It’s a high-risk business, isn’t it?
Very high-risk. In Australia, we’re passionate about what we do, but the profit margin is not great. If you’re running a business at 5 to 10 per cent profit, you’re winning. That’s not a lot of return for all the hard work and hours you put in.
You have eight restaurants and businesses across Australia and Vietnam. Surely that constitutes an empire. How much do you earn across all of them?
I … actually don’t know how to work that out! [Laughs] As for empire-building, you do have entrepreneurs and chefs where the goal is to create an empire: 20 restaurants across 20 sites in five years. For me, everything’s been really organic. I’ve been given opportunities and say, “Yeah, let’s try that!”
As a kid, you worked every day in the family restaurant in south-west Sydney’s Cabramatta.
Some kids in that situation would run away from the industry. What made you stay?
Yeah, when people ask me what got me into the industry, it was obviously slave labour. [Laughs] Of course, I hated working in the restaurant when I started. You want to be riding your bicycle around the block with your friends, right? But when I hit around 11 or 12, I was like, “Wow, I really love this.” I was raised in Cabramatta, and loved going to the markets and buying fresh, premium ingredients, then cooking and slow-cooking, learning that balance of flavour. When I was 23, I thought, “I want to stop talking about and dreaming about it. Just do it.” I opened Red Lantern in 2002 with $100 in my pocket.
You opened Red Lantern in inner-Sydney Surry Hills with your sister, Pauline, and her husband, Mark Jensen. Is it a good idea to mix family and business?
For us, it was great. My family – like a lot of Asian families – don’t talk very much about emotions or experiences. We communicate all these things – showing love and how much we respect each other – through food. If I want to see my parents, I invite them to the restaurant, or to our homes, and we cook and we chat and we laugh. Through the restaurant, our family has become a whole lot closer.
Say you’ve unlimited funds to serve anything for a banquet. What are you going to serve?
Probably all the dishes I grew up eating, but trick them up. For example, a really beautiful bowl of pho, the first dish I cooked that my parents taught me, because it’s close to my heart. But I’ll shave fresh truffles through it; it’s a wonderful combination. Then some beautiful pipis with a nice homemade XO sauce with dried scallops, trick that up as well with some caviar through it.
Your parents and two older siblings fled Communist Vietnam by boat in 1977 while your mother was pregnant with you. You were born in a Thai refugee camp before moving to Australia. How do you reflect on being born in the midst of a life-and-death situation?
Where we got to today, and why we keep striving to go further, is because we went through that experience. My parents risked their lives to get a better life for the family. I appreciate that every day. I go back to Vietnam a lot – I’ve got a base there now with a restaurant and cooking school – and take my two kids there to show them what Vietnam is like and give them that same experience. For them to be in touch with their culture, and learn where we came from, in Ho Chi Minh City’s District One, and the hardships we experienced to get to Australia.
Did you sense the trauma in your family when you were growing up?
Without a doubt. My father was in the war [fighting against the North Vietnamese], and when he came to Australia, he didn’t get any psychological help. After being in Sydney’s Villawood Migrant Hostel, we moved with four other families into one small flat. I remember as a child waking up and there being no adults around. We had to look after each other because our parents had three jobs: morning shifts, afternoon shifts, graveyard shifts. We had to fend for ourselves. We got beaten if we didn’t get the grades. We got beaten if we didn’t do the housework. We had a very traumatic childhood; all the siblings did.
You have four-year-old twins. How have they shifted your thinking about life and death?
It’s been really beautiful. Having children has made me think a lot about my childhood, and I had a very dark childhood. I’ve always questioned – given the way I was treated as a child – whether I would treat my children like that. But it’s been the complete opposite.
Given your background, did you grow up Buddhist?
Absolutely. We would not eat meat once a month; we would celebrate the anniversary of our grandparents’ and ancestors’ deaths, go to the temples and pray, have a really big altar in the living room. We’ve been doing that ever since.
What’s your daily relationship with Buddhism like?
I deep-breathe every day. Some Buddhists like to close their eyes and focus on a point to meditate, whereas I breathe very deeply and chant. It helps me clear my mind, focus and be able to do all the different things I do.
What’s the meaning of life?
It sounds so corny, but it’s to enjoy it, really. [Laughs] To become a great person, a great human and enjoy the road you’re taking.