Q&A: Celebrity chef Luke Nguyen on travel and his first Hong Kong restaurant

With a series of cookbooks and two travel series under his belt, Luke Nguyen has already made his mark as a young Vietnamese–Australian celebrity chef, restaurant owner and television host. This month, he’ll be stretching his culinary influence even further as he debuts a street food-inspired Vietnamese eatery, Moi Moi by Luke Nguyen, in Hong Kong. Ahead of its official opening, we spoke to the star chef about the motivation behind his culinary passion and the history and diversity of authentic Vietnamese flavours.

Have you always wanted to specialise in Vietnamese cuisine?
When my family fled the war and came to Australia, we were living in a refugee camp in an area called Cabramatta, where all the Vietnamese immigrants moved to. My parents eventually opened a restaurant there, and growing up in the area, I was exposed to great Vietnamese ingredients, the culture, and the language. It actually felt like living in Vietnam because all your neighbours are Vietnamese and there were great noodle shops, restaurants and bakeries, and so I always knew I wanted to open a Vietnamese restaurant. Then when I was old enough I went to work in different restaurants, there was Japanese, Italian, French, and still I thought Vietnamese cuisine is where my heart is. Food and cooking is very personal to me, you need to express who you are, and I think to be able to share Vietnamese food with Australians is incredible, and now we actually share with the world.

You’ve developed your culinary wisdom through travelling. When did you start your journey of exploring the world’s different flavours?
Because I’ve always known I wanted to open up a restaurant and I grew up in a restaurant, I know how hard it is in terms of how much work: you don’t have weekends, you work through holidays and Christmas, so as soon as I finished high school I went travelling for one year, just myself and my backpack. I went to 14 different countries on my own. My partner at the time joined in later on and we went through Southeast Asia, Central America and South America.

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What was the first country you visited?
Of course Vietnam was one of those major stops, but actually the first country that I travelled to was Japan. I really enjoy the culture of Japan, the food is very similar to my style of Vietnamese cooking. It’s very light, very clean and fresh, and so I wanted to kind of learn that and see how we can work Japanese cuisine with Vietnamese cuisine and get the similarities to combine.

Luke Nguyen
“I thought I knew so much about Vietnamese cuisine until I travelled through Vietnam and really saw the diversity.”

Have you ever been to a country with terrible food?
All the places I have travelled to I travelled for the food. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a destination around the world where I’ve been really disappointed about the food, because that’s the first thing that attracted me to go there, I wanted to try everything.

So you plan your itinerary according to food choices?
Yes, food is always number one, and then everything else comes after that in terms of learning about the history and culture.

You value the history behind all your dishes. Why do you think it matters?
I find that for me, if I am going to cook a dish, yes it tastes good, but I always look into the history of that dish. Where did it come from? How was it created? Everything that I do for cooking has to have a history, story and a cultural meaning. That’s how I love to keep creative and to keep people interested in what we are trying to share.

Luke Nguyen
“For my travel shows, it’s not just cooking in a studio, it’s about where we are and meeting that person who’s been cooking for 50 years and hearing their stories.”

With my cookbooks, it’s not just a recipe book where there is the recipe and a picture — there are stories behind the dishes that I share, so they are also educational and historical. Same goes for my travel shows, it’s not just cooking in a studio, it’s about where we are and meeting that person who’s been cooking for 50 years and hearing their stories, learning about how they got to where they are now and the culture.

What about your dishes at Moi Moi? Do they have stories, too?
Yes. When I speak to the Moi Moi team about the dishes we are going to make, I also share with them the stories behind why these dishes are on the menu. How it should make us feel emotionally and what are we creating. It’s not just a dish, there are great meanings behind these ingredients. Maybe the dish itself is originated from a certain area in Hanoi, and then why is that dish different in Hanoi than it is in Ho Chi Min. I want to tell people this. Also when we are serving the actual dish, I think we need to tell people that story.

People in Hong Kong love Vietnamese food, but I feel like not a lot of them know that different areas in Vietnam have different ways of cooking.
You know what, a lot of Vietnamese people don’t know that, either. For example, my family came from Saigon, then they left the war, landed in Sydney and lived there for the next 30 to 40 years. They’ve actually never been to Hanoi or Penang. We are Vietnamese but grew up around the world, so we only knew about certain part of Vietnamese cuisine. So when I was in Australia, I thought I knew so much about Vietnamese cuisine until I travelled through Vietnam and really saw the diversity. That’s a long S-shaped country, really long and narrow, and a dish from north to south can be very different. I’m not saying they are doing it wrong, but they are doing it differently. It’s just different parts of Vietnam, you know. I guess every area in Italy has a different Bolognese recipe, so with Moi Moi we are here to share how diverse Vietnamese cuisine can be.

Luke Nguyen
“Vietnam is a long S-shaped country, really long and narrow, and a dish from north to south can be very different.”

Your heritage plays a big part in your culinary style. Did finding out about your Chinese ancestry affect your way of cooking?
Yes, it did. What happened was about a year ago I got invited to take part in a TV program called ‘Who do you think you are?’, in which they take someone’s family tree and research it. It was only then that I found out my mother’s father to my great grandfather is Hakka Chinese. As part of the show, we flew to Hong Kong and drove for six hours to the Guangzhou area, where I met all of my Chinese relatives for the very first time. That was a major thing for me personally and emotionally, and I’d love to go back and look at my history and my roots. Hong Kong has naturally become the next spot I want to spend more time in, hence this restaurant.

What do you think of the diners here?
The diners? I think they are very educated and been exposed to a lot of different cuisines for a very long time. I think Hong Kong has had foodies for so long, but if you look at Australia, we are quite a new country, so we’ve only been big foodies in the last maybe 15 years or so. Before, we were happy with just steak and free vegetables, but with Sydney and Melbourne, we are now one of the big restaurant hubs. These days, we are known as great, passionate foodies, whereas before not so much. But for Hong Kong, I think this has always been in the blood.

What would you like to bring to Hong Kong?
To expose and share Vietnamese flavours, share my own experiences with Vietnamese cooking, and my upbringing being Vietnamese–Australian. So that’s what you’ll see, using great produce — sometimes Australian, sometimes Vietnamese — but really letting the ingredients be seen.

What more can we expect from Moi Moi?
Just like all my other restaurants, you will feel like you’ve entered a home rather than a restaurant. It’s warm, it’s inviting and friendly, and here we will bring elements from the comforting Vietnamese family cooking and great flavours of street food together. In the evening, it will be a very friendly ambiance, the wait staff will be like your friends. During the day where there are lots of office people looking for a quick bite, that’s when we bring in the street food, which is fast, fresh but still elegant.

If you could only have one kind of cuisine in your life, besides Vietnamese, what would it be?
It would definitely be Japanese. I’m so satisfied with uni and sake, with that combination I think I will be a happy man to be eating just that all the time. It’s very simple, but the combination of those really delicate flavours are so clean and so light, I’d be happy to have just that for my last meal.

In collaboration with ZS Hospitality Group, Moi Moi by Luke Nguyen is set to open in late November 2016 and will be located at the ground floor of Nexxus Building in Central.