nguyen with his parents
8. What’s your favourite recipe from The Songs of Sapa and why?
Favorite recipe would have to be the ‘crisp silken tofu in black pepper sauce’. I was in Sapa in the northern mountains of Vietnam, searching for ‘the tofu maker’. I finally tracked him down and we arranged for me to come back early the next morning and for me to be his apprentice for the day.
Never before had I made tofu from scratch. We soaked the soy beans, crushed it and squeezed out all the juice. We cooked it in a pot - heated by a fire made from sticks - by bringing it to the boil, adding natural coagulant, pressing it and then cutting it to form steaming hot silken tofu which is sold straight to the markets.
I sat there as the sun was rising, sipping on hot soy milk and eating handmade tofu for breakfast. It was very memorable.
9. What dish do you crave when you're sick?
Bitter melon soup with minced pork, as bitter melon is a ‘cooling’ vegetable and refreshing for my body.
10. What's the ideal breakfast you'd want to wake up to?
A big bowl of pho – with the lot! Rice noodles, raw sirloin, brisket, tripe, tendon and beef balls.
And yes, indeedy, we have a freebie! Don't you love a Freebie Friday?
One copy of Luke Nguyen's new cook book The Songs of Sapa (recommended retail price AU$70.00).
Please note this competition is open to Australian and New Zealand residents only.
HOW TO ENTER:
All you have to do is:
- Leave a comment on this post and tell us "what was a typical packed lunch for you when you were a kid?"
- Send an email to email@example.com and include your full name and a copy of your comment on this post.
The winner will be chosen on the basis of entertainment value and/or sheer honesty. Judge's decision is final and no correspondence will be entered into.
Don't forget you still have time to enter the Grab Your Fork Secret Recipe competition to win $200 worth of kitchenware. Entries close 31/10/09. Enter now.
And Grab Your Fork will be a little quiet for about a week as I'm jetting off to Singapore for the Nuffnang Asia-Pacific Blog Awards. I'll be attending as a guest (thanks to Suze winning two tickets with this post - thanks Suze!) and cheering on Aussie food blog finalists Eat Show & Tell.
See you all soon!
Related Grab Your Fork posts:
Luke Nguyen's Cabramatta Food Tour
(now updated with shop names and details of Luke's personal recommendations)
Luke Nguyen's caramelised pork belly recipe
Luke Nguyen's Canh Chua tamarind soup and silver perch recipe
Ten Questions with Curtis Stone
Ten Questions with Matthew Evans
Ten Questions with Poh Ling Yeow
Ten Questions with Chubby Hubby
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10/23/2009 12:19:00 am