• Luke Nguyen is getting creative with the menu at the Botanic House restaurant. (Botanic House)
Inspired by Sydney's Royal Botanic Garden, Luke Nguyen is splicing his Asian dishes with native ingredients at his brand-new restaurant, Botanic House.
By
Renata Gortan

29 Aug 2019 - 9:56 AM  UPDATED 31 Aug 2019 - 5:44 PM

Luke Nguyen made his name cooking Vietnamese cuisine and he's now exploring other parts of his heritage with his new restaurant, Botanic House.

Set in Sydney's Royal Botanic Garden, the pan-Asian restaurant has all the highlight dishes you expect – dumplings, rice paper rolls and red curry – but with the addition of Indigenous ingredients. Seared mulloway fillets are served with lemon-myrtle-infused coconut milk, grilled king prawns are topped with tempura saltbush and salt and pepper squid is perked up with native pepper and tom yum aïoli.  

"I wanted to showcase my personality, my upbringing, my culture and my inspirations," he says. "I was born in Thailand, with Chinese grandparents and so the menu speaks to exactly that. It's modern Asian, there's a sprinkle of Thai, there's Chinese dim sum as well and there's also inspiration from the garden."

While he's not allowed to forage in the Royal Botanic Garden, Nguyen learnt about native ingredients from Josh Brown, a Worimi man and Aboriginal programs coordinator at the Garden, and the menu is a true collaboration of how well Indigenous ingredients could work with Asian flavours.

"It's not like I just said, 'Hey, let's use it'. It really needs to work and the flavour profiles need to complement this dish I'm cooking," he says. "I'm using the ones that I feel go really well, that can substitute for Asian ingredients. For example, lemongrass and lemon myrtle are similar and I do a great king prawn childhood dish with XO sauce but with deep-fried saltbush on top, which just adds that extra seasoning and depth of flavour. Instead of just tossing bok choy and water spinach, I'm using Warrigal greens – which is just a spectacular ingredient."

Salt and pepper squid, otherwise known as Australia's national dish, has been reimagined with native pepper berries. "And my goodness! When we add that, of course it's peppery, but it's got a lovely sweetness to it as well," Nguyen says.

It took a while to adapt the Asian favourites – even though lemongrass is similar to lemon myrtle, it can't just be a straight swap. "It's trial and error. You just keep cooking with it, seeing what works and a lot of it doesn't work – so you try something else," he says.

"I was born in Thailand, with Chinese grandparents and so the menu speaks to exactly that. It's modern Asian, there's a sprinkle of Thai, there's Chinese dim sum as well and there's also inspiration from the garden."

"The flavours of native ingredients are a lot stronger, so you don't need to use so much of it. I would have a whole handful of Vietnamese mind in my salad, but bush mint – wow, you only need just a few leaves and it fragrances the whole salad really, really beautifully."

Bringing Australian ingredients to the world

As the ambassador chef, Luke isn't always in the kitchen, but he created the menu and revelled in learning about native ingredients. He sees it as his responsibility to pass on that knowledge.

"A lot of the guys that work there in the garden have been there for decades and they're teaching me interesting things all the time. And, in turn, our chefs are learning so much and just being blown away," he says.

"And that's why I love my job so much, because I'm a chef, but we just never stop learning. So now that's inspired me with my restaurants in Vietnam. I do Taste of Australia every year promoting Australian produce in Vietnam and I want to bring Australian ingredients to menus globally."

A new take on Asian ingredients

While Luke is championing the use of native ingredients, he also wants diners to expand their idea of what Asian ingredients can be. Take, for example, the Vietnamese coffee tres leches cake with miso caramel, Chinese almond cookie and soy sauce ice-cream.

"The flavours of native ingredients are a lot stronger, so you don't need to use so much of it. I would have a whole handful of Vietnamese mind in my salad, but bush mint – wow, you only need just a few leaves and it fragrances the whole salad really, really beautifully."

"I love challenging people's palates, so I thought maybe I want to start with a fish sauce ice-cream, but I decided to take it easy a little bit and introduce our guests to a more familiar ingredient that people cook with more often, which is soy sauce," he says.

"When you taste it, it's like salted caramel and everyone raves about salted caramel ice-cream. This is even better than salted caramel, because soy sauce has such great umami flavour. Of course, it still has that sweet note but it's got that savoury, umami note, so it's a really great balance between sweet and savoury."

The fish sauce ice-cream is on the way

"I'm going to change the menu every three months, so I hope to work on the fish sauce ice-cream for my next menu," Nguyen says. "I think by that time people will be like, 'Well, bring it on. We're ready. We've tried the soy sauce.' And you know, I think it'd be great because when you try really good fish sauce from Vietnam, it's amazing because it's the first press."

Not all fish sauce is created equal and Nguyen likens it to extra-virgin olive oil – pure flavour that hasn't been diluted.

"Extra-virgin oil you pay extra money for it because it's the first press right? And then there's the virgin olive oil. You pay a little bit less, but it's not as good," he says. "When you have first-press fish sauce, the flavour lingers on your palate. It has this caramel undertone at the end, so this is where the idea for fish sauce ice-cream came from. It's like, 'Look, I'm tasting saltiness, but because there's so much body, there's a little hint of caramel there.' How does that happen? It's amazing, right?"

"So why can't we make an ice-cream from this?" the chef asks. "It's definitely on the next menu, I'm going to give this one a shot."

Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @RenataGortan and Instagram @renatagortan.


Botanic House

Royal Botanic Garden Sydney,

Mrs Macquaries Rd, Sydney, NSW, 1300 558 980

Daily 9:30 am – 4 pm


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