Luke Nguyen: Refugee to Restaurateur

By Abigail D’Souza @abi_dsouzaa

Esteemed chef and restaurateur Luke Nguyen has forged his way through the Asian culinary scene. But his humble and often traumatic beginnings make his success all the more remarkable.  

Synonymous with Vietnamese cuisine and his Sydney restaurant Red Lantern, Luke Nguyen’s passion for good food, culture, and hospitality were ignited in his early life; a schoolchild working in his family restaurant in Sydney’s southwestern suburb of Cabramatta.  

Born in 1978 in a Thailand refugee camp to Vietnamese parents fleeing the Communist Regime, Nguyen is no stranger to hardship and a traumatic upbringing. The family migrated to Australia and opened several Vietnamese restaurants.

He was subjected to harsh disciplinary action and academic pressure, also working every day for the family business with his siblings. Luke is the third of four children.

“We had to look after each other because our parents had three jobs: morning shifts, afternoon shifts, graveyard shifts. We had to fend for ourselves. We got beaten if we didn’t get the grades. We got beaten if we didn’t do the housework. We had a very traumatic childhood; all the siblings did,” he told Sydney Morning Herald.

Cabramatta’s strong presence of Vietnamese culture and cuisine assisted him in understanding and appreciating the flavours of Vietnam, age-old cooking techniques, and the centrality of hospitality, all of which can be seen and experienced in his work today. 

“The biggest lesson my parents taught me was about balancing flavour, [even though] we had no balance or harmony at all in the family life,” he admitted to SBS.

Restaurant Red Lantern is the Most Awarded Vietnamese Restaurant in the World, serving up mouth-watering dishes.

At the age of 23 he opened Red Lantern with his older sister Pauline, serving contemporary Asian cuisine. This idea was prompted when he noticed the lack of Southeast Asian cuisine in his local area.  

“I was living in Surry Hills at the time and was struggling to find authentic Vietnamese in the inner city. I knew I wanted to open a restaurant … by the time the doors opened, I had $100 left in my pocket,” Nguyen told SBS’s Selma Nadarajah.

The siblings have since built a renowned restaurant together, with devotees from over 20 years. Pauline shared how they transitioned from working together as children in a family business to cultivating their own.  

“We provided the child labour. So, we know how to work. Our work ethic is ferocious,” Pauline told Brands of Kin.

Her brother Luke also opened up to SBS: “When we were kids, my sister, Pauline, my brother, Lewis, and I were already practically running the restaurant, so we grew up quickly.”

Nguyen went on to open two more restaurants, Red Lantern on Riley and Red Lily Cocktail Bar in 2012. 

Upon that footing, Nguyen went on to become an award-winning chef and best-selling author. Some of his most popular books include The Food of Vietnam, Secrets of The Red Lantern and The Songs of Sapa.

Check out his books here   

He’s guest judged on MasterChef Australia and featured in shows including Destination Flavour, Who Do You Think You Are, Luke Nguyen’s France, Luke Nguyen’s Vietnam and several other short television series.  

But he never forgot his roots. Nguyen is involved in community initiatives, notably The Little Lantern Foundation in Hoi An that he co-founded in 2009 with ex-wife Suzanna Boyd. It offers a hospitality training program to disadvantaged youth, allowing them to work in Little Lantern’s hotel, restaurant, and bar. 

“I’ve always questioned – given the way I was treated as a child – whether I would treat my children like that. But it’s been the complete opposite,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald.

There’s no denying that Luke Nguyen has defied odds by building an empire and a legacy from virtually nothing. Despite the adversities faced during his upbringing, he and his wife Lynne now dote over his twin boys Kian and Kohl. 

Feature image: Photo by scraggot/CC/flickr

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