If he tries hard enough, chef Chanthy Yen can still hear his grandmother’s pestle grinding against her mortar. It’s the early-morning sound of lemongrass, galangal (a close relative to ginger), makrut lime leaves, and turmeric being pounded to a sweaty pulp, the basis of a traditional Cambodian curry paste called kroeung. She’d go on to use the paste in dishes like nom banh chok, a fermented rice noodle soup, her hands beaming the gold-hued stain of her labour into the night.
Today, kroeung features prominently in Yen’s cooking, most recently appearing in plates on the menu at Touk, the now-closed Cambodian street food pop-up that Yen operated out of Old Montreal’s Parliament, the British pub-inspired restaurant and bar that hired him as executive chef months earlier. Launched in May, weeks after the virus had breached Montreal’s restaurant industry, forcing businesses to close, Touk was in many ways the type of COVID-era innovation that backed-into-the-corner restaurants were resorting to all across the city.
The pivot paid off, with sold-out nights and queues extending circuitously around the corner on summer nights. But for Yen, who’d toyed with the idea of opening a Cambodian restaurant for years, the venture was significant for reasons beyond its ability to provide a financial lifeline to the restaurant and its employees. Early in the pandemic (but, truthfully, throughout his entire life), he’d been on the receiving end of racist, anti-Asian affronts, and witnessing the momentum of recent social justice movements like Black Lives Matter galvanized his desire to embody his truth personally and professionally. “In some ways, I feel like I rode the coattails of BLM,” he says. “For all that happened last year, it was also the year where we were given the license to speak and truly be ourselves.”
Yen has worked in professional kitchens at non-Asian restaurants since he was 14, serving Italian food at a small, family-run restaurant in the Canadian border city of Windsor, Ontario, where he grew up. He went on to cook under chefs as acclaimed as Catalan legend Ferran Adrià, Andoni Luis Aduriz from two-Michelin-starred Basque restaurant Mugaritz, and the world-renowned Magnus Nilsson. In 2017, Yen moved to Montreal and opened his first restaurant, Fieldstone, whose multicultural, “New Canadian” tasting menu bounced liberally between places like Mexico, Spain, and Cambodia — before shuttering two years later.
It wasn’t until Touk, Yen’s first uncompromising attempt at popularizing Cambodian cuisine (and differentiating it from the food of neighbouring Vietnam and Thailand), that he brought ingredients like kroeung to the foreground, in dishes like somlar cari l’poeuv (pumpkin curry soup — his version uniquely blended into a silky puree) and prahok ktiss, a dipping sauce made by interlacing fermented fish and minced pork. Kroeung is also a focus in Yen’s forthcoming cookbook, Recipes From Yey, picked up by Random House’s Appetite imprint. Yen pitched the book, an ode to his grandmother (“yey” in Khmer), after launching Touk and noticing that his Cambodian cooking — inspired by hers — was resonating with Montrealers. Now, he’s planning to get the attention of Cambodian royalty.
Yen is launching a GoFundMe campaign, called “Take Me To The King,” whose aim is to raise enough money to front a trip to Cambodia, which he hopes will end with him cooking a feast for the royal family. Despite his apprenticeship under his grandmother and years of self-taught study, as a Canadian-born chef, Yen still worries that his recipes just may not be “Cambodian enough;” a royal stamp of approval, he hopes, will quell that insecurity.
“In Cambodia, the royal family is the one that has to verify every single cookbook and work with the authors to publish them, so the kingdom has always been a big part of the cuisine there,” Yen says, adding that they are also the ones responsible for defining the standard for fine dining in the country. “They call it Royal Cuisine, and it’s pretty much their version of what a Michelin-level experience should be.”
Donations from the fundraiser will also go to hiring a team of Cambodian creatives (cinematographers, photographers, writers, etc.) to document the journey for a potential second book deal. Any of the money left over from the production process will be channeled back to nonprofits in the country, and Yen is already in talks with NGOs about organizing charity events while there. “I realize this whole thing may sound a little selfish, and I kind of feel a little guilty for doing it, so I want to make sure giving back is part of it,” Yen says. “I also want bring attention to Cambodia for something other than its civil war.”
Were Yen’s grandmother still around today (she passed in 2014), Yen suspects she’d burst into a chuckle, her face plastered with a toothless grin, at the mere thought of her once-inexperienced assistant drawing attention from media around the world for his cooking — much less penning a cookbook in her name and hatching a plan to cook for the king.
He didn’t get much more of a reaction from his parents, with whom he shared a piece published in the Phnom Penh Post this past summer that features a photo of Yen looking self-assured, intrepid even, so as to say, “This is me, and I’m not going anywhere.” His parents had a look at it and shrugged. “I don’t think they’ll ever tell me they are proud of me, even if they are deep down inside,” Yen says, attributing part of that to a “weird cultural” tendency to withhold praise, but also to a lingering fear of being “made out,” should the excess of their joy somehow jeopardize their anonymity in Canada.
Yen’s parents, who, along with his grandparents, arrived in Canada as refugees fleeing the civil war in the 1980s, continue to wrestle with an unrelenting wariness that someday, somehow, they’ll be found and swept back into the violence they’d managed to escape decades earlier. His father was an active soldier and his mother a nurse during Cambodia’s bloody genocide. “From what I understood as a child, my father was forced into the Khmer Rouge, but he refuses to speak about it to this day,” Yen says.
The Khmer Rouge, the armed wing of Cambodia’s Communist Party, was established in the 1960s in the far reaches of the country’s large swaths of jungle and mountain regions, before toppling the capital, Phnom Penh, and coming to prominence in 1975. It was then that the country underwent four years of mass devastation, with the Khmer Rouge claiming close to 2 million lives in a genocidal purge. Even after the Khmer Rouge retreated, the country was faced with Vietnamese occupation, a civil war that lasted decades, and former Khmer Rouge personnel still enmeshed in the country’s politics. (The country’s prime minister, Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander, has been in power since 1985.)
During the genocide and civil war, Yen’s parents lost friends and relatives, but also a willingness, or maybe even the words to tell their stories. Locking away the past was how they learned to cope with their unwieldy trauma, but it also was a matter of self-preservation: Remaining tight-lipped — and teaching their children to be the same — was how they believed they could keep safe.
In Canada, Yen’s father and mother worked long hours in factories in hopes of financing their new lives, leaving Yen’s grandmother to assume the role of primary caretaker to raise Yen, who had been born soon after their arrival. It was a role that came naturally to her, Yen says.
From a rural village in Cambodia, Yen’s grandmother grew up helping her family make ends meet by selling sweets on the side of a dirt road, waiting for someone carrying something worth trading — or, even better, some spare change — to pass by. She supplemented those earnings by working in a rice field. As a mother, she’d risk anything to support her children, and also those who weren’t hers: During the country’s civil war, she helped orphan children who had lost their parents as she herself fled from one refugee camp to the next, Yen says.
Yen didn’t mind being relegated to her care. He safeguards his memories of their adventures together — them scouring the garden for the day’s dinner, listening to folk tales passed through generations, or, better yet, heading to the local A&P and attempting, with their nonexistent English, to differentiate cans of dog food from chunky soup and coloured peppercorns from candy.
A survivor herself, Yen’s grandmother carried with her the wounds of war, but unlike Yen’s parents, who could hardly remember a time before the violence, she was less intent on severing herself from the past. Her attachment to Cambodia manifested itself invariably in most facets of her post-war life: in the fragrances emanating from her kitchen, the galanga and lemongrass she’d managed to source and grow in her Canadian garden, and the posters of Cambodian royalty that she’d affixed on her walls.
Under Cambodia’s constitutional monarchy, the king — a role currently held by Norodom Sihamoni, and before that his father, the late Norodom Sihanouk, still affectionately called to this day “Father King” — carries little political weight, but is meant to serve as a symbol of peace and unity among his people. (It’s worth noting that, in 2018, Cambodia passed legislation making it illegal to insult the monarchy.) Yen recalls watching his grandmother looking up to their handsome portraits as a teen might glance at their favourite pop band or actor. “Khmer people love their king,” he says.
Yen isn’t especially interested in the king’s political sway (or lack thereof) as much as he is in the monarchy’s role in upholding and preserving the legacy of Cambodian cuisine. Combine that with the omnipresence of royal imagery in Yen’s childhood home, and it’s no surprise why he might view an endorsement from the king as the ultimate validation. With early buy-in from some Cambodian professionals eager to help him on his regal quest, and a contract for his first cookbook already in hand, he’s on his way.
“Getting that stamp of approval from the king, though, is, for me, the top of the mountain, but as soon as I reach that peak, I know I’m going to be able to see even more,” he says. “Maybe I’m already getting ahead of myself; I probably am, but I just want to keep taking every step I can.”