Food TV host Luke Nguyen had to flee during a raid on street hawkers in Ho Chi Minh City
While Luke Nguyen is no stranger to street food in Southeast Asia, there's always a first for everything.
Like learning to eat-and-run in Vietnam while shooting an episode of his new TV show Luke Nguyen's Street Food Asia, which airs on Mondays at 9.25pm on TLC (Singtel mio TV Ch 254/StarHub TV Ch 427).
It features the Vietnamese-Australian chef and restaurateur exploring Southeast Asian cities, such as Ho Chi Minh, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta, and takes a behind-the-scenes look at the street food scene as he follows local vendors on their daily routine.
Nguyen, 38, told M over the phone from Sydney: "As you know, a lot of street food vendors in Asia sell their food on carts so they can move around easily, and also move away quickly as most of the street food vendors don't really have a permit to be there on the street."
He recalled sitting by one stall in Ho Chi Minh City eating his noodles with chargrilled pork and enjoying a cup of soy bean milk when "suddenly everyone jumped up, took their chair and dishes, and just ran away".
"I thought 'Wow, what's happening? I'm just sitting here alone'. Even the stall owner just pushed her cart and left.
"I didn't know what to do, so I just picked my chair, bowl of noodles in my hand and ran as well... I just followed everyone. The cameraman started running too, and when I looked back, the authorities were chasing all the street food vendors away."
He recounted how they ran around the corner and then everyone "simply put their chairs back down and started eating as if nothing had happened", he said with a laugh.
He is an authority on Vietnamese cuisine in Australia and the host of TV series Luke Nguyen's Vietnam. Nguyen's success came from walking and eating on the streets of Southeast Asia, particularly in his native Vietnam. And it came early.
Nguyen opened Red Lantern in Sydney in 2001 when he was just 23 years old. The Vietnamese restaurant, with branches in Sydney and Brisbane, has won many awards.
He has plans to take Red Lantern to Hong Kong and Vietnam.
LOVE FOR FOOD
All this wouldn't have been possible if it weren't for his love for street food.
"Street food has always been fascinating to me as it's the real food of the country that you're travelling in.
"Sitting or standing there on the street and eating, you really get a sense of where you are, and you get to converse and meet the locals and get a sense of the real history behind the country," said Nguyen.
He spoke of how he would take back these food memories and then tweak the recipes a little for his restaurant menu.
"The street food vendors have been cooking for generations and generations, so they've really got the flavours right.
"I'd take street food dishes from all over Asia and use Wagyu beef, Kurobuta pork or organic vegetables, and bring (the dish) up to more of a restaurant experience."
Nguyen's family, refugees from Vietnam, settled in Sydney's Cabramatta suburb, where "a lot of the Vietnamese community or the Vietnamese boat people lived".
"Living (there), you could be living in Saigon, so I grew up (amid) a very strong Vietnamese culture. So when I travel (around) Asia or back to Vietnam, I really feel like I'm at home."
Nguyen hopes to be able to come to Singapore for his next series, as "Singapore's food culture is very vibrant and diverse".
"I can go to Singapore and feel like I'm in three or four different countries at once... it's such a melting pot of Asian cultures."