The Tectonic Plate of Sunda

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One spice that is universal to Khanh Nguyen Victorian chef of the year in restaurant & catering 2020 awards for excellence is the fenugreek seed – bringing India closer to his heart.

‘Sunda’ is the name of the tectonic plate mounting the equator in the Eastern Hemisphere, on which the majority of South-East Asia is located. The Sunda plate is also serving the most exquisite South-East cuisine from Punch Lane, Melbourne.

Being a foodie, I look out for creativity, relativity and how well a dish is being respected with its taste. Khanh Nguyen knows exactly what to do with all of the above. Nguyen is the head chef and part-owner of Sunda Dining and Sunda Experience, and was also crowned as Victoria’s Chef of the Year in 2020 by Restaurant & Catering.

Born to a migrant family from Vietnam, 29-year-old Khanh thanks his parents for a humble upbringing. Originally from Sydney, he now calls Melbourne his home. I invited him into my lounge room only to see him in his car on the other side of Zoom. It was like inviting one of God’s angels of food.

Khanh’s Instagram handle is @genghiskhanh – please don’t confuse him with the dreaded Mongol leader. In fact, he’s quite the opposite. Normally my degustation begins at 2:00 am on Instagram, drooling and half-asleep when the chef has uploaded his recent creativity. I always wished I could ask this young chef what drove him. Now, here I am fully awake, speaking to him about his food journey.

His love for food began in his backyard. His family would grow produce with ducks in his backyard quacking away. Here he learnt the technique of sharpening his tools to skin a duck or scale a fish.

Khanh says he owes his success to his family’s sacrifice for what he is today. It is not always about ‘just doing’ but always going that extra mile and not giving up. Soon after high school, when most young kids find a way to university, Khanh took himself to restaurants, starting as an apprentice in Red Lantern.

I have to interrupt him by saying that I always thought he and Luke Nguyen were related. We both burst into laughter. Well! That’s me being ignorant, like taking all the ‘Smiths’ or the ‘Singhs’ to be related. Khanh is all praises for Luke, who would come two hours early to teach Khanh one-on-one. ‘Who does that?’ says Khanh. I say, only a Guru to his disciple.

Then he went to work for Justin North of Becasse, which had the reputation of being one of the hardest restaurants to work for in Australia. As young adults will party their night away in a club, Khanh partied his way through a kitchen. Hopping kitchens to gain his experience was intoxicating and he had a thirst for learning more.

But Khanh gives all credit to Mr Wong, a restaurant with 40 chefs. Khanh was there for 3.5 years as a sous chef before landing in Noma. In Mr Wong, all he had to do was present a dish every week – that’s where Khanh developed the maturity of expressing his talent. He joined Noma as an apprentice; that’s where he was taught to respect nature and its fresh produce. After Noma, he worked with the Bentley group. Bentley restaurant and bar, Monopole, Yellow and Cirrus. He spent most of his time at Cirrus as the senior sous chef.
In 2018 The Windsor Hotel was looking to open an Asian restaurant. The rest, as they say, is history – Sunda was born with seven chefs, including Khanh.

When I first went to Sunda in 2019, the open kitchen fascinated me. It adds more to the theatre of the whole dining experience. I saw the chefs hustling with the pots and pans, fiery words exchanged between the chefs. My date and I stared in awe. Each plate was presented in front of me fresh and divine – slowly the bickering in the kitchen faded away.

The pandemic has forced many restaurants to let go of some of their finest staff; it has been challenging and mentally taxing for Khanh too. He appreciates his staff and he has paid annual leave during the lockdown. The tips are all handed out to the kitchenhands. ‘It’s like taking care of your family.’ They all eat together during their staff meals. It is where he learnt to appreciate Indian food.

A few months ago, I interviewed Nabil Ansari, Khanh’s sou chef. As I have loved Ansari’s food, so has Khanh. Before Ansari, Khanh had always thought of Indian food to be heavy; thanks to his sous chef, his perception has changed. Khanh’s favourite dish of Ansari’s is his dry fish curry. The fish dish dipped in rice flour and deep-fried, is all about the assimilation of different techniques. It is also true, as Khanh was telling me, for how Indian and Malay cuisines have intermingled. One spice that is universal to Khanh is the ‘fenugreek seed’, which is quite popular in both Indian and South-East Asian cooking – bringing India a bit closer to his heart. Khanh’s go-to spice is as versatile as his cooking.

What can I say of this priceless chef who has called Melbourne his home? A new outdoor concept has been opened, Sunda EXP, and in April 2021 his new restaurant Aru is set to open after long weekends of perseverance and hard work. One day, he wishes to start a family.

As for myself, I have learnt to appreciate food and the creator of such diverse taste, colouring food with their tones. I am grateful to be interviewing him.

The chef’s generosity, humility and hard work has paved the way for young men to brave the kitchen – their kingdom. I cannot think of anyone other than Genghis Khan. A very famous quote by the man himself crosses my mind. “If you are afraid, don’t do it – if you’re doing it, don’t be afraid!”

By Nandita Chakraborty