Author’s note: The following story was pitched to the LA Weekly’s food section and was slated to run this week as a preview for chef Visoth Tarak Ouk’s pop-up dinner, titled “A Stroll Through Phnom Penh,” on Friday at Legend Seafood Restaurant. However, since there are no editors left at the LA Weekly and the paper itself is now in the hands of the OC Register opinion section, I’ve submitted the piece to OC Weekly, where it will be appreciated.
Every summer for four years, Andy Eap ran Jane’s Corn Dogs on the Newport Peninsula, one of a handful of bakeries and snack shops owned by his aunt, a Cambodian refugee, who like so many others, used that segment of the food industry to make a new life in the U.S.
While Cambodians’ longtime connection to doughnut shops is a well-documented trend (more than 80 percent of doughnut shops in California are Khmer-owned), what is less known are the culinary exploits of the next generation, the ones who grew up baking with their aunties, but have since traded glazes and sprinkles for pop-up dinners and cottage licenses.
Earlier this year, Eap and a dozen or so other (mostly) Long Beach-based community organizers and culinary creatives joined together to found Chefs Off the Boat. This collective of young Cambodian-Americans—which includes Federal Bar executive chef Visoth Tarak Ouk, a.k.a. Chef T; James Republic cook and Le Awe Catering owner Maurice Yim, who we profiled earlier this year; Cajun-loving Cambodian-sauce maker Chad Phuong; and brothers Van and Molino Tan from Phnom Penh Noodle Shack; among others—bring awareness to the complex cuisine of their motherland.
“I learned how to fry at Jane’s, but [the Chefs Off the Boat members] taught me how to plate food better, how to make it fancy,” says Eap, who now owns Big Juicy’s Wings, a 3-year-old Long Beach catering company centered on his own chicken-wing marinades and sauces, which appear at beer festivals and special events several times a year. “I knew how to make 500 croissants a day, but the artistic side of food is what I learned from these guys.”
In early October, Eap had the chance to put these new skills to use, working long days alongside Chefs off the Boat members in an industrial kitchen at the Pacific Ballroom at the Long Beach Arena to craft a multicourse, fine-dining, modern Cambodian dinner for 600 people. Plates of seafood curry with Louisiana-style crawfish and hangar steak with thuk prahok aoli rolled out to the tables of donors at the United Cambodian Community’s 40th-anniversary gala, marking not only the first time Cambodian fusion food had been served at a Cambodian-centered event, but also the largest number of people to feast on a fine-dining-style Cambodian dinner of this kind, according to Ouk.
“This is a new revolution, a new way of putting our food out there,” Ouk said to the crowd. “We’re taking plays from Western techniques, but we’re not taking away from the [traditional Cambodian lemongrass paste] kreung. I hope the trend keeps going and we can put our people on the map through more culinary events like this.”
Ouk, the most visible member of the Chefs Off the Boat crew, leads the outreach charge. Since August, he has collaborated with Dine LBC and other locally focused groups to bring the tangy, fishy, spicy, sweet and fermented flavors of Cambodia to new audiences. “Cambodia is very ancient, and we’ve been following the same recipes for 3,000 years, and it’s gone nowhere,” Ouk says. “I’m trying to do something different using the same 3,000-year-old ingredients. I’m trying to give it something different and see if it works out.”
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The Chefs Off the Boat members have been inspired by the success of many modern Mexican and Filipino chefs over the past few years and are branching out of their own comfort zones. Phoung, who travels to other Cambodian enclaves around the country with his Long Beach Crawfish catering company and sells jars of his Cambodian sauces and cooking supplies online, is considering hosting a burger event at which he’ll serve the classic American dish styled with flavors from certain regions of Cambodia. The Tan brothers plan to use the daytime soup restaurant their aunt started 30 years ago to host more Chefs Off the Boat events. And Yim hopes to do more pop-ups with his company Le Awe.
But Ouk, who started out baking doughnuts at a family friend’s shop in Long Beach and later graduated from Long Beach City College’s culinary-arts program, has the biggest plans. He recently took over a space on Pine Avenue in downtown Long Beach and will open the world’s first Cambodian Gastropub as early as February. Called the Phoenix Den, it’s an ode to Ouk’s own experiences, how he used his culinary skills to rise above gang life and is now giving back to his community by sharing Cambodia’s powerful cuisine.
“Even if the Khmer Rouge killed most of the artists, entertainers and doctors, the new generation has found a way to rise back up and bring this culture back to where it used to be, but in a modern way,” Ouk says. “After 40 years, we’re finally emerging from where we once were, and this is only a little preview of where we can go.”