Khanh Nguyen isn't one to be bound by convention. The food at Sunda, his restaurant tucked into Punch Lane in central Melbourne, celebrates both contemporary Southeast Asian flavours and Australian ingredients in a menu that speaks to the city and his place in it, more than to tradition. "I wanted Sunda to be a representation of who I was as a chef," he says.
In practice, that looks like buttermilk roti served with Vegemite curry dipping sauce, and Sydney rock oysters topped with coconut-curry vinaigrette and Tasmanian pepperleaf.
The drive to create his own style was sparked by an internship with Noma Australia. "The best advice René Redzepi gave me," he says, "was to cook food that is true to yourself." This is what inspires him at Sunda; it's at once creative, and deeply personal. What you won't find on the menu, however, are the family-style meals that form a vital part of the day-to-day staff experience.
The recipes here are riffs on these family meals; some are Nguyen's, others are from his team. And like the food on the main menu, they take cues from different people and places.
The buttermilk fried chicken, for example, mixes Southeast Asian and southern American flavours. Thai-style chicken larb, from a chef Nguyen worked with at Mr Wong, is a favourite: "It's textural and refreshing," says Nguyen. Others are perfect for this time of year: a fish curry, cooked rendang-style, or chicken poached in a masterstock, which can be reused again and again.
The dishes represent a melting pot of cuisines and cultures, as well as ideas from a new generation of chefs. "The staff dishes are sometimes evolved for the menu," says Nguyen. They're meals that keep on giving, best shared with your own family and friends.
Sunda, 18 Punch Ln, Melbourne, Vic, (03) 9654 8190, sunda.com.au
Words by Lisa Featherby, recipes by Khanh Nguyen.
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