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Digging up the origins of Vietnamese dishes like the pho (a beef noodle soup) and bánh mì (a baguette with a meat-and-vegetable filling), took chef, restaurateur and TV show host Luke Nguyen, 38, halfway around the world: to France. Not entirely surprising, given that the French colonized Vietnam for nearly 100 years starting in the 1800s.

Nguyen, co-founder of the Red Lantern Vietnamese restaurant in Australia, has two TV shows on the Australian SBS network (Luke Nguyen’s Vietnam and Luke Nguyen’s United Kingdom).

We spoke to him ahead of the 6 July launch of his third show, Luke Nguyen’s France, about the meeting of family and food in his shows and his culinary journey through Paris, Biarritz, Lyon, Marseilles, Nice, Loire Valley, Île d’Oléron and Saint-Malo. Edited excerpts from a phone interview:

Tell us why travelling is important for you to understand food.

After opening Red Lantern at age 23, I wanted to immerse myself in Vietnamese culture and cuisine. Every year, I would close the restaurant for three weeks and head back to Vietnam (Nguyen’s parents immigrated to Australia from Vietnam during the 1970s).

Every dish has a story. The deeper I looked, the more I came to (realize the importance of) the colonial period in Vietnam. The French colonized Vietnam for almost 100 years. I found that a lot of the dishes that have become part of Vietnamese cuisine, have actually been influenced by the French.

Could you give an example?

Consider how pho is cooked. The ox tail and shin bones are roasted, the vegetables are roasted, and then they are simmered for 8-plus hours to create this clear, aromatic broth. It’s almost like a consommé. All of those techniques, right from roasting the bones and vegetables, are French. That’s how a pot-au-feu is created as well.

The only way I could discover more about that connection was to go to France. I went looking for the traditional pot-au-feu—in people’s homes to see how their grandmothers cook it, and to a lot of bistros, cafés and Michelin-star restaurants. After comparing all those pots-au-feu, I made my own with my Vietnamese cousins in France. After all that work, I was certain that the pho has been influenced by the French.

Another example is bánh xèo, turmeric-rice pancake with prawns and pork. It’s essentially a crêpe.

So you were on a mission in France.

My mission was to go to France and find out how much the French influenced Vietnamese cuisine. Luckily, I have a lot of family in France. It helped me to reconnect with them and see how they are cooking. It has kind of come full circle because the French were in Vietnam and then the Vietnamese, like my cousins, left Vietnam (in the 1970s) and have been in France for 40 years. I would ask them what they are cooking and how the Vietnamese have influenced French cooking now, almost half a century later. It was an interesting discovery experience.

What was your most memorable experience in France?

My cousin Laurent (of Indochine restaurant in Paris) and I cooked a Vietnamese fish dish called cá kho tô, a caramelized fish dish. He cooked it with traditional flavours and ingredients but in a very French way. The caramelized mackerel dish (poisson au caramel) with spring onions and chilli and garlic made in young coconut water was divine.

Any key differences in the way you’ve approached the shows in France and in Vietnam?

When I cook in Asia, it’s spontaneous. If I see a dish on the street corner, I’ll go there and try to replicate it right there. Or I’d cook on a boat or just anywhere, really, to prove that cooking can be done very easily. But in France and the UK, I had to plan ahead for permissions to cook in public spaces.

Also, (in terms of) the techniques and cooking essentials, the equipment (used) is a lot more. With Asian cooking, the mise en place takes a while but the execution is quick. Whereas with European or French, the preparation is there but the cooking time is a lot longer.

What is the one cliché about Vietnamese cooking that you want to challenge?

That Vietnamese cuisine only has a few main dishes. Of course, we all love pho and the rice-paper wraps and banh mi. But what I want to do is show that, like Indian and Malaysian food, it’s so diverse. A dish from the mountains of Cam Pha will be very different to one from Hanoi or Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). Vietnam is a long, long country. At the top, it can get very cold. As you go down the coast, it becomes a bit warmer and (it’s) tropical in the south. So the difference in climate and cuisine can be quite dramatic.

Luke Nguyen’s France starts on 6 July. To see it online, visit www.sbs.com.au/food/programs/luke-nguyen.

The series will also be shown on TLC in India, from Monday-Friday, at 8pm.

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