Luke Nguyen offers his impromptu NoMenu dish.

Australian Vietnamese chef Luke Nguyen was one of 10 leading chefs from around the world invited to the sixth annual San Marzano NoMenu event held in Puglia under sunny southern Italian skies in May this year.

San Marzano is one of the largest wineries in Puglia with significant hectares surrounding the towns of Manduria and San Marzano in the region of Salento, between the Adriatic and Ionian seas.

They grow a range of Italian varieties with whites including verdeca, fiano, malvasia and chardonnay, though they are possibly better known for their reds – negroamaro, sangiovese and particularly their primitivo (zinfandel).

Like so many successful concepts, NoMenu was not born in a corporate brainstorming or ‘ideation session’, rather it came from a love of fine food and wine, friendship and a good measure of serendipity. Half a dozen years ago, San Marzano’s export manager Angelo Cotugno, invited a few chef and sommelier chums over from London to catch up, cook, eat and drink very well.

NoMenu is not a competition. There are no winners or losers, and there genuinely is no menu. It is about sourcing fabulous local produce on the day, being inspired by it and producing dishes either individually or together for the dinner.

NoMenu 2019 began with a Sunday evening dinner, a not-quite-successful fishing trip the next morning, a beach resort lunch, a dinner at the Masseria Potenti where the chefs stayed, then shopping for the big dinner the next morning, another seafood lunch and then the dinner itself.

What was it like cooking with nine other chefs from around the globe?

It was a fantastic experience. There were chefs from Israel, Germany and the Netherlands – Jan Sobecki and Dick Middelweerd each have two Michelin stars – and the Italians, who were great fun. Diego Rossi, who has the hottest restaurant in Milan, and Davide Degiovanni, from Gordon Ramsay’s Union Street Café in London, had been to several NoMenus before and knew the ropes.

Was the experience of cooking in Italian vineyards what you expected?

Not really; it was so much more fun. We all had a ball. I didn’t expect the singing (by Rossi), the late nights and long lunches, the impromptu soccer game at Posto 9, the way the chefs introduced each other to the diners at the dinner in Italian and English with such huge enthusiasm. It was magnificently Italian; nothing happens on time and nobody cares. Every bus is late and is expected to be. Every meal starts late and has no finish time – all dismissed with a shrug of the shoulders and a smile.

Puglia sets the scene for San Marzano’s magical NoMenu event.
Puglia sets the scene for San Marzano’s magical NoMenu event.

Which ingredients impressed/excited you most?

Seafood is what Puglia is best known for and it is fantastic. They eat a lot of raw crustaceans here with the heads and tails left on and the bodies exposed. Shellfish has to be top quality to do that. The tomatoes are the stuff that dreams are made of, and I was really impressed by the range of leafy greens like wild asparagus, red and white chicory and cime di rapa – things I wouldn’t easily find in Australia.

Where did you go to source the produce?

The chefs shopping together for produce was a highlight. First to Fanuli, the butcher in Manduria where giant bisteccas, beef cheeks, and chickens were purchased. A stop at a large roadside market followed to buy tomatoes, garlic, ginger for me, leafy greens, chillies but no coriander – ‘Italians don’t eat coriander, you won’t find it anywhere’, I was told. Then on to Olivaro’s dairy farm in Maruggio to buy mozzarella and have an impromptu cheese tasting.

How did you like the wines from the region?

I already liked the San Marzano Talò Fiano and the Edda Chardonnay. I wasn’t aware how good the Tramari Rosé was – primitivo wasn’t a grape that I was hugely familiar with, but it’s clearly well suited to the region. I like the negroamaro from there very much as well.

What was your dish and wine match?

My dish was barbecued lobsters with San Marzano sauce. I had no Vietnamese basics like fish or oyster sauce – this being NoMenu and needing to cook with local produce – so I based my sauce on dried scallops, shrimp and anchovies, some local garum for umami, chillies and the San Marzano Edda Chardonnay to make what tasted like a really delicious XO sauce.

We knew it demanded a red wine, so we tried the Talò Primitivo and the balance was just about perfect.

Nguyen prepares his Vietnamese-San Marzano fusion dish.
Nguyen prepares his Vietnamese-San Marzano fusion dish.

Whose dishes did you enjoy most?

Chefs Rossi and Degiovanni teamed up to deliver six different vegetable antipasto dishes which included burnt onions with wine sauce; red turnips, butter, garlic, thyme and cacio cheese; red chicory, medlar and caciocavallo cheese fondue; puntarelle (wild asparagus), anchovies and orange; a salad of cucumber, chilli pepper and wild herbs; and zucchini, pumpkin flowers, mint, oil, lemon and almonds, all working nicely with the Tramari Rosé. Some other notable successes included a sensational dish of red mullet, seasonal greens and salted lemon from Dror Shoshan; Lucio Mele’s beef cheek, broccoli, candied citrus fruits and celery; and Jan Sobecki’s bistecca with a rich cheese gnocchi.

What will be your lasting memories of NoMenu?

The dinner was a great success and I will always remember the produce. But my fondest memory is all about the shared bond between the chefs, our camaraderie, everyone’s passion for produce, for cooking, matching food with wine and for sharing ideas. It was a great time and it was magnificently Italian.

Nguyen’s BBQ lobster with San Marzano XO sauce was a favourite.
Nguyen’s BBQ lobster with San Marzano XO sauce was a favourite.

Luke Nguyen’s BBQ lobster with
San Marzano XO sauce

Serves 4
Preparation Time: 35 minutes + SOAKING OVERNIGHT
Cooking Time: 1 hour 20 MINUTES

2 or 4 live lobsters (depending on size), humanely killed and split lengthways and cleaned
¼ cup vegetable oil

SAN MARZANO XO SAUCE
50g dried scallop
70g dried shrimp
50g dried anchovies
50g fried shallots
200ml vegetable oil
50g garlic, peeled & minced
¼ cup San Marzano Edda Chardonnay or other full-bodied chardonnay
50ml light soy sauce
10ml colatura or Vietnamese fish sauce
15g brown sugar
2 bird’s eye chillies, finely sliced (deseeding optional)
2g chilli flakes
20ml chilli oil

TO SERVE: basil, coriander, parsley, finely shredded leek or spring onion (garnishes optional).

1 Submerge and soak dried scallops in cold water overnight. Strain, reserving water.

2 Submerge and soak dried shrimp for 30 minutes. Strain, discarding water.

3  In a food processor or blender, coarsely blitz the fried shallots and remove. Repeat this process with dried anchovies, rehydrated shrimp and rehydrated scallops.

4 In a wok or medium-sized heavy-based saucepan, bring vegetable oil to medium heat. Add garlic and stir until it has become slightly golden, but not browned.

5 Add scallops, shrimp, anchovies and stir for 5 minutes.

6 Add San Marzano Edda Chardonnay or any other full-bodied chardonnay, light soy sauce, colatura (or Vietnamese fish sauce), reserved scallop water and brown sugar.

7 Stir well then reduce heat to low-medium and cook for 45 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes so that it does not burn.

8 Add fried shallots, bird’s eye chillies, chilli flakes & chilli oil. Stir well, cook for a further 15 minutes and then remove from heat. Once cooled, your XO sauce can be stored in the refrigerator for 2 weeks or 1 month in the freezer.

9 To cook lobster, brush flesh side well with vegetable oil then cook flesh side down for a few minutes on a hot barbecue grill. Turn and cook shell side down until meat is just opaque, being careful not to overcook.

10 Place lobster on a platter and spoon over plenty of sauce, offering extra in a bowl if you like.

11 Top with your preferred garnish.