lifestyle • 02 Aug, 2017
Interview: Luke Nguyen On Redefining Vietnam House Restaurant
The Multi-Talented Chef, Restaurateur and TV Host Talks About This Historic Dong Khoi Location
You probably know Luke Nguyen. He’s a renowned chef and restaurateur – besides Red Lantern and Fat Noodle in Australia, he recently opened a Vietnamese casual dining restaurant in Hong Kong called Moi Moi right on Connaught Road in the Central district of the city.
He’s also an author and a TV host best known for Luke Nguyen’s Vietnam, Luke Nguyen’s Street Food Asia, and for his appearance on MasterChef Vietnam, and you might also have visited his Saigon cooking school, Grain.
Luke’s latest project is to redefine the historic Vietnam House Restaurant. This colonial building has one of the city’s most exclusive addresses, 93-97 Dong Khoi. A commercial space when it opened sometime before 1910, by 1928 the ground floor had been changed to Bar Catinat which quickly became the epicenter of our city’s nightlife scene. More recently this location has become better known as a tourist restaurant (also called Vietnam House) – all traditional music and conical hats.
Luke’s first eatery in Vietnam is looking to change all that, while still glancing back at this building’s eccentric history. It’s also a springboard for his ambitious plans for Vietnamese cuisine. “Globally Vietnamese food is known for being cheap and cheerful, but I want to elevate this cuisine and put it on the world map,” Luke says.
Can you tell us three things we should know about the new Vietnam House Restaurant?
First, you should know about this iconic building. We kept the façade and gutted the rest, and we installed features like the 1920s-style elevator. It’s new old. And there are lots of designer touches to the interior. Then there are the dishes – these are Vietnamese dishes from north to south Vietnam. You may know this food, like bo kho, but it’s been refined and elevated. This is my personality that I want to express. And last, this is casual fine dining – I didn’t want tablecloths.
Tell us more about the concept behind the cuisine.
These are traditional flavors with a modern twist. There’s rice paper rolls with sesame seared salmon with green mango & caviar, bo kho with pea puree & black truffle and banh xeo with Alaskan King crab and Iberico pork. And there’s my version of banh dap, a dish from Central Vietnam. It’s soft rice noodles placed on a crispy rice cracker then smashed together, hence the name – then you dip it into some anchovy paste. Here it becomes our Iberico pork, prawn & mung bean rice crostini.
Do people ever get defensive when you play with classic recipes?
I’ve upset people, especially hardcore traditionalists. They’d be like “Hey, that is not a traditional bo kho man!” It is bo kho, but it’s my contemporary bo kho. That’s what I believe. I ask all my chefs to show me their personality through their cooking and their food.
Bo kho with pea puree & black truffle
How do you stay stocked with ideas?
I travel the world and I seek out other like-minded people. I look for young chefs, maybe raised in Australia, or around the globe, with their own interpretations of popular dishes. I love seeing that.
We read that in the 1930s, they used to have boxing matches upstairs in this building. What entertainment are you thinking of for your new restaurant?
Haha, yes, I heard that. But here, I want the entertainment to be your guests, and our service — it’ll be friendly, and we will be passionate about what we do.
Besides Vietnam House Restaurant, what are you working on?
I’m doing a TV show based around my restaurant businesses. It starts in Sydney with the Red Lantern and my noodle bar, Fat Noodle. I also have a Fat Noodle in Brisbane. But for the programme, we also connect to great chefs locally and explore the food scene wherever we are. Then we’ve just been in Hong Kong at Moi Moi shooting one of the shows. And the next show will be in Saigon. The series will come out early next year. What’s it called? I actually haven’t decided on the name yet…
So how can you manage your time now (after also opening Moi Moi in Hong Kong five months ago)?
I’m in Hong Kong all the time. But I’ll be here mostly. And I’ll be spending time in Sydney and Brisbane. Australia’s only a three-hour time difference – that means I get six hours sleep and I can function when I land.
What ingredient do you always sneak into your suitcase?
Fish sauce. Probably from Phu Quoc, however Phan Thiet fish sauce is very good too.
What does the food scene in Saigon have that other cities don’t?
We have a diversity of Vietnamese cuisine. If I go to Sydney, I get mostly southern food. That’s all I knew growing up. But here I can Hue food, I can get Da Nang food, I can get Hanoi food...
Which other location in this city would you like to renovate and turn into a restaurant?
That's a tough one. I’d like to have something along the river here on Ton Duc Thang in District 1. There’s nothing at the moment. But in many cities that’s the most prized location.
If you were a Vietnamese dish, what would you be?
Probably banh xeo! I want to be sizzling hot with lots of different textures and layers. As I mentioned, we do banh xeo here, our Alaskan king crab and Iberico pork rice flour crepe with shaved black truffle.
Iberico pork, prawn & mung bean rice crostini
Do people always expect you to cook for them even when you’re off-duty?
They always do. Like when I’m at a BBQ and I just want to drink my beer, they’ll ask me to cook…but most of the time I do anyway, because I enjoy it.
Which international food trends are you feeling right now, or not?
Honestly, I think the food truck trend is over. But what I’m really liking right now is that if you go to a fine dining restaurant, it’s common to have shared plates – but it’s still fine dining. And that’s how we love to eat in Vietnam. It’s just not family style any more. When I go to fine dining with my partner, we always want to try each other’s food!
And what’s your most memorable meal?
That’s a hard one. It’s probably when I first landed in Vietnam. I hopped on the back of my aunt’s motorbike and she took me to District 1 for street food near Ong Lanh Bridge. I wasn’t born here. I was born in Thailand, and I moved to Australia when I was very young. I remember the smells from the street food stalls – the aromas – and the smoke and everything, but I remember it most because it felt like I’d arrived home.
Finally, what do you want people leaving Vietnam House Restaurant to say?
I want them to say it’s the best Vietnamese dining experience they’ve ever had. Because that’s what it’s meant to be, a dining experience – from the food and the wine, to the space and the service.
Vietnam House Restaurant
Words by David Kaye
Visual: Thanh Duong