Profile: Celebrity Chef Luke Nguyen

It all started with a cup of coffee. Celebrity chef Luke Nguyen had no clue that a cup of coffee at one of the umpteen coffee shops in Vietnam would set him off on an unforgettable journey. Amid long gulps of the hot coffee, a question arose in Nguyen’s mind–how did coffee come to Vietnam? Thus began the journey tracing back the real roots of his motherland’s delicacies.

This led him to a not-so-surprising discovery that there is a great influence of French cuisine on that of Vietnam’s. Born in a Thai refugee camp, like many of his peers from war-stricken Vietnam, the French connection seemed the most obvious answer to his query. For almost a century, the French had colonised his country and their influences can still be seen in Vietnamese food and culture. Curious by nature, Luke went ahead by interviewing many Vietnamese people who grew up during the French colonisation and were now nonagenarians. All this while running one of the best Vietnamese restaurants in Sydney, Red Lantern, judging television cook shows like MasterChef Australia, hosting a highly-rated television show called Luke Nguyen’s Vietnam and penning food books like Secrets of the Red Lantern, The Songs of Sapa and Indochine.

French connection
Armed with enough information, Luke was now ready to explore France and dig deeper. This translated into a show called Luke Nguyen’s France that is currently on air in India. “The idea was to immerse myself in the food and culture of France, and discover how French cooking styles and ingredients had influenced our cuisine and vice versa,” says Luke over an email interview from Sydney. “It became a bonus that I had a lot of family (members) in France and the show became a great way to reconnect with all of them.”

Following the format of his earlier show, Luke Nguyen’s France spans out in half-hour episodes that take you around the country giving you a taste of the food and culture. Beginning his journey in Paris, Luke moves to Starsbourg, Lyon, Nice, Biarritz and St Malo, all places known for their distinct cooking styles and star recipes. Much like this Vietnam series, most of the cooking happens outdoors and filled with cheerful banter with the locals. Luke has tried to include a good mix of French and Vietnamese dishes in the show; sometimes, even coming up with fusion food by mixing flavours and ingredients from Spain and Africa as well. His endearing conversations with the local residents, from whom he learns the art of regional French cooking, gives a breezy, light feel to show.

Pho and behold
Through his eventful journey through France, the first link he unearthed was about his favourite Vietnamese dish pho. What he calls “the beautiful bowl of soup,” pho holds a special place in Luke’s heart, as it is one of the smells that take him back to his childhood. Having fled from Vietnam during the turbulent 1970s, his parents got into the restaurant business in Australia and Nyguyen and his siblings helped them out after school. His go-to dish, says Luke, is inspired by the boiled French dish, le pot au feu. “Pho is essentially a soup, served with noodles, consommé, thinly sliced beef and onion,” explains Luke. “It was traditionally served only in the mornings or on Sundays or if you were suffering from a fever or cold. Now everybody identifies Vietnamese food with pho and it is even available in street corners.” The meat in the pho has been believed to be a European contribution, which they probably introduced to adjust the soup to their taste. “The base of both the pot au feu and pho are the same,” he explains. “They are both used making marrow bones and charred onion for better flavour and colour.”

Respect the produce
What impressed Luke the most in France was the way people there appreciate and respect their produce. “When they cook they always use fresh produce and the most premium quality,” he says. They take their food seriously, which added to the fun while filming the show. Another difference was that unlike Asian cooking, the French take their time to prepare a dish. And, the dishes are not always easy to replicate.

Luke, however, takes no time to think when asked about his favourite French dish. “Baguettes,” the answer would stay the same on any day of the week or time of the day. “The French make the best baguettes, and they are meant to be eaten with food and not stuffed with food. While growing up, I used to devour the baguettes we got in cafes here. But in France, they are heavier and taste nothing like the baguettes we eat outside the country,” adds Nyguyen. This journey has also made him a more adventurous eater and he tried out food that were made by ingredients he had never tasted earlier, thanks to the curious ways of the French.

Stirring up memories
One of the best memories he cherishes from his France trip is when he met his cousin Lauren in Paris and they cooked a Vietnamese dish called Ca Kho together. “It is a caramelised fish dish and we cooked it in a very French way,” recalls Luke. “Lauren’s cooking techniques were completely French. We communicated with each other in broken Vietnamese and broken French but it was a delight to cook with him. I think that was the dish in which the marriage of the two cuisines was really defined.” The dish consists of fish rubbed with spring onions, chilli and garlic simmered in young coconut water and braised, and turned out, according to Nyguyen, “divine and delicious”.

There was also the time that Nyguyen went in search of an artisan butcher he had been referred to. He found the butcher in a room filled with hanging jambon. Each piece of hanging meat was cut to order, wrapped in muslin cloth and labelled the name of the chef who had ordered it. “Among the hams, I was surprised and thrilled to find the names of many Michelin starred chefs and even the French Prime Minister’s name,” says Nyguyen.

India calling
It may not be long before you meet Luke on one of our Indian streets, with his stove and wok. “You will be surprised to know that I have a very strong and large Indian family as well,” he says. “My aunt married an Indian man, and they live in France. We are a close-knit family.” Among the Indian dishes, Luke favours the vegetarian varieties. Given that “India is such an incredible country, rich in history and culture”, Nyguyen can’t wait to visit us and learn more about our food and cooking styles. “Every cuisine has a story to tell” and what keeps him going is this relentless quest for “the deep history and many tales behind these incredible dishes,” he signs off.

And, as for the question that kicked off this journey: coffee came to Vietnam through the French. The first coffee tree is believed to have been planted by a French Catholic priest in 1857. Today, Vietnam is the world number one producer and exporter of Robusta coffee and you can find a coffee shop in almost every corner in the country.

The chef’s rapid fire

Favourite Vietnamese dish: Fermented bean curd

Favourite French dish: Baguettes

One ingredient in France I wish was used in Vietnamese cooking: Butter, extra virgin olive oil and zucchini flowers

A myth I wish the world cleared about Vietnamese food: I think the most clichéd thing about Vietnamese food is that we only have a few dishes

A perfect meal for me will include: Pho

On a lazy day, I usually cook: Fresh salads

Where and what to eat in France: Eat everything! The best food is available at the quaint little bistros in the countryside. It would help to have some idea of the language to be able to identify the ingredients.



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