The Inside Story

RED LANTERN, THE MOST AWARDED VIETNAMESE RESTAURANT IN THE WORLD

“Everything is a kind of magic when you have the stars aligned. We did everything ourselves. We are all hustlers. We walked the streets of Surry Hills telling people ‘Hey, this is a new Vietnamese restaurant. It is going to be the best restaurant in the world. We are going to open in a few months time. Make sure you come along. Here is a flyer.’ We were working it.” Pauline Nguyen

I sat in the audience with my business partner Jodie, waiting for the speaker to come on the stage. We were at another business lunch event. We go to so many of these events, waiting to be inspired, waiting to be transported. And to be fair we get to hear from some pretty interesting people.

But today was different. I was texting on my phone, while mindlessly scrolling through Instagram when the speaker entered the room. I barely looked up. Out of the corner of my eye I could see that she was relatively small in stature, pretty face with jet dark hair pulled back tight.

What happened next rocked my soul. She spoke with such power, such intent in such an earnest way that I literally dropped my phone. She had my full attention, probably for the first time ever.

Who was this woman who in 30 seconds had captivated my imagination?

Her name is Pauline Nguyen, co-founder of the Sydney-based Vietnamese restaurant Red Lantern, alongside her partner Mark Jensen and her brother Luke Nguyen. 

This is the story of a woman with the grit of a Roman army, who against the odds co-founded the most awarded Vietnamese restaurant in the world – a restaurant that proudly still serves its beloved clientele 18 years on.

THE BEGINNING

The story begins when Pauline and Luke were just kids. The Nguyen family had arrived by boat from Vietnam, as refugees, and settled in Cabramatta, Sydney. In fact Luke was born while they were in detention, waiting to be accepted into Australia. Theirs was not an easy childhood.

Luke was four years old and Pauline seven when they began to work in their parent’s restaurant. Pauline made ice cream and Luke cleaned the ashtrays and carried coffee to all the guests. Their other siblings were also handy helpers at the restaurant. The Nguyen kids learned what hard work looked like very early on.

“My father opened a video library to start. It was Cabramatta’s first ever video library, and because all Asians love action movies he was quite the entrepreneur. Then he opened the restaurant, we had Cabramatta’s first ice cream parlour and Cabramatta’s very first cafe with a proper coffee machine making cappuccinos. Next he opened the first driving school on the side. We provided the child labour. So we know how to work. Our work ethic is ferocious,” explains Pauline.

Fast-forward 21 years Luke decided he wanted to open a restaurant, and naturally Pauline would assist. Pauline had been doing some shift work in restaurants in Sydney for extra cash. She had just returned from living in London for five years, working in film and television. 

“I was terrible in film. The reason was because I can’t have a boss. I have to be my own boss. It was very difficult for me to be told what to do. And a little Asian woman bossing around film crew didn’t really work,” she laughs. 

When returning to Sydney a girlfriend suggested Pauline take some shifts at a restaurant called The Olympic in Paddington. This was a pivotal decision in her life.

“I was a casual waiter working on the weekends and as The Olympic was opposite the Sydney showground just on Moore Park Road, when the football was on they needed more staff. So I would ask my brother Luke. Luke would come in and do shifts and that’s how he met Mark Jensen,” says Pauline.

Enter the scene Mark Jensen. Mark is a renowned chef who at that time was making quite a name for himself. He had been poached from the Bennelong to head up the team at The Olympic.

When Luke was planning the restaurant Pauline suggested he talk to Mark. They needed a chef. Mark had never held a wok before. Never held a cleaver. His background was in Meditteranean, traditional French cooking but he was ready for a change. He agreed to join the Nguyen siblings and together the three of them would launch a Vietnamese style restaurant.

Mark was trained by Luke, Luke and Pauline’s parents and a wok master in the three months leading up to the opening of Red Lantern. 

“You haven’t met Pauline’s father. He is small in stature but a beast in presence. The training was full on. He has mellowed in his later years but at the time he was a little terrifying and it took me some time to figure out his character.”

“I wasn’t just learning to become a Vietnamese chef, I was learning to appreciate and understand the culture as well. I grew up in Brisbane, I had one Chinese girl throughout my whole school, so Asian culture wasn’t really a thing that I knew. Living in Sydney was very diverse of course, but I hadn’t been so intimate with an Asian family,” describes Mark.

Red Lantern was based around the Nguyen family recipes so Pauline and Luke’s father had a lot to say. He would exclaim ‘are you really putting all our trust in this white guy?’ There was a lot riding on the success of this business and the beloved family recipes weren’t to go into the hands of just anyone. They needed to make sure Mark got it right.

But it would seem that he did.

The restaurant was a full-house every single night.

I am fascinated to understand how this seemingly unlikely partnership created such a buzz.

“Everything is a kind of magic when you have the stars aligned. We did everything ourselves. We are all hustlers. We walked the streets of Surry Hills telling people ‘Hey, this is a new Vietnamese restaurant. It is going to be the best restaurant in the world. We are going to open in a few months time. Make sure you come along. Here is a flyer.’ We were working it. Plus of course we had the support of all our friends. So you could say that the buzz was created through word of mouth and also curiosity. No one had seen a proper Vietnamese restaurant before. At the time everything was Cabramatta homestyle. So what elevated Red Lantern was the fact that we had a well known chef who had been in the papers, had been trained by Matthew Moran and Janni Krystis at Bennelong. We combined family recipes, family stories matched with a qualified professional chef who had the training and profile,” says Pauline.

The success of Red Lantern was a phenomenon in more ways than one. To the happy clients night after night it was a compelling mix of the warmth of a family owned restaurant infused with love, fresh herbs and exotic flavours but for Pauline, Mark and Luke it was 80, 90, 100 hours a week of incredibly hard work.

It was a good two years of working at this intensity before the team realised that things had to change. They would get up, go to work, go home, maybe eat, go to work, go home, maybe eat. Pauline developed Alopecia, a condition where you lose your hair. The stress was taking its toll.

Pauline details what things were like… “There was one night that we sat down for our after work beer, it was two o’clock as usual and I was tired. We were all tired. I said ‘What are we doing?’ I had lost so much weight. We had no life. I had lost my frickin hair. It was time to start making changes.”

When Pauline, Luke and Mark first opened they had hired friends. It was the ‘anyone got any mates who need a job?’ style staffing. They had lots of friends who needed jobs. It was now time to start hiring professionals. This was a game changer because it meant the team could let go of the tightly controlled reigns and trust that things would be done right. This was the first step in creating a more sustainable approach to the business.

WORKING WITH FAMILY

So how do you keep a partnership in life and in business alive and flourishing? I am fascinated to know. Pauline and Mark have been together for 20 years.

Pauline tells me that the secret for sustainability is freedom. Mark has the freedom to be himself, and they each have their own separate friends and their own adventures. 

“I like to travel a few times a year without Mark and the children. I very much maintain my own identity, he maintains his own identity. There is some stuff he does that I have no interest in doing, there is certainly some stuff I do that he has no interest in. And that’s ok. We are hugely supportive of one another,” explains Pauline. 

Beyond Red Lantern Pauline is also an author, a spiritual entrepreneur coach and an international speaker. Mark is supportive of all facets of her life. To make the juggle work it comes back to the ecosystem. Mark runs the day to day at Red Lantern which allows Pauline to be writing, keynoting and coaching. When there are big decisions or situations that require Pauline’s skills such as influence, human behaviour and psychology when dealing with guests or staff members that’s where Pauline comes in.

“I am so thankful for Mark’s patience. There are so many times when I have crazy ideas and I can see him go ‘oh, here we go’ but he will do it, because more often than not, on the other side he goes ‘ok, I get it now’. We have different personality types. To him everything is suspicious. ‘Show me the figures first’ is his usual stand and I’m like “don’t worry, it will work”. Most of the time it does,” smiles Pauline. 

Mark shares Pauline’s unique attributes… “Pauline is fearless. She will set her mind to something and get in and get it done. You need someone like that. Pauline has great skills in the big vision thinking and isn’t afraid to dive in. Pauline will get up to the top rung of the diving ladder and just jump in whereas I am there, I have a look around and think ‘oh actually it’s 10m to the water, and if I jump that way then maybe I’ll survive’. I’ll do the risk analysis first.”

THE AHA MOMENT

It is pretty rare for a restaurant to stand the test of time. Clients are fickle. The economy is unpredictable. What has been the secret to Red Lantern’s success? 

“Diversify,” exclaims Pauline. Diversifying means spreading the risk. You have to do more than one thing. All three of them have spread their wings and are doing other things too. They have structured the business so they don’t have to be at Red Lantern all the time. They can be gone for several weeks. There’s the idea of freedom again and with freedom comes happiness.

“Winter is coming,” exclaims Pauline. “The economic winter is coming. We have seen the economic changes again and again. For me I have to diversify. I’m wired for diversity. I can learn many things and I have to be doing several things. When we learn what we are designed to do and what makes our heart sing you’ve got to follow that. You don’t have to be stuck doing one thing for the next 20 years. Sometimes doing it for 10 years is enough. You are allowed to move.”

THE PLAN FOR THE FUTURE

Pauline shares with me that she is worried about the economic viability of running a restaurant in the future. Everyone should be charging more than they do because wages go up, electricity goes up but if you were to put the menu prices up proportionately then no one is going to come. If you are committed to quality, as the team at Red Lantern are, then it is hard to maintain a profit.

Some years back Red Lantern decided to have a sustainable essence to the way they created their food. Mark forged relationships with sustainable providers, including some organic growers. But they cost more.

“Well if we are going to keep doing this then we may as well do it with our hearts full. We are not allergic to money but it’s not a big thing for us either. What’s more important to us is ethics, and people can taste whether your dishes are high quality or not. So we will keep doing what we are doing for as long as we can. We love it. The guests love it. The dream would be that our regulars just keep on coming, infinitely,” says Pauline.

PAULINE’S PIECE OF ADVICE ON BUILDING A BRAND
Don’t do it alone. Be part of conversations. Look for people who have been through it. Look for people who can get you where you need to be faster. Constantly work on yourself. Your mind, your heart, your health, your spirit. I hear it so many times where people are stuck. ‘I can’t afford to go to a yoga class’ but if you don’t then you are going to pay for it later. We talk about life, we talk about living, and people get so stuck in the business that they forget about living. They forget to be alive. You just go through the motions and the business becomes this big black hole and they get sick and wonder why that energy wall starts to repel customers and repel suppliers.

PAULINE’S BOOK LIST TO INSPIRE

Words: Emma Scott
Photography: Helena Dolby

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