Mark Jensen came to cooking as a career later than most, at the age of 27. Tired of hairdressing, he decided to get away from it all and clear his head, so escaped to Byron Bay for 6 months, surfing in the morning and washing pots in a restaurant at night. And in the process, became completely enamoured with restaurant life. Back in Sydney he landed a job with Matthew Moran at Paddington Inn Bistro, where he learnt the importance of using the freshest produce and allowing that produce to take pride of place in his dishes. Three years later he moved to Bennelong Restaurant and the tutelage of Janni Kyritsis, who he credits with helping him hone his technique.
In 1995 Mark felt ready to strike out on his own and opened the Olympic Hotel Restaurant in Paddington. His simple French-Mediterranean dishes fast won him recognition and business was good. But fate has a way of throwing the unexpected in our paths, and in 2001 brother and sister Luke and Pauline Nguyen, who were working part-time at the Olympic while saving for their own venture, asked Mark to join them in opening Red Lantern. This meant a huge culinary-cultural shift for Mark, who’s training thus far had been classical European, and he was understandably reluctant at first. The challenge was too good to refuse however and he soon realised that his experience to date had already given him an understanding of fresh produce and balancing flavours, the cornerstones of Vietnamese cooking, all that was needed was to master the cooking techniques. Enter Luke and Pauline’s chef parents, Lap and Phuong Nguyen, and family friend Master Chef Sifu Lee, who soon filled this gap in Mark’s culinary education.
The original Red Lantern opened in mid-2002 in a bright red, long, narrow terrace on busy Crown Street and became an instant success. Smart but casual, full of warmth (from the colour scheme and the staff), serving authentic Vietnamese dishes with a modern twist in presentation – what’s not to love? Classics such as prawn and vermicelli filled rice paper rolls with the best-ever peanut dipping sauce, and the Red Lantern take on the ubiquitous salt & pepper squid are about as good as it gets. Vietnamese food can be very tactile, often involving wrapping, folding and dipping, and banh xeo, crisp rice flour crepes wrapped around a prawn, pork and bean shoot filling beg to be eaten in the hands. As well as great seafood, there are plenty of dishes to keep carnivores happy, including beef strip loin wok-tossed with black pepper, garlic, oyster sauce and sesame, as well as many delicious ways with vegetables. Coconut crème caramel to finish is a perfect blending of east and west, just like this classically trained Aussie chef working alongside his partner, Pauline, and her brother, Luke, cooking recipes handed down by their Vietnamese parents.
The popularity of the original Red Lantern on Crown led to the move to a larger venue on Riley Street in 2013, still serving all the favourites from the original menu. More recently, Mark has combined his love of campfire cooking, sustainable seafood and boutique brews, brings them all together in an Alaskan log cabin setting with his casual Salmon & Bear seafood restaurants. Whether you choose a fish to be cooked over the coals and add a sauce and couple of sides (like seriously good corn salad or Asian greens), or go simple beer-battered hoki and chips, this is some of the best ‘fast food’ you’ll find anywhere.
Visit Red Lantern and Salmon and Bear for more information.