My parents went from Vietnam in the '70s to a Thai refugee camp before travelling to another one, Villawood in NSW. And then we ended up in Cabramatta, where I grew up and my parents had a small Vietnamese restaurant. This is where my love of food and cooking came from. It was like Saigon, really. That's where it all started.
I vividly remember our first holiday. It was to Queensland and we drove for what felt like years. I couldn't wait to get there and when we did, I was blown away. Because my parents were so food-focused we went hunting: to places where they were growing fruit – lots of mangoes – and we saw dragon fruit for the first time. We saw these huge plump mud crabs, prawns, gorgeous fish … it was the first time I saw Moreton Bay bugs, which looked very alien to me. It was all very vivid. I thought wow, I need to come back. Now I have my restaurant, Fat Noodle, in Brisbane.
I wasn't born in Vietnam. It was in the refugee camp in Thailand. But on my first overseas trip, when I arrived at Saigon airport, 35 people were waiting at the gate and crying. They saw me and actually recognised their brother's or sister's child. It was very emotional and we hopped on their scooters and road to District One. I sat on a little red stool on the street and I felt like I'd come home, though I'd never been there: the sweet aromas from sizzling woks, the noise, the motorbikes, the chatter, the chopping. After that I was so motivated to open my dream restaurant that I had been thinking about since I was 10. It was Red Lantern in Sydney and it has just turned 16.
The culture really resonates with me; their work ethic, the way they are so precise, the food, produce, the passion for everything they do. No matter what field of life they are in – chefs, restaurateurs, train drivers – every career path – they do it so well. There is a fundamental respect for cooking and so much joy for the simple food rituals, like hand-making tofu. I'm doing a lot of work there at the moment in my role as global cuisine ambassador for Vietnam Airlines; it has a big Japan focus.
I started writing books involving travel, history and food and doing cooking shows with the same philosophy. Food is about storytelling and culture – where it comes from in history. I started looking into the colonisation of Vietnam by the French and so, of course, looking at family history. My mother's eldest sister moved to France in the '70s. Going to Paris and meeting them for the first time, all of us speaking only broken Vietnamese, our common communication was all about food. Communicating through food and cooking, and to see what they were raised on was just incredible. That inspired me to introduce French cooking techniques, to write about French influence, to do a show through France. I fell in love with France and my family. I'm so lucky: with APT I'm taking people to France and we're going to cook with my family and have a French-Vietnamese cooking class.
I went five years ago when they'd just opened up. We were the first TV crew allowed to film there. I haven't met a culture more lovely and hospitable. In the language, there's no word for tourist, visitor or backpacker because you're never a tourist – you're a welcomed friend. I fell in love with the food. Not many people know about it. I researched and discovered what it is about: a very strong Indian influence because of British India, and south-east Asian as well. Gorgeous techniques and very family oriented. I love going back and will be doing back with APT next year.
Luke Nguyen is hosting several itineraries with APT. They are the 2019 Grand Bordeaux with Luke Nguyen, the 2018-2019 Luke Nguyen's Vietnam and Mekong River Cruise, and the 2019 Luke Nguyen's Hidden World of Myanmar. See aptouring.com.au
Traveller, APT and Good Food are giving you the chance to win one of three amazing APT luxury holidays escorted by celebrity chef Luke Nguyen, valued at up to $22,990.