"I grew up in my parents’ restaurant in Cabramatta, Sydney, and started working there as soon as I could walk. When we were kids, my sister, Pauline, my brother, Lewis, and I were already practically running the restaurant, so we grew up quickly.
We opened Red Lantern in 2002 when I was 23. 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, so it was like a light bulb went off. I had little savings, so with the help of my partner Suzanna, we designed and did the fit-out ourselves. By the time the doors opened, I had $100 left in my pocket.
Red Lantern is about sharing our culture through food, and our menu is a constant evolution. When we first started, we served mostly southern Vietnamese food, but the more I travelled in Vietnam, I realised how diverse the cuisine is, so we adapted our menu to reflect that.
Our customers often compare our food with what they've eaten on holiday in Vietnam, commenting on how our produce is so much better. This is because we source premium local products and the most sustainable produce we can get our hands on. Mark [Jensen], my brother-in-law who heads the kitchen, gets up very early in the mornings to source the freshest produce from organic markets and sometimes he introduces Australian twists to our dishes, so there’s a touch of the modern, too.
I’m always inspired by my travels. For my latest TV series, I’ve been researching life along the Mekong River, from the source in Tibet through to the Yunnan province of China, then Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and, finally, Vietnam. I love discovering new cultures and learning recipes that have been passed on through generations. Food is culture; it’s the way we communicate and it’s what tells the history of a place. That’s what really gets me excited about cooking."
Photography by Alan Benson. Interview by Selma Nadarajah.
As seen in Feast magazine, Sept 2011, Issue 1. For more recipes and articles, pick up a copy of this month's Feast magazine or check out our great subscriptions offers here.