A Star Vietnamese Chef in Hong Kong
The refugee-turned-celebrity-chef opens up about his first venture in Hong Kong and his quest to propel regional Vietnamese cooking onto the world stage. By NAN-HIE IN.
Published on Feb 22, 2017
TALK ABOUT ARRESTING cuisine. Chef Luke Nguyen was hauled off to a jail in Vietnam for a fiery mud-crab dish. Luckily, Nguyen—owner of the famed Red Lantern restaurants in Australia and star of hit TV shows such as Luke Nguyen Vietnam—thrives on chaos and has a knack for wiggling out of sticky situations.
Chef Luke Nguyen. Courtesy of Red Lantern.
During a street-food shoot in Saigon, the chef and his film crew were whisked away by the cops after Nguyen was caught whipping up the offending crab curry at a street vendor's cart. "The cameras were on, I had all my ingredients, then the authorities came and I didn't even notice [their arrival]," Nguyen says. At the police station, he explained that they were not hawking their food, which was illegal on that corner, and after presenting his filming permit they were released.
The chef has countless stories about his shows, travels and more, which make for great television and great food. Many of his experiences in Vietnam inspire dishes at his restaurants, including his first venture in Hong Kong, Moi Moi by Luke Nguyen (GF, Nexxus Building, 41 Connaught Rd., Central; dinner for two HK$500), in partnership with ZS Hospitality Group, which opened in January 2017.
The green-tea-smoked duck at Moi Moi was conceived during a visit to the northern highlands of Sapa, where he tried the local specialty prepared with ingredients from the surroundings: green tea from the garden, star anise plucked off a nearby tree. "This is the kind of meal I want to share," he says. "I love these kinds of dishes; it's why we do what we do."
Nguyen's love of cooking has come full circle: his dishes today are inspired by Vietnam, but his own story begins with leaving the country. In the 1970s during the Vietnam War, Nguyen's family escaped by boat while his mother was pregnant with him. They reached Thailand, then resettled in Australia where his parents eventually opened a Vietnamese eatery in Sydney called Pho Cay Du. The experience taught him the craft of cooking and stirred his ambition to open his own restaurant. In 2012, he realized this dream with Red Lantern, in Sydney.
Vietnamese flavor with modern flair at Red Lantern, in Sydney, Nguyen's first restaurant. Courtesy of Red Lantern.
His lifelong mission is to encourage greater Vietnamese food literacy among diners as "there is more to Vietnamese food than pho and banh mi," he says. At Moi Moi in Hong Kong, the menu will be prepared with organic and sustainable produce, hold the MSG. Expect a broad repertoire of Vietnamese fare, including a caramelized Kurobuta pork with lemongrass, spring onions, lime leaves, and topped with pork floss.
And now that he's putting down roots in Hong Kong, the city is already providing inspiration for a new TV show. "I think the next series would be about Hong Kong because there's much going on here," he said noting his affection for local seafood plates. This time though, he'll stay away from crab curry.
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