An acquired Taste

Alexandros Tsathas spoke to the businessman, baker and former refugee behind Taste Baguette

Hieu Luong (second from right), with the staff of  Taste Baguette Usyd Hieu Luong (second from right), with the staff of Taste Baguette Usyd

Picture James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano. Now cast aside his standover tactics, underworld connections and his penchant for the lewd. But keep his relentless migrant work ethic; his prioritisation of family, and food; and his knack for not letting other people’s problems become his own. Knock a few feet off his stature, add a few to his short fuse. Finally, replace his perpetual scowl with beady eyes that light up when you catch on, and you get a very close approximation of Hieu Luong, once a Vietnamese refugee, now the king of the Taste Baguette empire.

Hieu is pacing outside Taste USyd, and on his mobile, when I suppose that’s the man I’ve come to meet. Tony Soprano’s likeness isn’t lost on his telephone manner – neck craned, handset deep in his ear, eyes staring into the distance. When we sit down, he prefaces our conversation with notice of likely interruption – he’s been dealing with ‘suppliers’ all morning. As it turns out, he doesn’t once stop our conversation to attend to his phone; he’s as eager to tell his story as your correspondent is to hear it.

***

There’s an irony to Taste Baguette’s location inside the Law Building. Hieu’s dad was a well-respected judge in French Vietnam, and “very much into education”. His mum was “a superwoman, a business lady”, and his family, very wealthy.

“I remember, I used to hate it, because every day, the whole family, we used to sit around for at least about three or four hours, just counting money. We’d sit in a room, it was like a mountain. Mum would bring home so much money, but at that time, as a kid, you just want to play. Money – it didn’t mean anything”, he recalls.

Hieu spent the first 13 years of his life in Vietnam, those years coinciding with the fall of French colonialism and the rise of communism. He explains that at the time, a caste system was deeply entrenched in Vietnamese society, and as a child, he was forbidden from entering the working-class bakery across the road from his family’s mansion in Saigon.

But political tensions were simmering, and Hieu was growing older – his pubescent rebellious streak was to affiliate with the bakery across the road.

“I was always really interested in how people making bread, so I went over there to watch it. I wasn’t really learning, I was watching. And I’d have a chat with them, watching, not realising I was learning by watching. When you’re 13 years old, you don’t think much.”

***

The roots of Taste Baguette can be traced back to a refugee camp in Galang, Indonesia.

With the political situation in Vietnam becoming increasingly unstable, Hieu’s parents made the decision to flee the country. They left everything behind, making for Australia on a rickety 26-metre long fishing boat with 225 other people on board.

Galang, a Lilliputian island marking the southern inlet of the Malacca Strait, was the site of Hieu’s first bakery. He was only 14 at the time, his expertise wholly consisting of what he had observed at the old bakery across the road. It was a resounding success and paints a brilliant vignette of the resolve and business nous that would later go on to earn him great success.

“In the refugee camp, we had nothing to do. I’d go to the jungle to get the wood and the water for the whole family. And then I got bored, and I said ‘OK, I want to make bread’. So there was a construction site for new housing in the refugee camp. And then, what I did, I took some of the tin roofing, bent it into box, I got the clay, built it up, and it became a woodfire oven. I’d never seen a woodfire oven – I just imagined that’s how they’d work. So I created this woodfire oven, then had to walk about five or six kilometres to buy flour. Every time, I could only purchase about 25kg of flour.”

“When I first started, I couldn’t sell any, but after about a few days, people had to order the night before!”, he says, slapping the table.

***

At 15, Hieu’s family was granted asylum in Australia. The typical migrant story played out – his parents working 18 hour days, sewing garments for 80c a piece. Hieu went to school on weekdays, and worked multiple jobs on weekends. He didn’t spend a cent of what he’d earnt – it was all fed back to his parents, but he maintains this arrangement was motivated more by moral obligation than parental pressure.

His jobs – painter’s assistant, builder’s labourer, baker – would go on to equip him perfectly with the skills to make his later fortune in food and property development. “I didn’t realise it at the time, but I got access to making Italian bread, different types of bread and all sorts of skills.” In a sort of started-from-the-bottom, universe-righting, karma-affirming display, he’s able to rattle off the names of all those he worked for, who imparted skills and wisdom to him. He’s still friends with most of them.

***

After school, Hieu studied computer science at UTS, still working in a bakery on weekends. It was at university that he met his wife, and the other half of Taste Baguette, Madeline. He speaks about her with the utmost veneration – “I think I was very lucky, she’s not just beautiful, but she’s super-smart.”

Hieu walked straight out of UTS into Westpac’s IT department. On his first day as a graduate, he had a lightbulb moment. “I remember my first lunch. I bought a sandwich roll, I bit into it, and said ‘mmm, this is like stale bread’. And I’m thinking ‘ok, most people in the city, for them to have a sandwich for lunch, the bread has to be baked the night before, which they make probably before midnight, to beat the traffic. Everything’s delivered before 5 o’clock in the morning. So by that time the bread, it’s like 12 hours old, at least.’ I’m thinking in France, people have a hot baguette for lunch, that sort of thing, so why can’t we have it in Australia?”

Hieu didn’t last long in the office environment, where “people sort of pretend to like each other”. His straight-talking approach went down, well, like a lead balloon. After a spat with his boss, he declared his IT career finished, and that’s when he knew “I had to go and do my bakery, which is what I love”.

***

Hieu scouted a suitable location in a shopping centre in Belrose, in Sydney’s northern suburbs. He was confident of his ability to shape sourdough, had mastered the perfectly chewy ciabatta, and could bake batards blindfolded. But he quickly found himself asking a very biblical question – could bread alone sustain him?

He knew of a pastry chef, Tony, who did a mean croissant down Chatswood way, and begged him for a crash apprenticeship before his solo foray. Tony was hesitant, but obliged – only after Hieu showed up on his doorstep every day for three weeks. Tony’s boss soon put a stop to Hieu’s 4am tutorials (which took place in the morning hours before his final few Westpac shifts), reluctant to forgo trade secrets. But Tony and Hieu remain good friends.

Pastry grasped, if not mastered, Hieu set up shop with his wife. He was 25 at the time, she was 22. His brows lift and a huge smile overcomes his face as he details the hours, and love, he put into his first commercial bakery: it was doomed to succeed.

“We were the first shop open on a Sunday. The only days we had off were Good Friday and New Year’s Day. I think weekdays, we did about 16 hours, weekends I did about 20, but because I loved the product so much, and I baked bread in such a way that the customer always got it fresh, we built up the business. We established a good reputation, so people came from nearby suburbs to our shop, so we had long queues. We were the youngest shop owners at the time.”

Like a yeasty loaf leavened by burgeoning repute, demand grew. Hieu expanded, establishing stores in nearby suburbs like Frenchs Forest under the ‘Vina Bakehouse’ brand. It’s at this point in Hieu’s story that it becomes apparent he’s as much a shrewd businessman as he is a master baker. He leans in when talking business, and you get the impression his pragmatism and eye for a deal surpass anything a business school academic could offer up.

“When you grow, you can’t grow too fast”, he tells me. “So that’s a lesson. Whatever you do, get very good at it, and then, slowly, take your steps to grow.”

As if referring to a management textbook of his mind’s own making, he also espouses the virtues of upskilling.

Once Vina got to the stage where he could leave it alone (or at least in the hands of his capable wife), he took a series of educational trips to America. He cold-called famous American bakers Nancy Silverton (who’s been a Masterchef judge) and Daniel Leader (who supplies all the top Manhattan restaurants) among others, securing stints in their bakeries. He absorbed their methods, tips and tricks. He sings the praises of those who gave their time to teach him for nil financial reimbursement.

***

Returning to Australia, Hieu got straight to the business of implementing what he’d picked up overseas. It was the early 2000s, and, with each new Vina outlet a golden goose, Hieu took to property investment, always buying “the worst property on the best street”. He hired others to conduct the day-to-day running of his bakeries, his wife overseeing operations, and was semi-retired at 40.

But this didn’t sit well with him. As if a crazed workaholic, addicted to dough and salt, water and yeast, he found himself bored and decided he still hadn’t realised his Westpac dream of a green-space bakery catering to office workers. He’d just purchased a commercial space in Surry Hills, with the intention of renting it out, but his newfound boredom changed his mind – “After about a year I said, ‘Madeline, I want to come back and fulfil my dream’, so that’s how the Taste Baguette began.”

11 years ago.

***

Going was tough at first, (Hieu says he was “nearly semi-broke”, your correspondent gets the feeling this is an exaggeration), but Hieu applied his work ethic. The day after Taste Baguette was named in a ‘Sydney’s best cheap eats’ listicle in the Good Living leaflet of the SMH, queues streamed out the door.

Hieu’s next project became expanding the Taste empire. He took the concept next to Kent St. Feeling this outlet’s CBD location necessitated a point of difference, he introduced to its décor a French Indochina flavour, which all subsequent Taste outlets carry, albeit discreetly.

Kent Street is fitted out with personal items Hieu has collected on his travels – several tabletops are sourced from countryside Vietnam, and are over 100 years old. The tiles in  Kent St,  which also feature on the splashback of the eat-in kitchen at USyd, are also from Vietnam, and over 70 years old. Hieu saw them, liked them, and paid to have them ripped up and shipped to Australia.

Those tiles behind the counter are, in Hieu’s mind, a reminder of his heritage. “It’s more than a tile”, he tells me.

***

After Surry Hills and Kent St, the Taste behemoth snowballed, and keeps growing. There are now 14 Taste outlets, in Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide. Hieu cites a number of principles as guiding his success.

Firstly, he steers clear of the fine dining trap that has afflicted many a restauranteur – “I love food but I only go out to fine dining once every 3 or 4 months. But with the casual meal, I can go every week. It’s more affordable, but still tastes great, and that’s the whole point.”

This isn’t to say he doesn’t value the skills of fine dining-trained staff – his employment strategy is to target chefs and staff who have honed their craft in upmarket restaurants, but are fed up with their pomp and long, anti-social hours.

His preference is for a relaxed and supportive working environment – “The key staff must love and respect their juniors, so they work as a team.Worst of all is if the staff are bullied. They come to work, and they don’t perform, because they’re working for money, but they don’t really want to work.”

As Taste has grown, its logistical model has had to adapt. The current setup in Sydney has two master kitchens at Surry Hills, one for bread, the other for cakes. Every morning, the growing dough is transported to each outlet, where it’s placed in a machine that allows a controlled rise (which can be slowed down or sped up). Once ready,  it’s baked in in-store ovens, ensuring fresh bread all day long.

Recently, Hieu also established Taste Growers’ Market in Zetland, a greengrocer that not only supplies the public, but vertically integrates his business and supplies every Taste outlet. Hieu headhunted managers from gourmet grocers like Harris Farm and Norton St. Grocer to run his latest enterprise – “every one of them, they’re the best in their field.”

***

So what’s next for Hieu and Taste? Gelato – “So I’m already geared up, that will be our next phase. I just want to do something different, yea.”

When I ask Hieu what keeps him going, and wanting to grow, he tells me “it’s something I’m enjoying.”

“I can stop now, but everyday I go to bed, the earliest about midnight or 1 o’clock. You know, normally by 4, my mind, I’m already thinking about what to do next. But I don’t feel my day’s work is work. You know, even going to see my staff, is to me, quite fun. If you enjoy life so much, you enjoy what you do, is not work. It’s just part of your daily routine.”

Hieu’s got two boys, one 20, the other 18. What does he expect of them?

“I know some Asian parents say ‘oh, you have to be a doctor, you have to be this’”, he laughs.  “I don’t. I just want them to have freedom, you know, they do whatever they want.

“In whatever you do, if you love something, you put your heart and soul into it and you believe in yourself, you’ll be successful. Don’t think about money first, just think about what you love to do.”