Known and loved for his recipes, restaurants and TV series, Luke Nguyen has coloured Australia’s cooking scene with Vietnamese flair. In this special episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, the chef travels to Vietnam and China to trace his heritage and discover forgotten family secrets.
11 Aug 2015 - 5:26 PM  UPDATED 1 Mar 2018 - 5:24 PM


1. Memories in mortar (and pestles)

Luke Nguyen’s parents came to Australia with the clothes on their back… and a mortar and pestle. Clearly his passion for food and cooking wasn’t born out of thin air! Use your own mortar and pestle to make Luke's green papaya salad.


2. Fleeing fishermen

The Nguyens were among two million Vietnamese to flee the Communist regime after it came to power in 1975. Luke explains, “My father actually built his own boat with army buddies. There was a hidden deck for the wives and children and they pretended to be fishermen.” For a lighter sea experience, try Luke's pan-fried eel in coconut and saffron sauce.


3. From humble beginnings

Before his parents could escape to Australia, they spent time at a refugee camp in Thailand. It was here that Luke, the third of four children, was born in 1978.


4. His parents weren’t the family’s first ‘boat people’

Luke Nguyen’s parents fled Vietnam by boat in the ’70s, but they weren’t the first generation in his family to do so. Less than 40 years beforehand, Luke’s maternal grandfather left his ancestral home Nan Keng, in China’s Guangdong province, in search of a better life.


5. Hakka heritage

Luke’s maternal grandfather was Hakka, an ethnic minority in China which translates to ‘visitor’. Originally from the nation’s centre, the Hakka were pushed out by indigenous people around 500 years ago. Many came to settle in Guangdong and today 60 per cent of the Hakka population live in this province. For cultural eats, try this Taiwanese Hakka-style stir-fry with pork belly and squid. 


6. Uncovering family secrets

During the WDYTYA journey, Luke learns his maternal grandfather Ha left a pregnant wife in China when he moved to Vietnam. Two years after migrating, the 20-year-old asked his family to join him, but Ha’s mother refused, threatening to drown herself in a pond. It was in Vietnam that Ha met Luke’s grandmother and started a new family.


7. Interesting French connections

Born in 1900, Luke Nguyen’s paternal great-grandfather worked at a weather station in Hai Phong, North Vietnam. The station was built by the French and required him to speak and write in the European language. Unlike his great-grandfather, who worked with the French, Luke’s grandfather joined the resistance, fighting against them in the struggle for Vietnam’s independence.


8. A fruity arrangement

After settling in Vietnam’s Ho Chi Min City (then Saigon), Luke’s maternal grandfather set up a fruit market business. It was here he met Luke’s paternal grandfather who sold fruit in the same spot. In 1973 the two men struck up an agreement – an arranged marriage between two of their children. For fruity Vietnamese flavours, we recommend Luke's tapioca pudding with cassava and banana


9. Work hard, study harder

Luke’s parents settled in Sydney’s Cabramatta, working in hospitality and opening a restaurant best known for its phở (beef noodle soup). The kids were expected to contribute too. Luke remembers, “I was working when I was five and we had to achieve good grades. I would be beaten if I was late from school, beaten for not eating, or for not getting an A-plus.”


10. Life lessons

“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.” Practice your balancing skills with Luke's pho bo recipe.

More about Luke
Coming to Australia
In this intimate interview, Luke Nguyen talks about his journey to Australia via a refugee camp in Thailand.
28 minutes with Luke Nguyen
Fresh from his sojourn uncovering some of Britain's best food secrets – and some of the worst – for his new show, Luke Nguyen's United Kingdom, we chat to the Red Lantern chef about how the sovereign state's produce-driven food culture has shaken off its dowdy reputation of greasy spoons and eel pies.
Listen to Luke from SBS Radio
Listen to the interview with Luke by SBS Radio's French program, on the influence of French cuisine on Vietnamese food.