Wednesday, July 31, 2013

From refugee to top chef and teacher

Grateful: ‘I feel so fortunate that I was able to follow my passion and turn it into a successful career,’ says Australian-Vietnamese chef Luke Nguyen.

Luke Nguyen may have started out life in a refugee camp, but has risen to culinary greatness and is now helping those in need. LUKE Nguyen had nothing to lose. 

He was young and although all he had was only a hundred Australian dollars to his name and a pot full of dreams, opportunity lay before him. He decided to go for it. “I had been talking about doing this since I was a kid, telling myself over and over again that ‘I’m going to open my own restaurant one day’.

So I told myself, ‘just do it. Stop talking about it and just do it’,” Nguyen said in a recent telephone interview from Sydney, Australia. He may have been slightly foolhardy, but he had heaps of perseverance and boldness, qualities he cultivated growing up in refugee camps in Thailand and later in Australia. Things were never easy growing up.

 Nguyen’s life has always revolved around sheer hard work, the sort of harsh reality many of the Boat People who sought refuge in Australia were used to. He reminisced about how his parents used to labour in the factories for 17 hours a day, every day, “until they could save enough money to open their own business”. And eventually they did. They opened a little restaurant and they sold traditional Vietnamese hawker-style food. “As soon as I could walk, I was working in the restaurant helping mum and dad. Although it was hard work, I really enjoyed working there because I was surrounded by fresh produce and fantastic food.”

 At the age of 23, with no proper financial backing (but with a little help from his friends), Nguyen opened his very own restaurant in a rented old building in Sydney and named it the Red Lantern. He was not sure what to expect. He was ready to shut it down after a week if his restaurant was not patronised. But he was in for a surprise. People kept coming back for the delectable, authentic Vietnamese cuisine. And soon, Red Lantern was the talk of the town. 

 That was 12 years ago. Now, he has opened two more restaurants, Red Lantern On Riley and the Red Lily Cocktail Bar. He has also authored five cookbooks including Secrets Of The Red Lantern and hosts two travel and cooking series, including the latest Luke Nguyen’s Greater Mekong (which will be screened on TLC, Astro Ch 707, from Aug 5, at 9pm every Monday), and is one of the top celebrity chefs in the land down under. He has appeared on Masterchef Australia and was a judge and host for the first season of Masterchef Vietnam. Nguyen credits his success to his parents, whom he watched toil and labour to make ends meet. “I think their work ethic has really made me who I am today.

 Surely, coming from such a poor background has grounded me a lot. I feel so fortunate that I can follow my passion as a career. Not one day goes by without me thinking about this,” the 35-year-old Nguyen asserted. But in the midst of his travels as a chef and while managing his restaurants, Nguyen did not have a clue that his destiny was being paved for something nobler. 

 He had no idea that his experiences as an immigrant and refugee and his unquenchable passion for cooking were about to change the lives of underprivileged children in Vietnam. And so it happened on one of his culinary trips to Vietnam. The setting was a market in Hoi An. The sun was scorching hot. The air was thick. Making his way through the dense crowd, Nguyen stumbled upon a young girl running a fruit store all by herself, making smoothies. He thought to himself how well her mother had trained her.

He approached the young girl and commended her for her skills and enquired about her mother. “‘No, my mother is not here. I actually work in this store,’ she told me. And I said, ‘So you mean you’re employed here?’ And she goes, 
‘Yes’. I asked her if she went to school and she said no. She said she wanted to, but her parents simply couldn’t afford it. So she worked every day at the fruit store for this lady so that she could take money home to her family,” Nguyen recalled. He knew then that giving her money might help her in the short term but something had to be done to help the young girl and others in similar situations in the longer term. Nguyen partnered up with a Vietnamese-run non-profit organisation called Reach and, together with his partner Suzanna Boyd, began a foundation to train underprivileged children in Vietnam to become qualified chefs.

 The foundation, aptly named the Little Lantern Foundation, also provides English and life skills courses for children aged between 10 and 18. “Many students are now going through this course and 90% of them get a job upon completion. And to see someone going through the course with no experience at all, and then working in a five-star hotel after that – it is just delightful and it is so worthwhile to play a part in changing someone’s life. I can’t teach them how to become a scientist or an artist, but I can teach them about food and hospitality!” Nguyen enthused. What he finds most fulfilling working with these kids is their zeal and eagerness to learn. He says they are ever ready to listen to what is being taught and absorb instructions quickly. 

Their determination, Nguyen revealed, is inspirational and reckons it is their drive that almost always secures them employment. But Nguyen had a word of caution for aspiring chefs. “Forget about being a celebrity and just focus on being a chef. It’s hard work. It’s a lot of long hours. There’s no social life, you even work on weekends, Christmas, New Year. I reckon if you want to become a chef and maybe one day have your own cooking show, you’ve got to work at it. It doesn’t happen overnight. You’ve got to work for many, many years. Be prepared for hard work.”