From A Vietnamese Refugee to a Celebrity Chef | Real Story

Luke Nguyen, an Australian-Vietnamese man, in some ways, becomes our great influential inspirer. He is an amazing chef that harbors and abides by the same constant passion and delusion for Vietnamese cuisine just as fervently as himself.

“My life’s most unworldly aspiration is to prove to the world that Vietnamese food is the best.”

Luke was first known by so many Vietnamese people when he first appeared as a professional judge in MasterChef Vietnam – the first season in 2013. He often appears in a poised and immaculate look, covering himself in a black suit, with the neatly in-shaped hair, and the grave-looking pair of glasses. He is an inspiring chef and his life is a long story worth telling. 

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In 1978, Thailand refugee camp gave its welcome to a new born, the little boy Luke Nguyen. When children of his age were born in more decent houses, his only haven was just a refugee camp, no more. He then followed his family all the way to Australia. To earn for their living as well as to take care of the family, his parents decided to open a Vietnamese restaurant called ‘Phở Cây Dù’ (Phở Umbrella) in Cabramatta, Fairfield. Havin grown up with the smell of foods, with the sound of pots and pans and the heat from the stoves, he seemed to be inspired and at the same time, his love for cooking was then lighten up by the kitchen fire. At the age of 5, he was taught to cook by his father.

“When I was 5, my father taught me to cook. At that time, what I learned was Phở soup. That was also my worst failure because the way of seasoning was unappetizing. From that time on, I have learned that I will never let anyone taste my foods if they have not been carefully seasoned.”

And by the time he was 14, after revealing his true passion for cooking to his parents, he was sent to Sydney to work as a kitchen staff in big restaurants of the city. After 9 years, he finally opened his very own restaurant with the help of his sister at the age of 23, the notorious Red Lantern in Surry Hills, Sydney as we know today. But apparently, success is not just granted as a wish from a magical fairy tale. At the time of establishment, there were no more than 40 seats in the restaurant. And there were ups and downs, and sometimes bills were thrown over along with hundreds of pending orders from the customers.

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“There were days when the restaurant became your house and working for almost 100 hours a week became part of your life”

After 5 years of his extremely and intensively hard working, struggling and putting all the efforts along with building credibility, he has forever changed his life. The Red Lantern, 4 years in a row, from 2006, was nominated as ‘The best Asian and Vietnamese restaurant in Australia’. But it seems that this success is nothing compared to his life’s aspiration of putting the name Vietnam on the map of cuisine. Though not a perfectionist, he is surely an achiever. Working and trying all his best to achieve the goals in life have become his lifetime’s companions. In the process of those nonstop efforts, in 2008, he was given the title ‘The most successful young Vietnamese Merchant in Australia’ and worthily had the honour of receiving the ‘Restaurant and Catering Ethnic Business Award’.

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He is not solely a chef but also an artist, a writer and a storyteller who always knows how to refresh himself and brings a little bit of surprise in the pocket for his every come-back. During his life-long career of almost 26 years, he has been his own memory keeper and a storyteller for each of the land that he passed through and the experiences he has got. In 2007, the book Secrets of the Red Lantern: Stories and Vietnamese recipes from the heart was published as a share of his old days building up Red Lantern’s reputation, enclosed with wonderful Vietnamese recipes which he brought in “from the heart”. It feels like he writes as much as he cooks, and of course, his books are as good as the foods he makes. From 2009 to 2017, he wrote so many, such as The Song of Sapa (2009), Indochine: The Collection (2011), The Food of Vietnam (2013), Luke Nguyen’s Greater Mekong (2013), From China to Vietnam (2015) and the most recent Street Food Asia (2017). And of all the books he wrote which we have just listed, five of which from 2007 to 2017, except for From China to Vietnam, were the best sellers around Asia for cookery books.

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He is both a great teacher and a great learner. He travels to learn and learn from the least of things, from the most simplistic and ordinary human beings and things around and the most usual slices of life. He discovers and finds his own cuisine from all the places he goes to. He puts all these things down to stories and without the least hesitation to share to the world.

“A chef is like a storyteller, you must deliver the message but at the same time create a tempting feeling for your dish.”

Cooking has never been a career to him but more like a journey of finding all beauties in life, in different recipes, in all the ingredients, all the ways of making and all the types of foods. This may also be the answer for his love for traveling here and there. 

“Traveling is also my passion. I don’t know what my life will be if I don’t travel.”

He enjoys traveling to all the new lands for the first purpose of discovering new foods, new cultures and new stories. Turkey, Cambodia, Egypt, France, etc and all the lands that he has set foot to leave an unforgettable mark in his life. He loves street food that much though parents are the ones who have the strongest impact on him. There is no suprise when a Vietnamese likes street food because Vietnam is indeed a street food’s kingdom of all kinds.

“It doesn’t need to be too finical because all of my inspirations come from the streets in the combination with the best ingredients. And the most important thing is telling a stories through each dish.”

While writing the stories, Luke Nguyen’s Greater Meking, he used to make his journey to the far away delta just to explore Vietnamese cuisine.

“I discover that all the foods in the streets leave a strong impression. They are simple but really decious. For example, mixing girdle cake (bánh tráng trộn) is a perfect combination of rice noodles, green mangoes, dried shrimps, beef jerky, fried shallots, roasted groundnuts, quail eggs, onion oil, chilli sauce and a lot of different types of Vietnamese mint vegetables. This is absolutely fantastic but only costs you 10.000 dong!”

He loves the country, its people and his Vietnamese bloodline just as much as he loves Vietnamese cuisine. He wants to show the world that not only do America, England and Australia have master chefs but here in Vietnam, we also have true master chefs, the best ones offering the best Vietnamese food.

“In Australia, everyone knows about Chinese food and Thai food. I want to draw their attention to Vietnamese cuisine and tell them that Vietnamese food is also good, Vietnam’s sceneries are also beautiful and Vietnamese people are also decent. My life’s most unworldly aspiration is to prove to the world that Vietnamese food is the best.”

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But he does not only want foreign people to know more and to love Vietnamese food more but he also wants Vietnamese people do, especially the young peopl. For that reason, he once gave his advice to those who want to start-up in the cooking career:

“First, you must know which path you will take, what kind of chef you will be, what style of cooking is yours. Then, you must choose one from thousands of restaurants the one you will work hard for from 4 – 10 years. Last but not least, beside love and passion, you must be absolutely perservering and sometimes accept working without being paid.”

In all those years of working as an outstanding chef, a great businessman and a wonderful inspirer, he must have many things to share. But it will probably take all day, maybe months and years to truly be a listener and to understand them all. However, for those who have an immense passion for cooking, he has not forgot to leave them these four pieces of advice that we would like to call ‘Luke’s Four Golden Rules’.

“Firstly, you must have a certain indulgence in cooking. But just indulgence is not enough, you must also have a great amount of knowledge about cooking and remember not to be distracted by any factors. Secondly, you must spend approximately 4-10 years working in the restaurants. Thirdly, and very important, you must never, ever stop processing and cooking even for one day. And last but not least, you must prepare yourself to work even for 15 hours a day.”

Luke is always craving for happiness and enjoying the little things.

“I believe, success comes when you are truyly contented with yourself. The most successful ones that I have met during my journey all live in backward villages on Vietnamese mountainous areas. They take care of their fields, eat their organic vegetables and have little money. But when you look at the way they smile, you can see the success that they have got. They are contented with themselves and happy with what they have.”

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Well, until now, Luke is still doing his jobs successfully as a chef, a teacher, and an inspirer. Apart from running his business, he still continues his teaching in the Grain Cooking Studio – a cooking school that has been his dream since youth. His television shows are still being broadcasted around the world and especially Luke Nguyen Street Food Asia show has been to total of 160 countries. And of course, we cannot forget to mention his Little Lantern Foundation which he set up in 2009 to help poor children to participate in career orientation of internationalized hotels and restaurants.

Our loyal readers, we should have the bravery to find your true passion even if it may take time and hard work. But who knows, maybe the world will see another Luke Nguyen. 

The story of Luke Nguyen may end here for now. What is your story? Share with us at mazevietnam.info@gmail.com

5 thoughts on “From A Vietnamese Refugee to a Celebrity Chef | Real Story”

  1. I’m so proud of having him as one of our Vietnamese people, and I’m so happy that even when having been exposed to a lot of foreign cultures, he still maintains a great pride in Vietnamese cuisine, and is trying to spread them to the outside world. Respect!

  2. This is such an inspiring success story. I’m glad that Luke Nguyen still takes great pride in Vietnamese cuisine despite having lived and workes abroad for many years. It’s great to hear his story!

  3. It is such an inspiring journey. I loved reading this article. I have not tried Vietnamese food ever. I love his definition of success. It indeed should be measured by personal contentment and not wealth.

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