Just how did Sunda’s Khanh Nguyen find success so early?
He’s one of Melbourne’s hottest next-gen chefs. Just how did Sunda’s Khanh Nguyen become so successful so young?
Growing up in Sydney’s inner-western suburb of Marrickville, with its big migrant population, Khanh Nguyen was in the kitchen early on – but not for the reasons you might think. “Mum used to punish my brother and me by making us cook,” laughs the 28-year-old Vietnamese-Australian chef, whose compulsory kitchen duties were usually related to a chronic lack of interest in school. “But I actually really enjoyed it.”
Today, more than a decade later, Nguyen has relocated to Melbourne and runs the acclaimed one-hat South-East Asian restaurant Sunda, deep in the city’s theatre district. His success at such a young age, and the lessons he has learnt along the way, provide fascinating insights for anyone plotting a career in the industry.
Back in Marrickville, Nguyen managed to finish high school even though he knew he wanted to be a chef. “Having Asian parents, my mum was like, ‘All your relatives are going to start talking if you don’t finish school. Just do it for me!’” He endured it until 2008, then quit his part-time jobs at McDonald’s and Subway and began looking for opportunities to learn serious cooking. After a few unsuccessful trials with a training company, he took the initiative and walked into Luke Nguyen’s famed Darlinghurst restaurant, Red Lantern. He asked for a job – and got one.
Nguyen started as an apprentice at Red Lantern and was immediately impressed by Luke Nguyen (the two are not related). He recalls how his boss would make time to help him learn. “He would come in early – two hours before everyone else – and it would be just me and him cooking. Working for Luke, I actually saw his generosity with time. It was back when he was starting on his TV shows and he was really busy but he still found the time to mentor me. Ten years later, he still messages me to see how I am going. If I post a review online, he’ll text me to say, ‘Congratulations, well done’. He’s been a massive support.”
Nguyen stayed at Red Lantern for almost two years. He knew he wanted to create a unique version of Vietnamese cuisine in his own restaurant one day but he was still missing some skills from his toolkit. “I kind of felt I needed a bit more discipline,” Nguyen laughs. “You know, get bollocked a bit more.”
In an effort to rein in his tendency to joke around in the kitchen, he applied for a job at upmarket restaurant Becasse, a now defunct two-hatter – “pushing for three” – run by chef-owner Justin North and his second-in-command Monty Koludrovic (now head chef at Icebergs Dining Room and Bar in Bondi). “It was known to be one of the hardest restaurants in Sydney, if not Australia, to work in,” says Nguyen.
Starting as an apprentice again, he worked his way up over 18 months or so to become chef de partie, learning the importance of attention to detail – including how to chop chives properly. “I had some pretty rough days there but it was really good for me,” Nguyen says. “There were some long hours, and a lot more pressure.”
Nguyen was then approached by well-known Sydney chef Dan Hong, who asked him to help at his new Cantonese restaurant, Mr Wong, in the Sydney CBD. Nguyen went from working in a kitchen that finessed 30 covers a day to one that pumped out 500. Within three months, Hong promoted him to sous chef, a position he held for three years.
A two-month internship at Noma Australia pop-up under Denmark’s famous Rene Redzepi followed and, after bumping in to chef Brent Savage in the same building, he joined the Bentley Group as a chef de partie, becoming sous chef three months later at seafood temple Cirrus, in Sydney’s Barangaroo precinct.
Nguyen’s year-long stint at Cirrus gave him another chance to contribute to a developing menu. He’d had a taste of this at Mr Wong, where Dan Hong would ask his chefs to present a new dish for him to try every week. Hong’s feedback was a simple yes or no, with no suggestions for improvements. “I’m sure he does that now,” says Nguyen with a smile. “Because I gave him that feedback when I left.”
The chance to head up Sunda, however, came out of the blue. The Halim Group, which owns Melbourne’s Hotel Windsor, was keen to open an Asian restaurant and, after a few false starts, consulting chef Tony Tan called Nguyen to see if he was interested. Initially intended to offer Indonesian and Malaysian food, Nguyen negotiated to add Vietnamese to the mix and Sunda’s unique South-East Asian cuisine was born.
The jump from “good-cop” sous chef to “bad-cop” head chef has been a steep learning curve for Nguyen. After all, the buck stops with him now. “I do yell at the chefs sometimes but to be honest, the diners love it,” he laughs. (Sunda features an open-style kitchen.)
Nguyen has learnt to be fastidious, too, especially when writing up new recipes. As soon as they’re developed, they’re typed up and placed in a folder in the kitchen within easy reach.
Staffing, he says, has been his number-one challenge. Starting with seven chefs, he eventually settled on nine but reduced their hours to avoid burnout. “I have a prep chef who comes in early in the morning, finishes early and just preps,” Nguyen says. “Everyone else starts a bit later. Then they have four days on, three days off.”
Becoming a mentor himself has been an interesting transition for Nguyen. “It’s about building relationships,” he says. “To mentor staff you have to be close to them, they have to trust you. So I do spend a lot of my day talking to staff and making sure they’re OK. And making sure they’re learning something every day.”
Written by Peter Barrett.