Acclaimed Australian-Vietnamese chef Luke Nguyen’s mission is to connect people with Vietnamese culture through food. He talks to Brett Davis about Grain, his new cooking school in Saigon.Photos by Jonny Edbrooke.
Entering the new cooking school Grain, it looks like you have stepped onto the set of a slick cooking show. The vast space has two classrooms with wooden benches laid out ready with all the tools needed to create culinary masterpieces.
There is also a purpose built market and store at the school located on Hai Ba Trung Street in District 1.
The polished look of Grain is not surprising given chef Luke Nguyen’s experience hosting numerous cooking shows including being a judge on Master Chef Vietnam. He was in town recently between filming for his new series on street food around Southeast Asia.
Grain is his first venture in Vietnam, while he still runs several restaurants in Australia, including the groundbreaking Red Lantern in Sydney.
Seated in the larger of the school’s two ‘classrooms’, he explains that the purpose of Grain is to showcase Vietnamese food and ‘demystify’ the cuisine. And this includes locals as well as expatriates and visitors.
“I want people in Vietnam to get back to their roots and start cooking again, especially the younger generation,” he says.
So far there have been people from all walks of life walk through the doors of the school, he says, from tourists to local families to corporate groups doing team-building exercises.
A typical class involves preparing a four-course meal, with dishes such as pumpkin flowers stuffed with prawns and dill, chicken salad with cabbage and jellyfish, and sea bass steamed in banana leaves.
The students are first shown how to make a dish by the instructors, and then they go to the market at the school to select ingredients. “We show them how to choose a great green mango…we show them how to pick the perfect lemongrass, for example, or what galangal is, and demystifying all the unique ingredients of Vietnam,” Nguyen says.
After that it is back to the work stations and the process of creation begins. The smaller of the two class rooms can accommodate 10 students while the larger one has workstations for up to 40.
Interestingly, the school also caters for up to 80 people at a time for corporate team building activities. These are almost like a segment out of Master Chef. Groups are divided into teams of 10 and a leader is chosen for the cooking of each course. The ‘captain’ is taken to another room and shown how to assemble the dish, before they must return to the team and explain what needs to be done.
Nguyen says it is a great activity that helps teach leadership, delegation, communication and teamwork skills. However, it is reconnecting Vietnamese youth to their culture via the country’s cuisine where his real passion lies.
“I wanted to introduce Master Chef Junior to Vietnam, and by doing that research I found that a lot of our young kids can’t actually cook.
“What happened to our cooking culture? My generation has it for sure, my parents’ generation has it, but the young generation really need to get in touch with that again. We are the biggest rice producer in the world but some young children don’t know where rice comes from or how it is cultivated.”
This is the genesis of the name Grain for the school. Nguyen explains that it is about reconnecting to where that grain of rice came from and what process it goes through to become what it becomes.
“From this small grain, we have this abundance of food that we call Vietnamese cuisine, so let’s get back to the roots of Vietnam and let’s get cooking again.”
“[At Grain] I do a lot of cooking classes with kids, and when they come in they love it. Get them off the computer, bring them here, show them the produce at the market, get them using a knife safely, learning how to choose great ingredients and get them cooking in a way that is fresh and healthy.”
Nguyen says he has found younger Vietnamese often have a less than healthy diet these days. He would like them to start cooking again and appreciating where food comes from, but also “appreciating the Vietnamese history and culture of food.”
It is a noble, if somewhat daunting, cause, particularly in the face of an ever-increasing tide of international fast food chains. But in between his many commitments around the globe, Nguyen seems determined to take on the task, one student at a time, to reconnect and introduce people to what he believes is Asia’s most refined cuisine.