Luke Nguyen chef/owner of Red Lantern Vietnamese restaurant, Surry Hills at his Sydney home.
Luke Nguyen chef/owner of Red Lantern Vietnamese restaurant, Surry Hills at his Sydney home. Photo: Marco Del Grande

Stephanie Clifford-Smith

Chef, restaurateur, TV personality

Born in a refugee camp in Thailand after his family fled Vietnam, Luke Nguyen has spent his life in restaurant kitchens. He opened his first Sydney eatery, Red Lantern, 10 years ago to great acclaim, and has recently added Red Lantern on Riley to the stable. He lives with his partner Suzanna Boyd, a photographer, walking distance from both establishments. He is about to launch his fourth cooking series on SBS and will co-host MasterChef Vietnam next year.

When I travel there's no cookbook research, it's all about going to the markets and street-food stalls and saying: 'what's that?' 

Most memorable meal
Sapa, northern mountains of Vietnam. It was 4am and I was learning how to make my own organic, freshly pressed silken tofu. It was still steaming as I ate it with a glass of hot soymilk. It was the simplest of dishes, but so delicate, clean and textural.

Last dinner at home
I hardly ever eat at home but we recently had a couple of friends over. We had an appetiser of grapes rolled in goat's cheese and pistachio nuts; salmon pho for entree; main course was home-made steamed rice-noodle sheets filled with green-tea-smoked duck, white truffle and fresh Vietnamese herbs. Then cognac for dessert.

I'm drinking
My favourite Saturday-night tipple is a Negroni, my regular beer is Bia Ha Noi from Vietnam, and for an after-dinner drink it's cognac, just one of many lasting French influences on Vietnam. Every morning it's Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk.

Favourite cookbook
So far, it's one by chef Susur Lee, Susur: A Culinary Life, who's Chinese but has spent much of his life in Canada and now works in Singapore. He does Asian cuisine but he has this great balance of East and West, which is really lovely. Cooking's not just food. I love cookbooks that have stories and travel and a bit of substance to them. I rarely have cookbooks that are just recipes. I have cookbooks that take me on a journey.

The staples
My pantry  Shoda Genen Shoyu light soy sauce and Uchibori Ringosan Kurozu dark vinegar, both from Japan. Morita premium white soy sauce. Black truffle oil from Simon Johnson, anchovy fillets in soybean oil and black truffle mustard. My fridge I always have fresh Vietnamese herbs as well as my home-made XO sauce.  Other staples are Sriracha hot chilli sauce, La Espanola extra-virgin olive oil, ginger and turmeric honey from the ''Honey Lady'' in Adelaide, preserved chilli bean curd, Brookfarm cereal, and Vegemite.

Food discovery
Hung Thanh first-press fish sauce from Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam. Fish sauce adds such depth of flavour to a dish. It's not only salty —  this one also has sweet caramel undertones. Anchovies are fermented in salt for 14 months, which draws water from them. This extraction is the ''first press''. Cheaper sauces come from when the fish is salted again, maybe with some water and sugar added.  The cheap stuff is fine for stock, but for dipping always use first press.

Inspiration
Travel, meeting people, talking about food and searching for traditional recipes. When I travel there's no cookbook research, it's all about going to the markets and street-food stalls and saying ''what's that?''. The ancient recipes that interest me aren't in cookbooks — it's all from grandma's grandma.

Neighbourhood eatery
My dream is to be able to open my front door, walk two steps and have a whole area of street food, set up without needing ridiculous permits or getting fined for everything. Just having passionate people who cook one dish really, really well, and having a lot of them would be ideal.

My tool kit
French-Vietnamese coffee drip, mortar and pestle, hand blender, Luke Nguyen ceramic wok, Japanese knives and Chinese cleaver, Luke Nguyen VoVo vegetable shredder. In a fire, I'd grab my knife collection first.