Be Generous – An interview with Khanh Nguyen

If you haven’t heard of Sunda in Punch Lane, you’re missing out on one of Melbourne’s top restaurants. Hailing from Sydney, owner Khanh Nguyen has worked with some of the world’s best chefs and creates some of the most delicious Asian fusion dishes in Melbourne, including the iconic Vegemite Curry. 

He also recently won the 2020 Victorian Chef of the Year from Restaurant & Catering Industry Awards, as well as a long amount of accolades, including Two Hats from the Australian Good Food Guide (2020), Gourmet Travellers Best Takeaway Fine Dining Award (2020) and The World’s Best Top 50 Discovery List (The World’s Best 2019). 

We recently spoke to Khanh about his time this year and how he shares love with his family and friends. 

Can you tell us about your background for our readers?

My name is Khanh Nguyen. If my surname wasn’t a dead giveaway, I come from a Vietnamese background though I was born and raised in Sydney. 

I’ve been cooking for about 12 years and have been fortunate enough to work at some of Australia’s top restaurants. I’m grateful to have been mentored by some of the greatest in the industry.

In 2017, an opportunity came up in Melbourne that I couldn’t refuse. So here I am, Sunda and Melbourne is now my new (ish) home. People always ask how I compare Melbourne with Sydney and my answer has always been the same; I spend most of my time in the kitchen, so it’s pretty much the same for me.

What is the best gift you’ve received? What do you think is the best gift you’ve given?

Being a chef and someone who is obsessed with food and cooking, I think the best gift I’ve received is a Deba knife (a Japanese Fish knife). I’ve had this one knife for 6 years now, which I still use almost every day, and I think it’s going to last a lifetime if I continue to look after it well.

 As for the best gift I’ve given? It’s hard to say but I like gifting experiences rather than material things.

During 2020, what do you think was the most important thing about keeping your spirits up? How did you connect with friends and family when you couldn’t see them?

With restaurants being closed and a lot of newly found time on my hands, I taught myself a new skill! I started making pastry and just wrapping random things in it - my favourite was wrapping a whole chicken and surprising everyone with eggs inside.

 I also loved making Asian inspired flavours of the pate en croute. The pastry work that I’m most proud of is the mud crab. I think the crab was the turning point when I started doing crazy things with pastry and it also received a lot of engagement online. The most rewarding part of it all was seeing how I inspired others to learn something new, while also keeping it light-hearted. I was getting messages from not just chefs, but also food lovers from around the world, who messaged me to ask about the things I made, which was an amazing feeling.

I always found comfort in food and since I couldn’t see family and friends, this comfort just grew. Similarly, growing up in an Asian household, food is often used to show appreciation and love, so during lockdown I just sent everyone food. I think I gifted as much food as I ate, and that’s a lot of food given all the iso-weight I’ve gained. Oh and I also participated in lots of zoom parties (No more zoom parties please). 

I think this year people are going to show appreciation and gratitude in their gifts. Being in lockdown for seven months, it really makes you reflect and realised all the things (and people) you took for granted. So, hugs and handshakes for everyone! With restrictions easing in Victoria and borders opening, I feel reconnecting with friends and family from near and far are more important than any gift.

Have you started planning for the silly season yet? 

If by planning you mean writing new menus for Sunda’s upcoming events, then yes. This year we have a Christmas and New Years’ Special at the Windsor Hotel which I’m so excited about. The venue is just a grand space and I’ve designed a menu to complement that. It’s Christmas Classics done Sunda style and the New Year’s Eve menu is just as special.  

If someone could give you any gift in the world, what would it be? 

I know this sounds cliche, but time. In our industry, we work crazy hours so you miss important events like birthdays, weddings, family gatherings, etc. 

This year, we’re open through Christmas & New Year (granted we’ve been shut for 7 months though), so I won’t be able to spend time with family & friends this festive season. 

With that being said, if time is not of the essence, then a jar of Bomb Ass Chilli Oil aka BACO from HD Foods would be just as good. They’re always bloody sold out! It’s a locally made chilli oil that I came across on Instagram and instantly fell in love with (literally).

To me, gifting is not about the actual gift itself. The gift could be as simple as a jar of that Bomb Ass Chilli oil, a meal out at a fancy restaurant, or my favourite knife I always wanted. What’s more important is the effort put into the gift. Someone took time out, thought about you, gave you something they think you would enjoy and that alone is pretty special.

Finally, what is the best "gift" of advice that you have received? Is there advice or a story that someone has given you that has stuck with you? 

The best gift of advice would be from my parents. When I was at a young age, around 6-8 years old they told me one thing that’s stuck with me since. They said ‘your life is your responsibility’. You’re the one person that can take control of your life. You are the one person responsible for the choices you make in your life and also responsible for your happiness, career, fulfillment and even your failures.

This is something I always remind my employees. There is only so much I can do to nurture their careers but at the end of the day, everything they do is their choice and their responsibility. 

To check out the wonderful things that Khanh is doing for both Sunda (and the Windsor Hotel) and to see the incredible pastry work that he does, check out his Instagram

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