On the wall of the studio a large image of a fruit and vegetable and spice market in Dalat catches the eye. Luke calls it one of the most beautiful markets in Vietnam he has visited. It’s also a place that provides him with much inspiration in creating his contemporary Vietnamese dishes.
He piqued our interest in the way he presents Vietnamese cuisine at his studio. It’s a nice space with cooking utensils in a Vietnamese-style kitchen, a market pantry with fresh and colourful vegetables, spices, herbs and grains sitting in bamboo baskets where foreign visitors can learn more about Vietnamese ingredients.
Luke gives his guests inspiration and a love for cooking Vietnamese food using simple yet interesting methods. ‘What I want to achieve with Grain is that when our guests leave the cooking studio they are already planning and looking forward to the next time they cook Vietnamese food in their own kitchen,’ he said.
Luke began his cooking class by presenting nuoc mam (fish sauce), a spicy and key ingredient in Vietnamese food. He invited us to taste the various flavours of nuoc mam and showed us how to use it in dishes. He aims to create Vietnamese dishes in a contemporary style based on traditional recipes. In addition to learning the fundamentals of food preparation and presentation, visitors can also expect to experience a glimpse of Vietnamese history and culture through each individual dish they create.
I wondered how someone living in Australia since he was a kid has retained his deep passion for Vietnamese cuisine. His answer was simple: his family. ‘It all started when I was just a kid, working at my parents’ Vietnamese noodle house in the Sydney suburbs,’ he recalled, ‘It was extremely hard work, but I learned to love the hospitality industry and in particular cooking.’
As he grew up his parents taught him the fundamentals of Vietnamese cuisine; how to achieve the balance of flavours, how to get all the sweet, sour, salty, bitter and spicy notes all to work in great harmony together. Then, he became passionate about the freshness of produce, how to choose and source the best ingredients and learn all the medicinal qualities of each herb, vegetable, fruit, root and spice that he uses in his cooking. ‘This is why I fell in love with Vietnamese cuisine,’ he said. ‘It not only tastes good and looks good but is also very good for you. A cuisine that is light and healthy. A unique cuisine that I wanted to share with the world.’
Actually, his parents didn’t want him to become a chef because they knew from their own experience how hard it can be. He followed their advice and went to university to become an IT engineer, but his heart was so full of passion for cooking that he just couldn’t resist it. At the age of 23 he decided to open his own Vietnamese restaurant in Surry Hills, in Sydney’s inner city, called Red Lantern, where guests would come not only for a dining experience but also a great cultural experience as well.
In 2010 he came back Vietnam and began a journey to discover the country. He loved to visit markets, where found much inspiration to create new dishes from fresh ingredients. He told me that when he walked through the early morning Nha Trang market he noticed a lot of fresh jellyfish on sale. Vietnamese cooks would mainly add jellyfish to noodle soups. But he added jellyfish to Goi Ga - Vietnamese chicken salad - and it worked perfectly. Jellyfish carries flavour and is a textural delight. And he was excited to enjoy breakfast at street food stalls with friendly local people. It all gave him some unforgettable memories. ‘I learned more about Vietnamese cuisine on my trips and created more new flavours,’ he said.
Luke is now known as a professional food expert all around the world with his restaurants and his cooking show, which is broadcast in the UK, the US and throughout Asia. In Vietnam he is known for his role as judge on the TV show ‘Master Chef Vietnam’. He has also written a cookbook presenting Vietnamese food. ‘Vietnam being ruled by China for a thousand years and colonised by France for almost a hundred years made Vietnamese cuisine the most refined Asian cuisine there is,’ he said. ‘For me, food is culture. Through my restaurants, cookbooks and my cooking and travel TV shows, I am passionate about sharing the food and culture of Vietnam.’
Cooking classes with Luke Nguyen at Grain Cooking Studio
Level 3, 71-75 Hai Ba Trung, D.1, HCMC
Tel: (08) 3827 4929