Luke Nguyen’s Sydney: Surry Hills
by Sarah Henry
Name: Luke Nguyen
Neighborhood: Surry Hills, Sydney, Australia
Occupation: Luke is co-owner of the award-winning Vietnamese restaurant Red Lantern. He also hosts a culinary travel show called Luke Nguyen’s Vietnam, which airs on the Cooking Channel.
There is so much to do in Surry Hills— theaters, galleries, cafés, and pubs—and yet it’s got a small community feel. Everyone knows each other. The area is what’s known in Sydney as an inner-city suburb, which means it’s a residential area close to the city center. Surry Hills is near everything Sydney has to offer, from the Central Business District to beautiful Bondi Beach. I live with my partner, Suzanna Boyd, and our two cats, in a three-level Victorian-era home. The architecture here is fantastic. From my house, I can walk to my restaurant, Red Lantern, which is also in a renovated Victorian building with an ornate, cast-iron fence.
There is a thriving food scene here. I would argue it’s one of the best in the world. You can find fine-dining establishments such as Marque, which has a French feel, or the Bentley, which is modern and creative, with a touch of molecular gastronomy and a great wine list. We also have casual, sunny, and stylish cafés, such as Bills, which is famous for its creamy scrambled eggs and ricotta hotcakes.
There’s a fantastic performance space right around the corner from me. The Belvoir Street Theatre is run by one of the most respected theater companies in the country. Geoffrey Rush and Cate Blanchett have been on stage there. The best part? I can go see a current Australian play or a European classic for a bargain price on cheap Tuesdays.
I’m an Aussie with a strong Vietnamese heritage, and I communicate my culture through my food. I grew up in Cabramatta, in Sydney’s southwestern suburbs. This is the area where my family and many other Vietnamese migrants, or “boat people,” as we were called, settled and set up businesses. After my parents spent a year in a Thai refugee camp, where I was born, they eventually opened a restaurant in Cabramatta called Pho Cay Du. I worked there as soon as I could walk. I swept floors and served coffee. Luckily, I enjoyed the restaurant world. I always knew that one day I would have my own place. Today, food is how I connect with my family.
In 2002, I opened Red Lantern in Surry Hills because nobody here was doing authentic, modern Vietnamese food, like shaking beef (bo luc lac) and salt-and-pepper squid (muc rang muoi). And I wanted the kind of place where my mates would come for a meal. Surry Hills used to be a ghetto, but now it’s hip to hang out here.
These days, I spend a lot of time in Vietnam and other Asian countries because of my TV series. The cities there are busy and vibrant and crazy and energetic, and I love it. But I also love coming back to Surry Hills. People think Sydney is a busy city. I guess it is. But it’s also a great place to chill out.
Read more about Luke Nguyen’s favorite places in Surry Hills:
Brett Whitely Studio
Mao and More
Twig Café at Garden Life
Surry Hills Library and Community Centre
Photo by Petrina Tinslay. This story appeared in the November/December 2011 issue.