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SUNDAY PROFILE: Nui Gordon - an extraordinary chef

The Lismore App

Lilly Harmon

06 April 2024, 7:26 PM

SUNDAY PROFILE: Nui Gordon - an extraordinary chef

Nui Gordon's life has been flat out since she was born in Thailand. Speaking four languages, becoming an accomplished chef and entrepreneur, a wife and mother, all while travelling the world and Australia, has meant a life on the go. Lilly Harmon sat down with Nui to get her life story.


I was born in the town of Seka, in North-Eastern Thailand, about 30km from the Mekong River border of Laos.

I grew up speaking both Thai and Lao as my native languages. At school, I started learning English, and then later, I studied Japanese.

Seka is a rural community, about a 10 hour drive from Bangkok, and reminds me a little of Lismore. My dad had a business where he bought crops from local farmers like rice, cassava, rubber, watermelon and timber. Anything that the farmers wanted to sell, he’d buy the whole lot by the ton and sell them to factories in big cities such as Bangkok.

My mother started off as a maternity nurse in the local hospital and through hard work and study, got a load of promotions and ended up running the whole local health network as the boss of the hospital. She was away a lot for work and was presented with different awards in ceremonies by the King, Queen and princesses over the years.

I originally studied in my hometown until nine years old, when my parents sent me to St Mary’s – a Catholic boarding school in a bigger city about 2 hours away because it was an International School and the best offered education I could get. They wanted to be able to provide me with that opportunity. It was really a great multicultural climate and I was able to meet so many amazing people but the first few years felt like jail.

After year 12, I went to university in Bangkok to study for a bachelor’s degree in Food Science and Nutrition. In Bangkok, I started my cooking career, working with some amazing chefs.

One of the biggest lessons I learnt from my teachers in university was to really focus on what you were tasting, to really understand what flavour was. They kept pushing us to understand taste and it has been my best experience and helped develop the direction of my career. Every dish I create is all about flavour – I can't stand bland food!

After university I came here to Australia, arriving in Sydney in 2004. It was definitely a lot of freedom given to me in a short period of time, coming straight from university and straight from an all-girls school and so far from home.

When I first came here, I had to share an apartment with 11 people from all different countries who were all studying different courses. I had to really take care of myself for the first time, and when I wasn't studying, I was working in kitchens, and cleaning hotel rooms and cleaning a lot of offices in Sydney CBD at night. It was exhausting but I understood that to get somewhere, I had to work hard.

I was able to get an apprenticeship at a five-star restaurant in Sydney CBD.

After I qualified, I moved to Japan for a year because I had met so many Japanese students and loved their food and culture. I worked in restaurants there and had to learn to read and speak Japanese very quickly. I lived near the beach and would go surfing regularly.

One day, I was surprised to find the beach was empty; no people were there. I could hear a man yelling, but it took me a while to realise he was calling me. He was saying “Tsunami!, Tsunami!”, then I realised what he meant and ran to safety. That was scary but a fun story.

When I came back to Sydney, I started working at a Japanese restaurant at Bondi Beach and within 3 months, they offered me the position as Head Chef.

That job definitely allowed me to build up my confidence and was beginning to gain some notoriety in the industry, even appearing in newspapers. Then came the opportunity for me to buy a restaurant on Norfolk Island at the RSL. It was a 200-seat restaurant, so I applied to buy it. I was successful and had that business for nearly two years.

It was a great learning experience as I was able to gain a great understanding of what running my own business was like and the community there was great. It was crazily busy working there seven days a week for lunch and dinner.


After Norfolk Island, I was a bit burnt out from the kitchen and really wanted to do something different, so I began to study IT Multimedia and learnt how to make websites, but I wasn't able to get any jobs in the industry. I was living in Wollongong and started studying for my Masters at the University of Wollongong at the same time.

To support myself, I started working at The Scarborough Hotel, which is a famous location on the cliffs overlooking the ocean. Again, within a few months they offered me the Head Chef position.


At the time, because I was a young, Asian, female Head Chef, I wasn't getting the the respect from the chefs under me.

One night, none of the chefs were listening to me, so I sacked all seven chefs that were on that night. I told them to get out, and I managed the dinner service all on my own. I had to go into the dining room and inform the customers that their food would be slightly delayed, but I was able to finish it all on my own. I started rebuilding my team the next day with people I could rely on and trust in my kitchen. I definitely had to be tough, and some people say I can be a bit of a Gordon Ramsey sometimes – without the swearing.


I was in Wollongong for about three years, and in that time I met my future husband Tim. We kept in touch throughout my time after that when I moved to Melbourne, working in restaurants.

I took on a role as Head Chef in an Italian Restaurant. Eventually, I moved back to Sydney to be with him, and we opened our first business together. We had a cafe/restaurant called Nude Cafe. Don’t worry—only the food was nude. The name was inspired by my ideal of keeping the food simple (nude) and letting the natural flavours stand out.

I also made the decision at this time, in 2013, to start my own coffee brand. I was working with coffee roasters to perfect the taste I was going for, and there was a lot of trial and error. We entered the beans in the Hobart Fine Foods show and received a medal on the first try.

We operated that for just over a year, in which time we got married, and I quickly became pregnant with our son, Oscar, in 2014. We made the decision to move back to Thailand so I could have Oscar surrounded by family, and we remained there for about a year and a half until 2016, and that time was both exciting and troubling.

We saw that the family business was buying and selling a lot of Eucalyptus wood, and we realised that we could add value by turning it into charcoal instead. We built a simple, yet modern style charcoal factory. We were marketing internationally and developed a lot of opportunities but realised that because of shipping costs and fire risks, we could make just as much money selling into the local market.

(The family charcoal business in Thailand)

We expanded our business and started dealing more in buying bulk rubber crops from local farmers. In the end, we got ripped off – buying and supplying hundreds of tons of rubber to a factory that never paid us. The con man at the factory stole about $4 million from the local community.

We lost all our money. My family and many other people in our neighbourhood lost money to this man. We were going so incredibly well, and then boom—it was all gone—no money!! It was tough being a young family that had worked so hard.

We had to borrow money from our family and friends to be able to come back here to Australia, and effectively, we came back with just two suitcases, a one-year-old baby and no money in 2016. We had to sleep in a garden shed with mattresses on the floor for the first few months in winter in Melbourne and it was really horrible.

We had found a pub restaurant in Williamstown, Melbourne, that needed someone to lease the kitchen and Tim and I took on that.

(Nui and Tim)

The first night’s sales paid for the stock to operate for the second night. Then, the second night’s sales paid for the stock to operate for the third, and we just built up from there. We were able to not only re-establish ourselves in the industry but also be back up on our feet within six months.

My food just kept bringing in the crowds and after a few months, we were packed every night! It was a beautiful historic hotel, built in 1847 and we loved it, so many great regular customers and characters. We even left little food offerings out for the ghosts every night.

Since we had built up the restaurant, the pub was doing well and the owners decided to sell. We tried to buy it but couldn’t raise enough money at the time. After that, Tim and I looked for another opportunity and found another pub restaurant for lease – this time in Moree, right in the middle of nowhere, which was so far away.

It took two days to move from Melbourne to there and it was a great road trip for us. We operated that for a year, seven days a week and it was wildly successful. We began to realise that even though everyone loved my food there, working all day every day wasn’t for us and considering that Oscar was growing up, we needed to settle down more and stop working nights and weekends.

We started searching, and the opportunity of buying a 5-day-a-week business in the SCU plaza came up.

I had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to go back to the city but we decided to come here to Lismore to have a look at the opportunity. As soon as we saw it, we said, Yep, let's do it! We pooled all our money together and bought the business. Over the last six years of being here at The Quick Brown Fox at the University, we’ve absolutely loved it. It has been an amazing experience.

We began on the other side of the Plaza from where we are today, in what is now the TAFE office. It was a tiny space, only a quarter the size of where we are now. After a year, we had the opportunity to move across the plaza into our current space and have been here ever since.

When Covid struck, it was an absolute nightmare for us, and we were under so much pressure and stress. We’d only just recently bought a new house as well. So, just as we’d settled in, the whole country was shut down, and we needed to find a way to make an income. We worked with the University to be open as much as possible in a Covid-safe way, but business was down about 90% because everyone was learning and working from home.

We decided to bake gluten-free cakes, which were wildly successful in the cafe, and market them to other cafes. We started selling them to shops in Casino, Lismore and Ballina. All weekend we’d be baking and then deliver on the Monday. That was a way that we were able to stay afloat during Covid for about a year. One of my philosophies is that there’s always a way to make money as long as you’re not scared to work hard.

(Nui doing what she loves, cooking at the Quick Brown Fox)

Also, during COVID, we had another issue that was quite distressing for Tim and me, and it was the fact that due to the border closures, our son Oscar got stuck in Thailand with his Grandmother.

My mother needed to go back to Thailand to renew her visa, and it was a great opportunity for Oscar to go back and reconnect with family. However, the day they were set to come back, the borders closed, and he and my mother were left stranded there for about six months.

Each time Oscar was set to come back on the plane, they reduced the quotas, and he got bumped off flights time after time. But with time, we were able to get him back, and it was amazing for us to all be reunited as a family despite all the heartache the situation caused.

Just as we were over that, then boom, the flood happened.

I remember being in the shops with my mum the day before and there being nothing on the shelves; then, the next morning, there was water everywhere, and we were getting calls from the SES and the University asking for catering for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We were one of the only places left in Lismore that was offering fresh food, so we had everyone in the flood response coming to us for their daily feed. We worked there all day, every day, for about 17 hours without sitting down for three months!

The army had set up in the Uni Bar, and the police in A-Block and the university also hosted the evacuation centre. We were up at 3am each morning and by 4am, there were queues across the plaza of all people needing coffee and food, even before we were opened.

We could hardly get any supplies and it was an absolutely crazy time for us. It was heartbreaking talking to all the people affected by the flood and listening to their amazing and harrowing stories.

It's been a real pleasure working here in the university cause it's such a lovely community. We've gotten to know so many fantastic people. It never gets boring.

Instead of having a shop where you are on a main road and you get different customers every day, it’s really nice to have so many regulars come through where you know their names, stories and their orders when they come in every day. The students as well, you see them coming in young and grow up through their years at university. It’s sad to say goodbye when they graduate.

The University has changed so much in the past six years since we have been there. With the move to online learning and then after the flood, the schools such as Trinity, Richmond River, the Living School and TAFE that now call the University area home, we’ve gotten to know so many more great people. Our business has turned into our social life.

I have always had a positive outlook on life, and I think I get my hard work ethic from my parents. I love travelling, and each time I go away, I pay attention to the local cuisine. I am always trying to learn to improve my skills, and over the years, I have become proficient across a wide range of Western and Asian food styles.

The only thing that has hurt me over the years is the negative judgements that people make against me on nearly a daily basis. They find it hard to believe that I am the Chef, just because of my appearance. Too many times people have popped their heads into my kitchen and told me to give their compliments to the chef for an amazing meal. I say thank you kindly and they say – No, not you, for the Chef! And there I am, standing there in my chef uniform, plating food.

The basis of my business has always been about my passion for food. You can really tell when food is made with love and I strive every day to make a wide variety food that is delicious that will keep people coming back.

We get to the cafe at 4.30am every morning because nearly everything is homemade and takes time to make. We open the doors of the cafe at 5am. More and more locals are discovering us, but some people don't realise that we are open to the public.

We love the SCU atmosphere and the Lismore area. We love the people, the positive attitudes, and the resilience that the community has shown. We try to repay the kindness by keeping our prices low. Even with all the inflation of the past two years, we have hardly changed our prices because we know how hard it is for people, and we want to offer them some great value.

Even though it is long hours and hard work, you will always hear me laughing out loud and joking with the customers.

Thank you for the opportunity to tell my story.

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