Chef luke nguyen is bringing it all back to vietnam

(No.4, Vol.7,Aug-Sep 2017 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

Vietnam House Restaurant under new management
at 117-123 Dong Khoi Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City,
tel: (028) 3822-2226.

On my daily perambulations of downtown Saigon, I have noticed refurbishment activity at ‘Vietnam House’, that quaint colonial villa on Dong Khoi Street that houses a traditional Vietnamese restaurant famed for introducing so many foreign visitors to the infinite variety and delight of Vietnamese cuisine. I also noticed a poster featuring the image of a fresh-faced middle-aged chef announcing that the traditional food would continue, but ‘with a modern twist’.
His name is Luke Nguyen and he is world-famous. He has written a number of cook books and had his own shows on Australian television that have been syndicated to a hundred and sixty countries around the world. I, who lead a sheltered life,had never heard of him. As a restaurateur, Vietnam House will be his first venture in the land of his ancestors.
And so, I found myself in the upper air-conditioned floor of The Long Bar on Dong Khoi, sitting down to a scrumptious lunch with Luke. This was an appropriate place to meet, as Luke has partnered with the Windsor Management Group to acquire Vietnam House and this is another one of their businesses.
Luke proceeded to explain what is behind the phrase ‘with a new twist’. Firstly, there will be quality assurance for the ingredients; organically grown fruit and vegetables from Da Lat, for example. Luke has noticed that the Vietnamese are now demanding safer and more natural foods. Furthermore, to enhance taste, Luke will source far and wide to get the world's best. An example he gave was that his ‘banh xeo’, the Vietnamese pancake, will include ‘Iberico’ pork from the free-roaming acorn-eating pigs of Southern Portugal and crab meat from Alaska. Another innovation will be the use of the Josper charcoal grill oven which not only halves cooking time, but increases flavour, catching all the juices perfectly every time.
Luke will further enhance flavour through a cooking method not traditionally used in Vietnam. This is the ‘sous vide’ way, whereby food is cooked vacuum-sealed in a plastic bag and then placed in a bath at an regulated temperature much lower than normally used for meat and higher than for vegetables. This ensures that the inside is cooked well without overcooking the outside.
We got on to the subject of wine pairing with Vietnamese food. We both agreed that you easily enjoy your Chardonnay or Pinot Noir with food in Vietnam. We have none of the problems here with the spiciness of Thai or Indian cuisine, for example. With all the great seafood in Vietnam, what could be better accompaniment than a bottle of Portuguese Vinho Verde, which, sadly, is not yet easy to find locally.
I asked Luke which foreign cuisine he enjoyed the most. ‘Japanese’ he answered. He likes it for its freshness and simplicity. It is all about looking for the right cut. I added that Japanese food tends to linger long on the palate than most. Luke stresses that it is his mission to let the wider world know that Vietnam has world-class cuisine and can be easily be adapted to fine dining status by applying recent developments.
I asked Luke about the staffing of his new restaurant. Of course, his team will comprise highly experienced cooks. ‘But what I look for most is passion,’ he says, ‘people who look at cooking not just as a job but something they thoroughly enjoy and in which they take great pride.’
One final question I put to Luke was just how easy it was to reproduce the authentic flavours of Vietnam abroad. ‘Oh!’ he responded. ‘Possibly the best Pho in the world is made in Australia.’ Of course, Oz is a huge country with all the climates and ecosystems of Vietnam and the Vietnamese have been there long enough to produce all they need. ‘The only thing lacking,’ Luke says, ‘is the fish sauce, but that is easily imported.’
When Luke's family was forced to flee the motherland, he was still in his mother’s womb. With cooking in the family blood, a lot has gestated over his thirty-nine years. He has learned to enhance and elevate what is already an outstanding and varied cuisine. Luke is bringing everything back home to one of the most historic and atmospheric of Saigon’s villas. By the time this gets into print, everything should be up and running and dear reader, you will be able to test the proof of the pudding!


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