Luke Nguyen knows every mum is special. But for the Executive Chef of Fat Noodle, a mother’s guidance is what instilled in him the strong work ethic and respect for others he brings into the kitchen everyday. We spoke to Luke about his childhood memories, the first dish his mum taught him to cook and why these days he’s wary of “Special Pho”.
Ask anyone what they love most about Vietnamese cuisine and they’ll probably say the balance of flavours (or, that it tastes delicious, which is pretty much the same thing). From the saltiness of the fish sauce to the tang of lime juice, the sweetness of palm sugar and the heat of a bird’s eye chilli, Vietnamese cuisine is like a dance of ingredients and flavours – the cooks and chefs are the expert choreographers, pulling it all together perfectly.
No one knows and understands this better than chef and restaurateur Luke Nguyen, who lives and breathes Vietnamese cuisine. And while he’s had many wonderful mentors along his culinary path, Luke credits his mum with teaching him how to cook.
“The first dish my mum taught me to cook was Canh Chua” (a sweet and sour soup consisting of fish, okra, pineapple and tomatoes in a tamarind broth).
“It was my introduction to Vietnamese cuisine and how to perfect the art of balancing flavour. Now, this took me a long time to learn, particularly with Vietnamese flavours. How to get the sweet, sour, salty, spicy, bitter and umami to work harmoniously together.”
Luke still makes Canh Chua to this day, and every time he does it reminds him of his mum.
“I get a little teary as I cherish those earlier days cooking with mum.”
As a kid, food and cooking brought Luke’s family together; a way to show each other how much they cared for each other.
“My mother and father were in the wholesale fruit and vegetable business back in Vietnam. So, they were always surrounded by fresh produce. My parents then opened a small Vietnamese restaurant in Cabramatta and this is where my siblings and I grew up, and where I learnt the fundamentals of Vietnamese cookery. We were constantly talking about produce, food and cooking. As long as I can remember, food has always been the heart and soul of every conversation.”
Luke says that growing up being surrounded by fresh produce has had a long-lasting impact on his cooking, and today at Fat Noodle he ensures he always uses the most premium and freshest ingredients available. He adds that his number one tip he learnt from his mum was to never cut corners when cooking.
“My mother would teach me this by always asking me to prepare the pho broths with her. As a child, she would make me scrub 40kg of beef bones with a small brush, dry roast five kilos of spices then grind them all by hand in a mortar and pestle to a fine powder. I would then have to skim all the impurities of the broth as it simmered for an hour. Once the broth was clear, we then continued to cook the broth for a further 12 hours, nothing less. Like my mother, I always take a lot of time and care with the dishes I put on my menus.”
It wasn’t always hard work growing up, as Luke says his parents had a great sense of humour, though occasionally at his expense.
“I remember coming home from school one afternoon and my parents asked me to try their new “Special Pho” recipe, with added meat balls and beef tendons. As I bit into the slightly chewing beef tendons, I could see from the corner of my eye that my parents were laughing hysterically. It turns out what they served me was in fact not beef tendons at all – it was a bull’s penis.”
As well as her humour, there are lots of reasons why Luke loves his mum, though her strength, courage and commitment to her family tops the list.
“My mother is the most selfless and resilient person I know. She has endured much pain and suffering during the Vietnam war and then arriving in Australia as a boat refugee, with nothing but the shirt on her back with two toddlers and a baby in tow. Everything my mother has done in her life, was never for herself, but for her family – and for this, I love her for it, as I probably would not be here today.”