Khmer chef lights up Montreal’s fine dining scene

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Dine-in guests at Chef Chanthy Yen’s restaurant enjoying Khmer cuisine in Canada. Photo supplied

Touk or “boat” in Khmer is a vehicle that offers the essential flavours of Cambodia using local ingredients.

This May, while the world continued to be in the throes of the Covid-19 pandemic, Chanthy Yen took the opportunity to transport diners to another environment through his food.

Diners took time off worrying about the pandemic to discover traditional dishes that can be difficult to come by even in Cambodia.

Like a blessing in disguise Chanthy, the Cambodian founder of Touk said: “Covid-19 had made it easier to open a restaurant because there’s not much activity going on. So it’s easy to attract the spotlight.”

Yet, having said that, Chanthy also says that somewhere along the journey, the challenges lie in the fact that people don’t know what the cuisine is and they don’t trust it.

“Touk takes a lot of energy. Despite someone like me having international experience at some of the best restaurants, and I’m still struggling to operate a place with Khmer cuisine.

“It’s high risk because we don’t have a big audience for Khmer cuisine and we don’t even know if there is one. So we have some days that are very quiet and some days where we are fully booked,” Chanthy tells The Post.

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Bai treap (a Khmer sweet rice dessert) with a modern twist. Photo supplied

But thankfully he made it, and people have fallen in love with his food thus far. Some Cambodian patrons even say they don’t know what he did, but their food looked and tasted amazing.

The top-selling items in the restaurant are mee kola (Burmese-style noodles) and nom banh chok (Khmer noodles). Most dishes range from $9-$15.

Raised by his grandparents, the 32-year-old has adopted a lot of the Khmer recipes from his grandmother.

Moreover, he has been cooking professionally in kitchens for over 16 years and has been fortunate enough to work under some of the best chefs in the world, including Ferran Adria and Adoni Aduriz.

Fieldstone, his first restaurant opening won the reader’s choice “Chef of The Year” award in Montreal, Canada, where he lives. And the country’s parliament bestowed him the runner up prize for the “Best Chef” contest organised by Cult Magazine.

The continued exposure allowed him to take a risk to rediscover his roots and launch Touk, serving curbside Khmer cuisine. Touk received international coverage from Montreal, Canada-based Bon Appetite magazine and The Phnom Penh Post in July.

“The success of Touk inspired me to take it a step further by combining my experiences abroad with the flavours of my upbringing that inspired me to create a dinner series called ‘Introduction to Cambodian Gastronomy’,” Chanthy says.

He had the menu written in Khmer with Roman transcriptions such as bai treap (a Khmer sweet rice dessert), the customers don’t know what’s inside of it, so he needed to go to their table and explain it to them.

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Chef Chanthy Yen has been cooking in professional kitchens for over 16 years and has been fortunate enough to work under some of the best chefs in the world. Photo supplied

For example, Chanthy offered samlor korko (assorted vegetable soup with fish paste). Patrons see the broth and the meat, but they don’t appreciate the technicalities that went into making the gastronomic surprise or the fact that the cooking techniques at the restaurant are a culmination of his experience from around the world.

“Yes, the flavours are Khmer but the cooking techniques involve more than that. Therefore, everyone will get a story and background of each dish.

“This four-course dinner series invites diners to a rediscovery of my culture. It is structured as a five-course tasting menu with snacks, palate cleansers and of course, it is themed,” he says.

The first two dinner series offerings were “Essential Techniques” (in September) and “Pillars of Flavour” (in October) which sold out in less than six to eight hours.

“Essential Techniques” covered cooking methods in which Cambodians use frying, steaming, fermenting and grilling so that customers can understand Khmer ingredients as well.

“Pillars of Flavour” covered the flavour profiles of Khmer cuisine and the salty, sweet, spicy, sour, umami, fragrant, and bitter tastes.

The following two offerings in November were called “Guilty Pleasures” and “Celebration”.

“Guilty pleasures” focused on Chanthy’s adaptations while discovering Canadian food.

“It covers me living in Canada and learning about Khmer food. But at the same time learning about Canadian adaptations as a Khmer person.

“Celebration” focused on dishes served at weddings, and during holidays and special events.

“For example if you’re going to a wedding, what kind of food will you be served there?” asks Chanthy of what customers can expect from the last two series.

Chanthy says his intention for Touk is to broaden the awareness of Cambodian culture and to ensure that Khmer food is the same as the other influential cuisines around the world. He wants to bring Cambodian flavours to the next level.

Half of his patrons are Cambodians and he says it’s really fun to watch people who are born and raised in Cambodia and have children who are born in Canada coming together for meals.

As for his most interesting comments, he says: “When I was making bok lahong [papaya salad] a Cambodian lady told me that I put too much vinegar in it. I should only use lime.

“And it’s really good that Cambodians tell me when something is not up to par because it’s what my grandmother would do.

“But other than having good food, I love the fact that I’m introducing it to their children and grandchildren,” Chanthy says as he reflects on the comments.

Asked about what he wants to do to improve his eatery, he says he would love to convert it into a fully-fledged restaurant because right now, he and his team are turning a Western kitchen to a Khmer one, but it’s very difficult because the equipment is different.

Chanthy says one of his goals is to present recipes and food for the Cambodian royal family to show that the Khmer pride and culture are felt throughout the world.

“The fact that we can celebrate the good and not just remember the bad, like our war-torn history, provides opportunities. I am now embarking on a different type of war – one where we are growing our international culture and cuisine.

“I would love to do something permanent, not just pop up now and then so that I can offer Khmer food to the world.

“One day, I hope to collaborate with chefs in Cambodia to see how our food has evolved. Which ingredients we still commonly use and which ones are rarely used.

“How have our kitchens changed and which techniques are still respected in the everyday Cambodian home,” he says.