River cruising is all about immersion and food is arguably one of the best ways to experience a destination. To give passengers an authentic culinary experience, APT has brought Australian celebrity chef Luke Nguyen onboard as an ambassador for its Asian portfolio. Luke talks to Cruise Passenger about his love of Asia, his passion for food and what passengers can expect when they join him on board.
Why did you want to be involved with APT in Asia? I have a very close connection to Asia. My mother is Vietnamese/Chinese. I was born in Thailand and raised in a restaurant in Cabramatta, NSW. I travel through Asia not only for cooking inspiration, but also to be closer to my strong heritage and culture. Having the opportunity to open the doors to my homeland and share the cuisine, culture and way of life with visitors was a really exciting prospect. I can help travellers to see more of the destination, to experience more of the culture and sample a true taste of Asia. APT wanted to work with someone who would help it shape the product and enable it to offer a much more culturally authentic cruise and touring experience.
Why do you think food is such an important part of the river-cruise experience? I always say food is a really important expression of the Vietnamese culture. It tells a story; a story of the land and of the history of the Vietnamese people. In Vietnam, we serve up Chinese, French and Thai influences so what you taste is a unique balance on the palate alongside lots of colour and tradition. Food is also very much a family affair, it’s a bonding process and brings people together. So in showcasing the cuisine to river-cruise guests, how it is sourced and made, what I aim to do is open the door to the Vietnamese way of life.
Tell us a bit about the food onboard AmaLotus on its Mekong River cruises. It’s a given that the local culture and cuisine will be reflected in what is served onboard the ship. Incorporating local ingredients and flavours is second nature, but it is also important because it is what is available. There is no large-scale wholesaler or supermarket along the way. So we need to work with what we can access. It’s all about balance, offering a menu that reflects the locality and also being able to cater to more Western tastes. We offer a good selection across the board so everyone is happy. In terms of logistics, for the culinary elements of the sailings, I choose the menu and then submit it to the executive chef on board the ship. The executive chef then sources the ingredients. I work with the chef and his team in advance to train them on the delivery of the menus for guests. For the tours I personally host, I prepare the onboard welcome dinner myself. The main challenge when it comes to food delivery on a river-cruise ship in Asia is two fold: the kitchens are small, so you need to be able to work in a much more confined space; and also when the guests disembark, the culinary team has to go ashore to source ingredients. Supply can sometimes fluctuate, so while we endeavour to plan, there also needs to be flexibility and an ability to work with what is readily available. Success depends on having a team that can think on its feet. APT has an exceptional onboard culinary team, always smiling, always happy to adapt and always ready to cater to guests’ needs.
With your escorted cruises, how much can guests expect to see and interact with you? APT was really clear from the outset that it wanted a partner who would do more than just add their name to a cruise. That really excited me. In Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), I personally lead a cooking class at my Grain cooking school. I also lead a walking tour around Old Saigon to sample street food and see where my parents grew up, a feature that is exclusive to APT guests. This is the chance to come and meet people I know and love, see the way families bond over food, and understand the way the local community interacts. When we board the ship, I personally prepare and serve the welcome dinner. I love meeting the guests and interacting with them, so it’s great to get their feedback when I am able to cook for them, too.
What new developments are coming up for APT in Asia? I will oversee the menu design of the company’s new RV Samatha river ship, which sets sail in Myanmar in January 2016. In addition, in 2016 I will oversee the degustation menu for the new Indochine by Luke Nguyen private dining room aboard RV AmaLotus on the Mekong. I have also designed a special welcome dinner for all guests travelling aboard AmaLotus to enjoy on their first night on board. APT guests travelling on Vietnam land tours in 2016 and 2017 will have exclusive access to my new Grain by Luke Nguyen cooking studio in Ho Chi Minh City. The new cooking studio opened in March 2015 and delivers an authentic Vietnamese cultural and culinary experience. As well as learning the fundamentals of Vietnamese food preparation, visitors to Grain will also learn about the culture and history behind each dish. Classes are hosted by my team and I host classes on a quarterly basis. Another new aspect of my tour in 2016 is the fact that while I am aboard the cruise, I will host some “Getting to know Luke” session with the guests. We’ll do these in small groups and it gives the guests the chance to ask me more questions about myself, my affinity with Vietnam and Cambodia and also any other information they would like to know. These are informal and I hope will offer the opportunity for me to share my passion for both the destination and for food. It’s a great opportunity for me to share my culture, my cuisine and my passion for this amazing destination.