Maurice Yim, a former programmer for a real estate appraisal company, dined at Cuisine Wat Damnak while traveling in Cambodia two years ago. It was the only restaurant in the world to serve modern takes on Khmer food when it opened in 2011. There, he met chef-owner Joannès Rivière, who invited Yim to accompany him on a trip to the market the following morning.
Yim, who was born in Long Beach to parents who fled the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, was an earnest culinary school graduate with a dream of using his newfound cooking skills to elevate the food of his people and help bring it to a wider audience.
“Talking to him and going shopping with him gave me a lot of insight to ingredients — Khmer ingredients I’d never seen or used or tried,” Yim says. “I was inspired by seeing the way he cooks and plates and presents everything. It was exactly what I wanted to do here with Khmer food.”
Yim’s own refined interpretations of Khmer classics were on full display a few weeks ago at a Mealsharing.com pop-up dinner on the rooftop of the new Current building on Ocean Boulevard, one of a half-dozen or so public events he’s done since meeting Rivière.
With courses that varied from hand-pulled saraman curry noodles (topped with a crispy kobocha croquette) to a deconstructed version of the quintessential Khmer coconut-cod dish amok trey (surrounded by dabs of pickled pepper gel), Yim proved why he’s one of the only U.S. chefs able to bring French and European cooking techniques to this notoriously challenging cuisine.
“The most important thing for me is to show that these dishes have the familiarity with what people have had before because I don’t want to take that away,” says Yim, who also cooks modern Khmer food at private events through his year-old catering company, Le Awe. “I try to present things in a way that is nontraditional but it keeps its soul.”
Though it sits directly between the well-known food countries of Thailand and Vietnam, Cambodia’s unique (and older, ahem) culinary identity doesn’t get much recognition outside of Long Beach, where the largest population of Cambodians live in the U.S.
And even here — at Cambodia Town staples like Crystal, Sophy’s and Little La Lune — you’ll find traditional examples of Khmer cooking (which at times feels like it’s splitting the difference between Thailand’s bold and spicy dishes and Vietnam’s fresh and herbaceous ones) offered alongside more recognizable non-Khmer favorites like pad Thai and chow mein.
“I feel like the cuisine itself is steps behind Thai food and Vietnamese food even though it’s so similar in many ways,” Yim says. “Even at Khmer restaurants, the menus have lots of Chinese and Thai dishes so it’s all muddled in people’s minds. It’s disappointing to me. One of my main things is I want to make things that say, ‘This is Khmer food.’”
At the base of all of Cambodia’s intense and fascinating flavor profiles are cornerstones like kroeung (a spice paste made from lemongrass, turmeric, various roots and more) and a pungent fermented fish paste called prahok. Using many of the modern kitchen technologies available to him at his day job as a line cook at James Republic, Yim reinvents these traditional dishes, often on a molecular level. The hope is to move away from the rustic, rice-filled, family-style serving methods most commonly associated with Southeast Asian food and try to find new, creative ways of presenting Khmer cuisine, both for second-generation Khmericans like himself and, hopefully, new audiences as well.
Yim knows this challenge is no simple one, especially when most people can’t locate Cambodia on a map. But he sees precedent in things like the contemporary Filipino food movement, where young chefs from another relatively unknown culinary wonderland are also rediscovering their own heritage by remixing it with European aesthetics and a California style.
“It’s more important for me to have it out there and at least people know that this is what Cambodian food can be,” Yim says. “There needs to be more education. People need to know that Cambodian food is here too.”
Sarah Bennett is a freelance journalist who has spent nearly a decade covering food, music, craft beer, arts, culture and all sorts of bizarro things that interest her for local, regional and national publications.