It's been less than two years since his groundbreaking Melbourne restaurant Sunda opened in April 2018, but chef Khanh Nguyen already has his sights set on launching a new project in Little Collins Street later this year.
"[Merivale executive chef] Dan Hong told me you're never ready to open a restaurant," he says. "You just go for it, and if it works, it works. I did that with Sunda, and it turned out alright."
At Sunda, Nguyen has pushed the boundaries of Asian-Australian dining: a rock oyster with coconut-curry vinaigrette and Tasmanian pepperleaf here, an otak-otak, remixed for the modern ages, there; and a Vegemite-curry sauce so popular it's been bottled and sold for bushfire-relief efforts.
For his as yet unnamed restaurant, Nguyen is looking to a little-known chapter of Australian history for inspiration. There is evidence that the Yolngu people of the Northern Territory's Arnhem Land had contact with Makassans, seafaring traders from Sulawesi, Indonesia, with some historians estimating that the trading relationship commenced in the 18th century. The Makassans were an important trading link between Asia and Australia, bringing rice to the Top End, and sea cucumber to imperial China.
"It came up in a conversation about how far Asian food dates in Australia," says Nguyen. "To be honest, this part of history is new to me too."
The restaurant is slated to open later this year, and the menu is still a long way from being finalised. Age-old cooking techniques like fermenting, preserving and cooking over fire will likely feature; but Nguyen admits that a lot can change in between now and the restaurant's launch. "There's six months until the opening," he says. "Anything is a potential source of inspiration."
Like Sunda, the new restaurant will be co-owned by Nguyen and the Halim Group, with Nguyen to oversee both restaurants as executive chef.
The new restaurant by Khanh Nguyen and Halim Group is set to open in the second half of 2020 at 268 Little Collins Street, Melbourne.